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Monday, 29 April, 2002, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
North Korea begins two-month 'spectacle'
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
Preparations have been underway for months
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By Caroline Gluck
BBC correspondent in Seoul

A two-month mass gymnastics and artistic spectacle has opened in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

The Arirang Festival, named after the famous traditional Korean folksong, has been billed as a "once in the millennium" performance by North Korea's reclusive government, which is inviting thousands of foreign tourists to attend.

North Korean dancers
Events are being held to mark Kim Il-sung's birth

The North is famous for staging huge synchronised gymnastic displays.

But this is one of the largest the Communist state has held, featuring 100,000 performers.

The extravaganza is being held six days a week for the next two months in Pyongyang's 150,000-seat May Day stadium.

Officials are under instructions from the very top to fill every single seat in the auditorium and to invite as many foreign tourists as possible.

While agencies have been vigorously promoting the event overseas and inviting foreign journalists to witness preparations for the festival, the response has been largely disappointing.

Money spinner

Just a few hundred foreigners have applied for tours during the festival. The largest number of visitors were expected to be South Koreans but the two governments have not finalised agreements that would allow Southerners to attend.

However, festival promoters say large numbers of ethnic Koreans living in China are travelling to the North during the festival. The event is part of celebrations marking the 90th birthday of the state's founder and eternal president, the late Kim Il-sung.

Some analysts suggest it is 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.

But maybe 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
North Korea gears up for festivities
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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