But many people genuinely believe the propaganda; it is so all-encompassing that in many ways it would be hard not to. That makes the rallies as close to religious services as most North Koreans have ever seen.
"We, all the people, cried together while listening to the speech of the Respected General," says Paek Kum Hui, a schoolteacher who was part of an immense April 15 military parade where Kim Jong Un gave his first public address.
"The tears we shed were more than those of joy," says Paek, her voice starting to break. She says they also reflect her pride in the new leader, and in North Korea as "really in the center of the world."
Even people who have fled North Korea say the spectacles can be transcendent experiences. Many say they believed the propaganda when they lived there, and that others did too.
Cho Bong-il, 60, who left for South Korea in 1998 and detests the regime he left behind, says he would sometimes feel emotional during the rallies: "I even had goose bumps."
For centuries, rulers have used choreographed spectacles to help them maintain control, mixing the appearance of absolute public unity with an underlying threat of what happens to anyone who goes against the grain.
Mass rallies were a part of life in ancient Rome, in 1930s Berlin and in the former Soviet Union, which helped install Kim Il Sung in power after World War II.
But in Pyongyang, spectacles have become science.
Two decades after the Soviet Union's fall, rallies that Stalin would recognize occur regularly in the North Korean capital, home to the country's political, military and bureaucratic elite. Members of that elite know that attendance at the rallies, and the practice sessions ahead of time, are a part of living here.
So they learn the rules early — from how to dress (conservatively) to where to stand (look for the numbers painted on many large plazas).
They participate in mass political rallies, mass military parades and mass outdoor dances, with thousands of synchronized couples swinging their partners in honor of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth.
"When we as outsiders look at these productions, we only look at the final product: these machine-like events that look very eerie," says Suk-young Kim, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has studied the spectacles. "But imagine you're coordinating every breath you take with 100,000 people: It brings people together. It eliminates individual will. It has tremendous efficacy in running society."
Not that it can't get tiresome.
"Most people I knew in Pyongyang complained all the time about how there are rallies all the time and they are sick of them," says Kim, the student in Seoul. "We did it because we had to. If they told us to shout 'Hurrah!' we did ... If they told us to shout anti-American slogans, we did it no matter how many times they told us to."
Watching the rallies can be bewildering for outsiders. They are dazzling displays of unity, as thousands of people move in such synchronization that it doesn't seem possible. They can be breathtaking, and at times even beautiful.
Then there is the astonishing patience of those involved.
No one goes to the bathroom during these gatherings, or fidgets or visibly yawns. When a young woman had to sit down at a recent Friday afternoon political rally, apparently overcome with illness, she knew to do it discreetly. The people around her closed in so she could not be easily spotted by the security men prowling the edges of the crowd.
By the standards of Pyongyang, that rally was fairly mundane, basically a series of speeches to denounce the South Korean government with tens of thousands of people brought in to listen. The crowds knew from years of practice to stand at attention as officials spoke. They knew when to applaud, when to thrust their fists into the air, when to call out insults against South Korea. It was over in less than an hour.
All during the rally, though, no matter the moment, the facial expressions remained unchanged.
That was no surprise to Kim Seong-min, the former Pyongyang resident. He taught himself early how to participate in rallies while barely paying attention. "My mind just went blank," he said.
Because in North Korea, sometimes it is easier to be a robot.
Associated Press writer Sam Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea
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