North Korea marked this year's 60th anniversary of the founding of the ruling communist Korean Workers Party with a gymnastics spectacle known as the Mass Games. The reclusive Stalinist government rarely allows western journalists to visit the country, but did so for the games this week.
Police herd thousands of people into Pyongyang's 150,000-seat May Day stadium on a cold night. The people, the vast majority of them arriving on foot through the city's darkened streets, break up into single files as they enter the stadium under the glow of a huge torch high above. Most avoid making eye contact when a western reporter tries to say "hello."
The people are attending the Arirang Mass Games, an hour-and-a-half-long show featuring music, gymnastics, and thousands of children flipping giant cards that display propaganda messages. The scenes glorify the supposed struggle by this country's Stalinist leadership to chase out invaders and bring about eventual reunification with South Korea.
The show aims to convince the audience that ruler Kim Jong Il and his late father, Ki m Il Sung, have brought peace and prosperity to North Korea. One scene shows a bountiful harvest, with dancing children dressed as chickens and eggs.
In another scene, children dancing with perfect discipline and precision thank Kim Jong Il, whom they call "the Dear Leader," for the plentiful milk they drink. It hardly reflects reality in a place where famine has killed untold numbers of people and where the World Food Program says malnutrition still tops 37 percent.
In a nation where attendance at regular indoctrination classes is mandatory from a young age, the crowds cheer as the messages flash by. A guide who is monitoring the foreign reporters proudly praises the creativity of "the dear leader."
"He is a genius in the artistic sense. He is very genius in music and gymnastics and stuff like that. He made several songs himself, [and has] written several songs," she said. "He directed and gave direction to those people who were writing the scenes on what way to write them. He is a genius."
In another scene, young people wearing military uniforms dance while pointing rifles at the stands in gestures meant to glorify North Korea's armed forces, one of the largest standing armies in the world.
Near the end of the program, the cards flip over to show a brightly lit capital city. A guide tells a reporter this symbolizes the calm and prosperity that the leadership has brought North Korea.
"See the peaceful Pyongyang view? This peaceful Pyongyang can be guaranteed by the Dear Leader with his 'Army First' policy," he said.
The scene is shockingly different from what a visitor actually sees in Pyongyang, a dark capital where streetlights are permanently turned off and buildings are sparsely illuminated. The guide blames the United States, in part for refusing to donate a light water reactor that the Kim Jong Il government has demanded in return for giving up its nuclear weapons programs.
"You see, we still suffer from a lack of electricity, it is true, because of the light-water reactor project and also we are still undergoing the sanctions against our country on [the part of] the U.S. side. So, we are feeling a lack of coal and electricity. It is true," added the guide.
Five years ago Washington lifted most of the economic sanctions that it had imposed on North Korea since 1950. Remaining restrictions are limited largely to weapons related items.
The U.S. government has voiced its support for other nations to provide energy assistance for North Korea. The United States has also been one of this country's top food donors since Pyongyang's economic collapse in the 1990s, due to mismanagement, droughts, and a loss of Soviet-era subsidies.
North Korea often refuses visas to westerners, allowing fewer than 2,000 to visit last year. Charging thousands of dollars for a stay of only a few days, North Korean leaders hope to cash in on a relatively large number of foreigners allowed to enter during the Arirang games.
An Irish tourist, speaking after leaving the country, calls the visit, a good, but at times "weird" experience - one that confirmed much of what he had heard about North Korea. Watching the precise performance by young children at the Arirang games made him reflect on the regime that put it all together.
"[It] was the most incredible thing, having these kids [who] look not more than four or five years old, all perfectly choreographed, doing hand stands and cartwheels and different kinds of movements," he said. "You can imagine the headache for all to work as one. But of course, that is the point of North Korea, that everybody follows orders from the top and you see this everywhere in society."
A former dean of the college of hotel and tourism administration in South Korea's Youngsam University, Chung Moo-hyung, has long advocated peace between the two Koreas through tourism. Speaking after watching the games, he said the show demonstrates to him the talent and sophistication that might one day contribute to a transition in North Korea.
"In the 21st century, cultural capital is most important asset for any nation, and they have so much of it," he said.
But Professor Chung says the North Korean government's policy of isolation from the rest of the world dims hopes for significant change anytime soon.