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Associated Press
Thousands of participants hold placards in the stadium stands creating pictures and slogans during a performance of the Mass Games held in Pyongyang, North Korea.

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Acrobats on cables flying across a giant stadium. Hundreds of performers executing synchronized martial arts punches and kicks. A giant globe signifying unity as a grand finale.

This isn't the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. It's the grandiose North Korean spectacle of propaganda known as the mass games, and it's one of the few things the impoverished country can claim to do on an unmatched scale.

"I think it's the most beautiful performance in the world," said Ri Nam, 21, a North Korean tour guide who hosted an international group of spectators for an edition of the show last week.

By the numbers, the North has China beat: The Pyongyang show has 100,000 performers, including 20,000 schoolchildren who form an animated mosaic on the entire back wall of May Day Stadium by flipping colored pages of large books. China had about 15,000 cast and crew.

The North Koreans' Bundt cake-shaped stadium may not have won the architectural accolades bestowed on China's new stadium, dubbed the Bird's Nest. But the Pyongyang venue seats more people — a reputed 150,000 versus 91,000 in Beijing.

The mass games are a feat of choreographed unity on a scale that is perhaps only imaginable in a country where citizens are indoctrinated to devote themselves entirely to the hardline regime.

Hundreds of boys waving red flags fill the entire field of artificial grass laid on the floor of the stadium. Women in pastel-colored traditional dresses wave scarves or large artificial flowers. Female soldiers in miniskirts brandish swords.

There are also circus-like acrobatics of synchronized jump-rope routines, gymnasts forming pyramids and spinning on high bars, and a human slingshot that launches performers in soaring arcs across the stadium to land in a net.

Mass games were once performed in many communist nations, but North Korea is the only place that still stages them regularly — another part of the frozen-in-time Cold War feeling here.

The North's prowess in orchestrating the displays was confirmed by a Guinness world record awarded last year for the "largest gymnastic and artistic performance."

When a TV network leaked video of the tightly guarded plans for the Beijing ceremony before the Olympics began, South Korean media even referred to it as the Chinese version of the mass games.

The North staged the event in 2002, 2005 and 2007, each time over a period of weeks, for a total of nearly 200 showings, according to the country's official Korean Central News Agency.

This year's shows began Aug. 4 and go on every day except Sunday — joined by a new, twice-a-week, "smaller," show of 50,000 performers titled "Prosper the Motherland."

The North's main production is officially called the Arirang mass games and is based on a traditional Korean folk song of the same name. Running some 90 minutes, the performance symbolizes the country's history, from the Japanese occupation of the peninsula in 1905 through the present and even into the future — imagining a reunited Korea.

The show briefly flashes an image of late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung on the backdrop, one of the few overt signs of the cult of personality surrounding the man who, despite his death in 1994, technically remains the country's president.

The performance this year also includes a new scene titled "Girls Weaving Silk in Yongbyon," along with other changes. Yongbyon is the city that is home to the country's nuclear weapons program.

Mass games "are a priority of our nation so we think our thing is the best," Son Jong Hyok, 29, an official with Korea International Youth and Children's Travel Company, said when asked to compare the show to Beijing's opening ceremonies.

North Korean tourism officials said fewer visitors than expected came so far this month, without giving figures. Kim Song of the Korean International Travel Company speculated tighter Chinese visa regulations because of security concerns during the Olympics were preventing tourists from coming to Pyongyang. Almost all visitors to the country come through China.

The Olympics opening ceremony was "very familiar" to viewers of the North's show, said Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which plans to bring 800 visitors to Pyongyang this year to watch the "mass games."

While the North's presentation is more rudimentary — and lacks the massive fireworks display seen in Beijing — Cockerell noted the high price tag for the Olympics opening that some media reports have put at $300 million.

"In terms of results-to-resources ratio, it's no contest bang for buck," he said in Pyongyang. "If you gave the Arirang organizers $300 million to put on one show, I'd imagine something vastly more impressive than the Beijing opening ceremonies."