A Trip to The Real "Big House"

Submitted by kakusei on September 19th, 2010 at 3:13 PM

EDIT: Pictures should be fixed... sorry for that.

So on September 4th while Michigan was breaking in its brand new digs in Ann Arbor and breaking the record for largest audience to ever watch a football game in America at 113,090, I was halfway across the world making my visit to one of the two (non-racing) stadiums that can claim a bigger capacity than The Big House in Ann Arbor - Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea.  With a seating capacity of 150,000 it is the largest stadium in the world.  You may have heard Sean McDonough mention it during the beginning of the game as he noted the two stadiums larger than Michigan Stadium.  

The stadium, located in the heart of the North Korean capital, dwarfs any stadium I have ever seen (and I consider myself pretty well sports-traveled).  The thing was massive.  

Myself outside of May Day Stadium w/ my Michigan Season T-Shirt

May Day Stadium from the top of Juche Tower

The stadium is primarily used for the Arirang Mass Games, which take place three times per week from the Months of August to October (usually...).  The mass games are one of the largest gymnastics displays in the world, which also feature a human-mosaic backdrop made up of 30,000 students, which essentially becomes the world's largest LED screen - sure to make Jerry Jones envious.  If you managed to catch the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, imagine that but about 100 times grander and more awe-inspiring.  

The 'gymnastics' display is much less about the actual sport and more of a narrative opus which tells the story of the Founding of the DPRK (North Korea)  and highlights certain Korean cultural aspects as well.  It was, easily, the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed in person (and I was at the Big House for UM-MSU in 2004, and at the Capital One Bowl in 2008 to put things in perspective...).  Over 100,000 people participated in the display, and just the sheer numbers alone were breathtaking.  Not to mention the synchronization and transitions were absolutely flawless.  I normally could care less for gymnastics, but this was stunning and unlike anything I had ever experienced before.  I was sitting on the edge of my seat the entire performance and did not want it to end.  Here are a few more highlight pictures from the event - 

Opening act of the Mass Games... the mosaic with the Korean text is made up of 30,000 students holding books with pages of different colors that they change on order from a flag captain.  I don't know how they managed to synchronize everything so perfectly.  It makes the block M in the student section during a Maize-out look like child's play.... 

The students were also able to animate the mosaic, as the Korean script was "written" across the mosaic.  It was crazy. 

Mosaic of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's 'Fatherly Leader'.  Even though he died in 1994, he is still the President of North Korea

Although the mosaic was the coolest part of the performance in my opnion, some of the gymnastics displays were superb.  My favorite was this Tae Kwon Do, which culminated in two fighters taking on over 80 'bad guys'.  It was epic.  

The performance lasted around 1.5 hours but I did not want it to end.  While stepping into the Big House on football saturdays is still one of the most humbling experiences for me. May Day Stadium took the cake.  It's size was unlike anything I have ever seen.  Another American who was on the tour with me (and also a die-hard Purdue fan) joked that we should talk to our respective schools about staging a football game over here in the future.  

Outside of the mass games, North Korea was one of the most fascinating countries i have ever been too.  It really was like traveling to another planet.  If you are interested in Korea or enjoy traveling to unique locations, I would highly recommend a trip to the DPRK.  It is not cheap by any means, but it is the experience of a life time and is completely safe.  



September 19th, 2010 at 3:35 PM ^

hmmm.... its my first time making one of these, but they all show up on my computer when i view the diary entry... not sure what the problem might be.  anyone have any ideas?


September 19th, 2010 at 3:42 PM ^

kakusei, assuming this isn't an elaborate hoax, how much trouble did you have taking pictures?   Was your camera inspected at any point?  Traveling to North Korea isn't a common experience, so I'm curious about the details.  Cool post.


September 19th, 2010 at 3:48 PM ^

its not. i went through Koryo Tours (http://www.koryogroup.com/), which is one of the few western owned tour operators in NK.  

We had a North Korean 'guide' (minder) with us at all times and they took us only to places which were pre approved.  We could not go anywhere on our own under any circumstances, so they werent too worried about what pictures we took since we wouldnt be able to see anything they didnt want us to see.  I took almost 600 pictures, and my camera was never checked nor was I asked to delete anything.  One of the guys on our group was asked to delete one picture of a soldier he took (those are not allowed) but that was the extent of any censorship.

The only place we were not allowed to take pictures was during the 2.5 hour drive down to the border with North Korea.  

Mr. Robot

September 19th, 2010 at 5:34 PM ^

I didn't know Americans were allowed into North Korea without extremely special permission for something.

Regardless, that looks cool and all, and I'm glad you had a good time, but under no circumstances will North Korea ever have anything on a Michigan football game. This is North Korea we're talking about here. They have the world's largest stadium so that their tyrant of a leader can act to his people, who don't know any better because of how isolated they are form the outside, like they live in the best country in the world. This is a country that told its people their test rocket made it to the moon even though it actually went way off course and crashed into the ocean.


September 19th, 2010 at 6:08 PM ^

According to NK media, his first time on a golf course he shot 38 under par, and 5 holes in one. Apparently he usually makes at least 3 or 4 every time he plays, too. Of course, the only golf course in North Korea is 7,700 yards, so yeah, he's dayum good. Oh, his first time bowling, he threw a 300, too. Dude really is incredible, so I have no trouble believing that his rockets are also badass.


September 20th, 2010 at 12:20 PM ^

Yes, I did make it onto the USS Pueblo, and they made sure to show us this ridiculous propoganda video about the event.  While I think a lof of the claims that the DPRK made about the boat's transgressions were ridiculous, it is fairly certain that the boat WAS in north korean waters and was clearly involved in espionage activities.  Robert McNamara in Fog of War is even says that he believes the boat was in DPRK waters.  


September 19th, 2010 at 6:00 PM ^

..but I have the same minor quibble others have.  Keith Jackson says "The Big House" is in Ann Arbor; in this case, I will consider Jackson to be the sole arbiter of what is right and what is wrong.



September 19th, 2010 at 6:29 PM ^

I would love to see the Mass games in person, I watched a special about the DPRK and the Mass games and I could understand how this was a great experiance for you. I never thought I would want to go to a place like DPRK, especially for a vacation, but would treasure the opportunity to see the Mass games live.

Thanks for posting those pictures, glad you had a good time. More importantly, glad you managed to get out of there without seeing the other "Big House" (prison). That's what I thought this post was going to be about.


September 19th, 2010 at 7:10 PM ^

even though he died in 1994, he is still the President of North Korea

Making it the only necrocracy in the world.

Perhaps now you would like to  read about an escapee from their prison camps - a boy (age 9) and his entire family was sent to prison camp because of one relative who complained too loudly and too often.


Hope you enjoyed your visit to a horrible horrible nation.  Why you would want to go there is beyond me, really.


September 20th, 2010 at 11:50 AM ^

Judging from his username, the OP is a Japan "area-studies" person. Even though he sounds a bit like he's been drinking the kool-aid, more likely he's there because North Korea is part of his area of expertise. A little research-tourism-diplomacy isn't a bad thing in that context. A smart, observant person can learn a lot from a trip like that.


September 20th, 2010 at 12:17 PM ^

Thanks Rasmus.  You are totally correct - I was a Japanese major in college and lived there for four years, so my interest in the Korean situation stemmed from that (I detailed my exact reasons in a post above), and the main incentive of visiting the North was to help create my own opinions on the country. 

As for Aquariums of Pyongyang, that is also a great book on the DPRK, although the credibility of the defector's story has been called into question, it is still a great read and gives some great insight on the numerous gulags in the North. 


September 19th, 2010 at 10:44 PM ^

i must say im really impressed how the vast majority of the people posting on this thread are able to appreciate the post for what it is and not feel the need to pull the communist card or rant about human rights things they most likely know next to nothing about. Kudos everybody for being good people and not generic dbags like you would have ranting about this sort of post elsewhere.

Must be the michigan difference :P


September 19th, 2010 at 11:35 PM ^

Brings back memories of 6 months in South Korea at Yonsei University 20 years ago. Was part of a gathering of 500,000 Easter morning at sunrise. . .  never saw anything like it before or after. Hard to really compare the two different spectacles. What was dollar cost to you? And what were you doing there?


September 20th, 2010 at 12:10 PM ^

in total, including my roundtrip flight to beijing (all tours to the DPRK originate from China), it ended up costing me about 4000 USD.  The trip to North Korea was 1440 Euros, and that included meals, lodging, flights to and from pyongyang, transportation, the guides, and admission to everything except the mass games which cost me an additional 80 euros. 

as for my reasons , i lived in Asia for four years, minored in Korean studies, so I have always been fascinated with the Korean peninsula/situation.  Made it to South Korea over 10 times, but had always been interested in the "other half", and after reading extensively about the country (if you're interested - Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley Martin and The Cleanest Race - How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by BR Myers are fantastic books on DPRK), finally made the decision to just go. 

While i certainly believe that the current regime in Pyongyang has not done much to help its people and is the cause for much of the suffering and poverty in the northern half of the peninsula, I really wanted to make my own opinion about the north rather than just relying on what a bunch of western, non-korean scholars and journalists have to say about it.  I came away from the trip still convinced that the regime has really held the country and people back, but at the same time I believe there is a sincere desire for reunification on both sides, and really makes one lament what happened in Korea right after the war... and I think the US and Russia deserve at least part of the blame for dividing and installing such polarizing regimes.  For the most part people there were very nice and friendly and much more open-minded than I had expected.  It was a great trip, and if you are interested in Korean history/culture and are willing to be open-minded about the situation, I think it is definitly a trip worth taking.

Communist Football

September 20th, 2010 at 1:41 PM ^

This is a Michigan football blog, so I really want to stick to football and not politics, but:

While i certainly believe that the current regime in Pyongyang has not done much to help its people and is the cause for much of the suffering and poverty in the northern half of the peninsula, I really wanted to make my own opinion about the north rather than just relying on what a bunch of western, non-korean scholars and journalists have to say about it.  I came away from the trip still convinced that the regime has really held the country and people back, but at the same time I believe there is a sincere desire for reunification on both sides, and really makes one lament what happened in Korea right after the war... and I think the US and Russia deserve at least part of the blame for dividing and installing such polarizing regimes.

Since you appear to have done some primary research on the question:

1. What part of the North Korean regime was "installed" by the U.S.?

2. Given your interest in what North Koreans have to say about the situation there, have you spoken to any North Koreans outside of the DPRK -- that is to say, those who won't be killed, tortured, or imprisoned for speaking badly of the regime -- such as Park Sang-Hak, Young-Cheol Kim, and Mi-Ran Kim?

In the video above, Park Sang-Hak says:

In this country, one can die from uttering one wrong word; people starve to death; one cannot go anywhere without a public pass. In this country, there are modern-day Auschwitz concentration camps; no religion exists...millions starve to death while the dictator spends close to a billion dollars for his father’s memorial; there is neither radio nor internet. In this country...there is the biggest income gap in the world; and the monthly wage is less than a dollar for most people. This country is North Korea. How can we sit idly and not condemn this hell on earth?

To me, these are reasonable questions. The poster above who described these questions as being the province of "ignorant, generic dbags" -- I think these questions have been asked with far more consideration than most of the recent posts about the state of the Michigan defense.

It would have been one thing if the original post had described the spectacle of the Mass Games while acknowledging the serious, if not catastrophic, human rights situation in the country. Not doing so made the post come across as DPRK propaganda.


September 20th, 2010 at 2:29 PM ^

If you had read my post closely, you will see i was referring to the situation in the Korean Peninsula, not North Korea post-war.  The regime "installed" by the US was the ROK, commonly referred to as South Korea.  Only until about the 1990's the dictatorships in ROK were almost as total and uncomprimisng as their counterparts in the North.  The real tragedy is that the Koreans (North & South alike) were never allowed to decide their own fate after the war.  The Koreas became expendable pawns in the climate of the Cold War, as both Russia (as well as the PRC) and the US immediately moved in andsupported brutal regimes in both countries in order to secure their spheres of influence in Asia after the collapse of the Japanese empire.  Russia and the US's stuborness to agree on nationwide elections resulted in the Korean War and hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths (If there had been an actual election, many historians believe Kim Il Sung would have swept the elections nationwide, as many of the politicians the US propped up in the south were collaborators with the Japanese during the war and generally despised by the public - meanwhile Kim Il Sung was a famous anti-japanese gureilla during the occupation and his name was known throughout the peninsula).  The war brought untold destruction to both North and South Korea and set them back in terms of economic development by decades.  To say that the US (and Russia, and China) did no evil in Korea is a laughable statement by anyone who has studied and understood the situation.  Even most South Koreans despise the fact that American troops are still in the country and see them as the biggest hinderance to reunification.

To your other point, I have read plenty of literature by North Korean defectors, and while many of their stories are credible and heartbreaking, you must realize that many of these defectors have since become official mouthpieces for the ROK, which sent all of those who defected to SK to special schools to help reimmerse and reeducate North Koreans and have been encouraged to embellish or exaggerate their stories.  However, I do not doubt for any second the viciousness and brutality of the Kim regime, and would like nothing better than for North Korea to come clean on its human rights abuses and work internally (through democratic processes or grassroots protests) to give its citizens the rights people in most democratic nations enjoy.  This is a very difficult task, however, and not as cut and dry as it may sound.

I tried to make this original post as apolitical as possible since I think politics is not a reasonable topic of discussion on a sports blog.  I just wanted to share my experiences at the Mass Games in the largest stadium on earth with people on the blog who might be interested in that aspect/sports tourism alone.  By merely mentioning the the "serious, if not catostrophic human rights situation in the country" I am thrusting an opinion on people which  would have opened that political can of worms and is why I opted not too. 

If its clarification of any sort that you desire, and I've mentioned this several times in some of my follow-up posts, North Korea is one of the most oppressive nations on earth and I believe it has one of the worst human-rights records of any modern nation. 


September 20th, 2010 at 6:16 PM ^

Not to make this too politcal a thread.  The younger Korean generation does not like having US troops over there.  The older generation, the ones that still remember the war, love the US.  Some love the US as much as their own country.  You would think that if Germany was able to re-unite that Korea could to.  But, the blame goes around to everyone about the way Korea is right now.  All the countries in East Asia do not want to see unification and I am not sure what else can be done.  I dont believe the 2 countries will ever merge which is really sad.

Tim Waymen

September 20th, 2010 at 6:15 PM ^

That is absolutely fascinating.  I've never met anyone who's been to NK and I've never really seen pictures of Pyongyang (granted, they probably exist on the wiki page and elsewhere on the net) so I greatly appreciate your post.

Btw what is it like to see the iron lotus attempted in person?


September 20th, 2010 at 6:53 PM ^

Amazing post. Thank you so much. Anyone interested in learning more about the lives of everyday people in North Korea, I highly rec the book "Nothing to Envy".  

First person accounts of North Koreans that follows them from youth to eventual defection out of the country.  The stories read like novel fiction they are so graphic and page turning.

I got done and want to write letters to each person featured in the book letting them know how much I admired them.