HONG KONG – For North Korean experts, virtually every detail of the authoritarian state is a possible window into the political priorities of its elusive leader Kim Jong-un.
A mass gymnastics that ended on Sunday in North Korea after a nearly two-month run was no exception: unlike in previous years, this year's edition should highlight the recent changes in Mr. Kim's attitude towards China, South Korea, and Iran 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. In addition to a military parade in September, this was the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea.
The performance "Glorious Country" featured 17,000 students who used colored cards in the stands to create a "human pixel" backdrop, as well as thousands of artists on the floor of the arena, says Andray Abrahamian, Stanford University fellow and author a book about North Korea that participated in the show in September.
Towards Peace: Missile Missing 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 years gone by. However, it also said "a much more positive, forward-looking and less militaristic story" than the 2013 edition, Mr. Abrahamian wrote in a comment on the website 38 North.
Unlike previous shows, he added, it did not contain a single image of a rocket.
Nancy Snow, an expert on North Korea at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and a former Clinton administration secretary, said that the absence of militant symbols at this year's event reflected Mr. Kim's growing awareness that 2017's missile testing is likely to be repeated would not help the international image of his regime.
"I do not think he's going to give up his guns soon, but slowly, sure, they'll think of the world more," she said. "And that's a way they do that."
A new face: Xi Jinping presented for the first time
This year it was the first time that a presentation of Chinese President Xi Jinping was shown at the Games. His portrait appeared on the Human Pixel Board at the show's final on Sunday, when a delegation of well-known Chinese singers, actors and other performers was in the audience. According to NK News, an independent news site covering North Korea.
Notably, Mr. Xi was portrayed in a circle surrounded by gold surrounded by red – the same style used previously for Kim Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather Kim Il-sung.
"Given how inimitably serious the North Koreans are with their two former leaders, embracing Xi Jinping can only be understood as a sign of extreme respect," said Mr. Abrahamian in an e-mail. "It's almost awesome."
Mr. Abrahamian said he read the gesture as a dramatic step in North Korea's "diligent fence-care movement" towards China – five years after relations between neighboring countries became tense due to the 2013 nuclear test and conflict in North Korea Kim Jong-un's uncle, who had exercised significant influence on North Korean coal exports to China.
Cheers for peace: moon makes a cameo
During a September performance of "Glorious Country," Mr. Moon, the South Korean president, appeared at the games next to Mr. Kim and addressed the audience: According to the news agency Yonhap.
"I suggest that we completely end the last 70 years of hostility and take a great step of peace to become one again," said Mr. Moon at a time in his speech that was broadcast live in South Korea.
Mr. Abrahamian said the speech could be viewed as a "semi-formal" recognition of North Korea by Mr. Moon's authority, and as a sign that Mr. Kim trusts Mr. Moon to "deliver a message that is not too provocative and would hold Relations between the Koreans were moving in a way both leaders felt comfortable with. "
But it's also noteworthy, he added, that the image of Mr. Moon was shown in a video while standing with Mr. Kim – and not in the same "iconic" portrait style reserved for Mr. Xi.
Between the lines read: A message for Trump?
Soo Kim, a former North Korean analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, said China's support for China's support of the Glorious Country's games sends a signal to Washington that Beijing would likely take Pyongyang's side in negotiations on the North's nuclear program if it comes to shoving. "
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet with North Korean officials in New York late this week. Kim Kim, the analyst, said the Kim regime has probably tried to express its dissatisfaction with nuclear talks have stalled
"This is not only frustrating for the US and South Korea. Kim Jong-un also does not want to be there, "she added. "The US and North Korea have been back and forth, and both sides have been unwilling to devote to denuclearization, relax sanctions or even issue a statement to end the Korean War."