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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 17:32 GMT
North Korea gears up for festivities
North Korean children practice a formation for a performance in the upcoming Arirang Festival, outside the Kim Il-sung stadium in Pyongyang, 26 March 2002
Children are preparing to take part in the celebration
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By Caroline Gluck
BBC correspondent in Pyongyang

Preparations are under way in North Korea for a mass gymnastics and artistic festival which opens at the end of April.

The communist state hopes to attract thousands of visitors to Pyongyang during the two-month festival called Arirang.

North Korean schoolchildren practising music
It rare for North Korea to encourage visitors
Intensive rehearsals began last year for the festival, which is named after the most famous traditional Korean folk song.

Outside a gymnastics stadium, hundreds of schoolchildren are practising gymnastic moves and chanting for the festival.

It seems the whole city is now preparing for the big event and for other mass celebrations marking the birth in April of the state's founder and eternal president, the late Kim Il-sung.

One-off extravanganza

North Korea is famous for staging huge synchronised gymnastic displays.

Late President Kim Il-Sung
Kim Il-Sung: Dead but still the "eternal president"
The Arirang festival will feature up to 100,00 performers, including students and young children.

North Korea says the extravaganza is a once-in-the-millennium performance - a masterpiece which, if missed, you would regret for the rest of your life.

In a rare sign of openness, the reclusive state is hoping thousands of foreign visitors will come to watch the mass sports and arts spectacle.

No empty seats

North Korean officials are reported to be under strict instructions from the country's top leadership to invite as many foreigners as possible.

They have been told that not a single seat should remain empty in the May Day stadium where the event is taking place, which can accommodate up to 150,000 spectators.

Some cynics suggest the event may be an attempt by Pyongyang to divert international attention away from this year's football World Cup

Agencies have been vigorously promoting the event overseas. Special charter planes are expected to be laid on between Japan and Pyongyang.

There are also suggestions of direct flights between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Currently, South Korean citizens can only travel on tightly supervised trips to North Korea's famed Diamond Mountains on the east coast.

Seoul agonises

However, South Korean officials are still debating whether to allow its citizens to attend.

Seoul says it needs more information and that government-level discussions may be needed.

Some cynics suggest the event may be an attempt by Pyongyang to divert international attention away from rival South Korea, which is co-hosting this year's football World Cup with Japan.

Officials in the communist state may be wary of the presence of large numbers of foreigners but, more importantly, the impoverished nation needs hard currency and an influx of tourists could provide the regime with an important cash boost.

See also:

26 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
South Korean envoy 'may meet Kim'
16 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea marks leader's birthday
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