HONG KONG — For North Korea experts, virtually every detail in the authoritarian state is a potential window into the political priorities of its elusive leader, Kim Jong-un.
A mass gymnastics performance that ended in North Korea on Sunday, after a nearly two-month run, was no exception: Unlike in previous years, this year’s edition was said to highlight recent changes in Mr. Kim’s posture toward China, South Korea and the United States.
Jump Around Dept.: What Are the Mass Games?
This year’s Mass Games gymnastics bonanza, which began in early September in the capital, Pyongyang, was the first edition of the event since 2013. Along with a military parade in September, it marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea.
The performance, “Glorious Country,” featured about 17,000 schoolchildren who formed a “human-pixel” backdrop with colored cards in the stands, plus thousands of performers on the arena’s floor, according to Andray Abrahamian, a fellow at Stanford University and the author of a book on North Korea who attended the show in September.
据今年9月在朝鲜观看过表演的安德雷·阿布拉哈米安(Andray Abrahamian)说,这个名为“辉煌的祖国”的团体操表演包括一支约17000名学生的队伍,他们在看台上用不同颜色的卡片构成了一个“真人像素”背景,还有数千名表演者在体育馆的地板上翩翩起舞。阿布拉哈米安是斯坦福大学的一名研究员,写过一本关于朝鲜的著作
A banner at the show also read, “From now, a new history begins.” Mr. Abrahamian said that was an apparent reference to an April declaration by Mr. Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, in which the two leaders agreed to work to remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and, within the year, pursue talks with the United States to declare an official end to the Korean War.
今年的大型团体操表演是2013年以来首次重新编排的新版本。 Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Tilting Toward Peace: Missiles Missing From Games
The choreography of this year’s Mass Games presented the Kim regime’s vision of its own history, in keeping with the style of previous years. Yet it also told “a significantly more positive, forward-looking and less militaristic tale” than the 2013 edition, Mr. Abrahamian wrote in a commentary on the website 38 North.
今年的团体操编排展示了金正恩政权对自己历史的想像,这与往年的形式一样。但今年的表演与2013年的版本相比,也讲述了“一个明显更积极、更向前看、更少军国主义的故事”,阿布拉哈米安在“三八线北”(38 North)网站上发表的一篇评论文章中写道。
And unlike previous shows, he added, it did not include a single image of a missile.
Nancy Snow, a North Korea expert at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and a former State Department official in the Clinton administration, said the lack of militaristic symbols at this year’s event might reflect Mr. Kim’s growing awareness that reprising the missile tests of 2017 would probably not help his regime’s international image.
京都外国语大学(Kyoto University of Foreign Studies)朝鲜问题专家、曾在克林顿政府的国务院任职的南希·斯诺(Nancy Snow)说,今年的表演没有使用军国主义象征,这也许反映了金正恩越来越多地意识到,重复2017年的导弹试验可能无助于自己政权的国际形象。
“I don’t think he’s going to give up his weapons anytime soon, but slowly, surely, they’re going to introduce themselves more to the world,” she said. “And this is one way they do that.”
A New Face: Xi Jinping Depicted for the First Time
This year represented the first time that a rendering of President Xi Jinping of China was featured at the games. His portrait appeared on the human pixel board at the show’s finale on Sunday, when a delegation of well-known Chinese singers, actors and other artists were in the audience, according to NK News, an independent news site covering North Korea.
今年的表演上首次出现了中国国家主席习近平的肖像。据专门报道朝鲜消息的独立网站“朝鲜新闻”(NK News),一个由中国著名歌手、演员和其他艺术家组成的代表团观看了周日的表演,在演出快结束时,真人像素版上出现了习近平的肖像。
Notably, Mr. Xi was depicted inside a gold-framed circle surrounded by red — the same style previously used to depict Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
“Given how inimitably serious the North Koreans are about their two prior leaders, framing Xi Jinping that way can only be read as a signal of extreme respect,” Mr. Abrahamian said in an email. “It is nearly reverent.”
Mr. Abrahamian said he read the gesture as a dramatic step in North Korea’s “assiduous fence-mending campaign” toward China — five years after relations between the neighboring countries were strained because of North Korea’s 2013 nuclear test and its purge of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, who had wielded significant influence over North Korean coal exports to China.
韩国总统文在寅在朝鲜9月份的一场大型团体操表演上发表演讲。 Pyongyang Press Corps Pool
Cheers for Peace: Moon Makes a Cameo
During a September performance of “Glorious Country,” Mr. Moon, the South Korean president, appeared beside Mr. Kim at the games and addressed the audience, according to the Yonhap news agency.
“I propose that we should completely end the past 70 years of hostility and take a big stride of peace to become one again,” Mr. Moon said at one point in his speech, which was also broadcast live in South Korea.
Mr. Abrahamian said the speech could be seen as a “semiformal” acknowledgment by North Korea of Mr. Moon’s authority, as well as a sign that Mr. Kim trusts Mr. Moon to “deliver a message that was not too provocative and would keep the inter-Korean relationship moving forward in a way both leaders found agreeable.”
But it was also notable, he added, that Mr. Moon’s image was shown in a video as he stood with Mr. Kim — and not in the same “iconic” portrait style reserved for Mr. Xi.
Soo Kim, a former North Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, said that the public display of support for China at the Glorious Country games was a signal to Washington that Beijing would probably take Pyongyang’s side in negotiations over the North’s nuclear program “when push comes to shove.”
美国中央情报局的前朝鲜问题分析师金洙(Soo Kim,音)说,在“辉煌的祖国”大型团体操表演中公开展示拥护中国,是在向华盛顿发信号,表示北京可能会在朝鲜核项目谈判的“紧要关头”站在平壤一边。
Mike Pompeo, the United States secretary of state, is scheduled to meet with North Korean officials in New York later this week, and Ms. Kim, the analyst, said that the Kim regime was probably trying to express its dissatisfaction with how the nuclear talks have stalled.
美国国务卿迈克·庞皮欧(Mike Pompeo)已定于本周晚些时候在纽约与朝鲜官员会晤。分析师金洙说,金正恩政权可能要在会晤时试图对核谈判陷入僵局表示不满。
“This is not only frustrating for the U.S. and South Korea; it’s also not where Kim Jong-un would like to be,” she added. “The U.S. and North Korea have been going back and forth, with neither side willing to budge over denuclearization, easing of sanctions or even a declaration to end the Korean War.”