THE SPECTACLE COULD make a drill sergeant weep, a dance choreographer gasp, a musical producer swoon. It features a cast of thousands, telling an epic story to make you sob and cheer. But this isn't Las Vegas or the West End. The extravaganza takes place in one of the most closed societies on Earth. 'There's only one country in the world that can produce the mass games,' says Choe Jong-hun, an official with North Korea's Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, as he guides foreign reporters to watch this monumental performance. Welcome to Pyongyang - the showpiece capital of North Korea. Welcome to the Arirang Mass Games - a spectacle designed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Korean Workers' Party. And welcome, too, to the 150,000-seat May Day Stadium, which dwarfs constructions such as Seoul's 2002 World Cup Stadium (64,000 seats) and Beijing's 2008 Olympic Stadium (80,000 seats). Typically for Pyongyang, where opacity is the rule, it's unclear how many people take part. All have day jobs. One interpreter says 50,000. Other journalists are told 100,000. And the human kaleidoscope in the foreground is only half of it. The huge mosaic in the background is made up of 15,000 card flashers, creating slogans and ever-changing dioramas. These range from the face of Great Leader and nation founder Kim Il-sung to scenes of desperate battle; from giant cartoons of children frolicking on beaches to dreamy mountainscapes. Sometimes, the cards are blank so that film can be projected onto them. A huge torch burns above the stadium as fireworks light up the night sky, lasers flash across the stadium and anti-aircraft searchlights operate as spotlights. The (unpaid) performers, chosen from schools, colleges, work units and military units, practiced for just three months, reporters are told. If true, the performance reveals a remarkable level of social unity and willingness to submit to precise discipline - factors in which communist North Koreans take great pride. 'This proves the vitality of our socialism,' says Pang Yu-gyong, a 20-year-old interpreter. Seoul-based academic Andrei Lankov, an expert on the country, says: 'North Korea boasts the only university in the world with a mass games faculty.' The show started on August 16, was due to finish on October 18, but has been extended until today, says Choe, because of requests from 'foreign friends'. Although it's free for locals, foreigners pay Euro50 to Euro300 ($470 to $2,800), depending on seating. To attract South Korean tourists, North Korea has put on an almost unprecedented number of direct flights between Seoul and Pyongyang. And, for only the third time in the country's history, American tourists were permitted into North Korea for the show. Arirang is a melancholic Korean folk song about loss and longing, beloved on both sides of the Demilitarised Zone. The Arirang Festival is a mass performance that features a near-perfect marriage of Confucianism and communism, leavened with a dash of religion (Kim Il-sungism, that is - albeit using Christian symbolism). It includes elements of dance, opera, traditional music, military drill, gymnastics and circus stunts. None of this is empty spectacle. Arirang is regime messaging writ large - a giant, living propaganda billboard. The show begins with the anti-Japanese struggle (Korea was colonised by Japan from 1910 to 1945) as the young communists leave their families, says Pang the interpreter. Kim Il-sung, the so-called Sun of the Nation, is centre stage. Two huge pistols appear: the weapons with which he started the revolution. Kim's guerilla exploits of the 1930s are covered, but his time in the Russian Army - he sat out the second world war as a Soviet captain - is not. His secretive son and successor, Kim Jong-il, is seen as a star hovering over the sacred Mount Paektu, his official birthplace. He later reappears - as a car driving along a dangerous, moonlit mountain road, says Pang: a clear allusion to his navigation of the North Korean state through the perils it now faces. The nation's Army First policy is clear. After a drill routine by a regiment of female soldiers in short skirts twirling batons and flashing sabers, male soldiers troop in to perform bayonet drill, mixed with taekwondo kicks, while card flashers spell out 'The thunder of the army of Mount Paektu.' Next, we see visions of a bountiful harvest being brought in, while chickens and eggs dance in the foreground. There is a focus on modern lifestyle, with images of plump children frolicking on sunlit beaches: 'Thanks to the Dear Leader, the children enjoy picnics and soy milk,' the cards read. And there's an emphasis on technology. Images include missile launches, computers and satellite dishes. The final act focuses on reunification of the peninsula, which was divided after the second world war - a state of affairs cemented after the 1950-53 Korean war ended in stalemate. In the South, reunification is a subject for political and economic talks, and radical activism. In the North, it's a big public agenda item, widely emblazoned as slogans on buildings and public monuments. The closing highlight is the coalescence of the peninsula into one nation, with performers dressed in traditional white, creating a living map. Local audience members looked on with something less than awe and rapture. Their behaviour was more reminiscent of a polite crowd at a classical music concert. It's likely - journalists weren't permitted to interact with show-goers - many had seen it all before. The stadium appeared to be about two-thirds full. With Pyongyang's population at about 2.5 million, and with the show having run for more than two months, it's unlikely a fresh audience could be found for each performance. The most enthusiastic spectators were about 400 South Koreans, cheering and waving unification flags. Others were more cynical. 'This is a repetition of state propaganda,' Lankov says after the performance. 'It was interesting to see the emphasis on IT, but otherwise it was the same stuff we've been seeing for the last 30 years.' Michael Breen, the Seoul-based author of a biography of Kim Jong-il says North Korea 'is a country in which the cult of personality in the face of economic and diplomatic decline has reached a height of absurdity - but ironically, it's what keeps the state together. The mass games are a symbol of that, because most of the people involved are young people who practice this for months.' That the propaganda of which Arirang is the pinnacle works is borne out by virtually any Pyongyang resident you speak to. Anyone can relate, as if by rote, the party line in response to any political question. All include references to Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung and his son, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. In short, it's impossible for outsiders to separate regime rhetoric from North Koreans' real thoughts - if, indeed, there is a divergence.