North Korea Offers Free Tickets For Mass Games to Drum up Chinese Investment

The sanctions-hit regime is using the event to entice traders and entrepreneurs to pump money into the country.

The Arirang mass gymnastic and artistic performance is held to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, at the Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, July 22, 2013.

North Korea has invited traders and entrepreneurs from China to attend a massive synchronized gymnastics and dance performance for free as part of celebrations to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the nation, though some say the move is an attempt to attract investment to the isolated, sanctions-hit country.

The businesspeople have been invited to the Arirang Mass Games, also known as the Arirang Festival, at Rungrado May Day Stadium in the capital Pyongyang, which begins on Sept. 9 — North Korea’s National Day — and runs until the end of the month.

Last held in North Korea in 2013, the event this year is called “Shining Fatherland” in Korean.

But it is billed in English as “The Glorious Country” in hopes of attracting curious foreigners willing to pay between 100-800 euros (U.S. $114-$915) per ticket depending on seat location, to generate much-needed foreign currency for the regime of leader Kim Jong Un.

Trade workers from North Korea regularly with Chinese entrepreneurs who express interest in investing in North Korea and offer them free tickets to see the mass gymnastics performance, said a Chinese trader from the city of Dandong in northeastern China's Liaoning province.

Those who receive free ticket offers are suspicious about the motives of the North Koreans, but many accept them anyway, said the source who declined to be named.

“Trade workers are very active, visiting Chinese entrepreneurs and extending offers for them to visit Pyongyang,” he told RFA’s Korean Service. “They must have received orders from North Korean authorities.”

“North Korea is using the September event to attract Chinese investors,” the source said.

Despite the free ticket offers, North Koreans should not expect any great outcome from their hospitality as long as Pyongyang remains under international sanctions for its nuclear weapons program, he said.

“The reason why Chinese entrepreneurs are hesitant to fully invest in North Korea is because the U.S. and U.N. sanctions on North Korea are still in effect,” the source said.

The United Nations and the United Sates have imposed harsh economic sanctions on the country for its illicit missile and nuclear weapons tests, bringing much of the border trade between China and the North to a halt and limiting investment opportunities.

As part of the sanctions, China in September 2017 ordered the shutdown of all existing joint ventures with North Korean firms in China and entities owned by North Korean companies or individuals. It also required overseas Chinese-North Korean joint ventures to cease operations.

But it remains unclear how many Chinese firms have complied with the order from their government, an ally of North Korea which has long argued for a softer approach to Pyongyang and only reluctantly supported U.S.-led sanctions efforts.

‘Not comfortable with the offer’

An ethnic Korean businessman based in Shenyang in northeastern China’s Liaoning province said he also received an offer for a free ticket to the event when he visited Pyongyang in July.

“I was unexpectedly invited by my North Korean partner company, and I’m still deciding whether I should go to Pyongyang in early September or not,” said the source who declined to be named.

“The North Korean partner said I needn't worry about money and could just enjoy watching the mass gymnastics performance,” he said. “But I’m not comfortable with the officer, so I’m hesitant to make a decision.”

When the businessman visited clients in Pyongyang, they did not reach an agreement on a proposed investment in a stone quarry, the source said.

“They talked about the mass gymnastics performance, so I’m sure that they will pressure me to make a decision about the investment in the stone quarry [if I go there],” he said.

“During my last Pyongyang visit, I felt it was a bit strange because they treated me to meals, and they were a lot gentler,” he said. “I’m even more confused this time by their invitation to the mass gymnastics performance.”

North Korea has said that marble and granite from its quarries are not restricted from export under the sanctions, as are other natural resources such as coal, iron, and lead.

The mass gymnastics performance is part of the government’s celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the country is formally known. The event will feature some 100,000 performers — mostly students — about as many as participated in the Arirang Mass Games held in 2002-2005 and 2007-2013, sources said.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.