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North Korea’s Rungrado: The Largest Stadium in the World

The Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (commonly known as North Korea) is the largest sporting stadium in the world in terms of seating capacity. Occupying a total area of 51 acres or 20.7 hectares, this behemoth can seat almost 150,000 people at a time.

Having been recently renovated, the Rungrado Stadium offers a plethora of state-of-the-art facilities for athletes and spectators alike, which would bedazzle even the most well-traveled sports fans. Like some of the best things in the world, it was born out of a contest of one-upmanship between two competing nations – North and South Korea. Today, it hosts some of the largest and most spectacular sporting events in North Korea, aside from being the venue for some major international events. 

The stadium draws its name from two distinct aspects of North Korean culture. The first is the Rungra Island at the center of the Taedong River, which runs through North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang. It is on this island that the massive stadium is located. Interestingly, the island has only two major roadways, one that leads into the stadium and one that leads out of it. Secondly, the stadium was inaugurated on the 1st of May, 1989 – a significant day for the Workers’ Party of Korea as it is the International Workers’ Day (also celebrated in some countries as Labor Day). 

Of course, like most things associated with North Korea, the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium has seen its fair share of controversies and disputes. However, we will discuss these in more detail later in the video. For now, let’s learn more about the history, design, and specifications of this incredible piece of architecture!

Size, Capacity, and Design

Rŭngrado May First Stadium
Rŭngrado May First Stadium.By Hic et nunc, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

This multi-purpose stadium in Rungra Island, Pyongyang, comprises a main pitch covering an area of 22,500sq meters. To give you an idea of how massive that really is – you could easily fit three full-sized football fields within this one pitch. With a total floor space of more than 200,000sq meters, the Rungrado stadium offers a number of facilities, including swimming pools, running tracks, and indoor halls where athletes can rest, change, and prepare for their event.  

The unique, scalloped roof of the stadium – constructed using 11,000 tonnes of steel – features sixteen arches arranged in a circle, so as to resemble the shape of a magnolia blossom. The magnolia sieboldii, also known as the Korean mountain magnolia, is the national flower of North Korea. The stadium comprises eight floors and is about 60 meters or 200ft tall. Seen from above, it can also resemble a parachute. Even before it had been opened to the public, its unique roof earned Rungrado Stadium the first prize at the 1988 International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva. 

The spectator areas and seating arrangements at Rungrado are more conventional. The stands form two large rings around the main pitch. The lower stand supports one of the largest training complexes in the world. The football pitch at the stadium is covered with natural grass while the racing tracks are rubberized. 

There is some debate about how many people the stadium can comfortably accommodate at a time. When Rungrado was first opened to the public in 1989, local authorities claimed that it had a seating capacity of 150,000 or more. However, in recent years, some international sources such as StadiumDB.com (a reputed global database of football stadiums) have reported that the total capacity is closer to 114,000. The actual capacity might have decreased somewhat after the opposite straight stand was turned into a stage for the many extravagant performances, mass pageants, and military parades that the stadium hosts every year. 

History of the Rungrado Stadium

In 1988, South Korea was set to host the Summer Olympics in Seoul. Wanting to present itself as the legitimate Korean state, North Korea doubled down on its efforts to organize a prestigious international event in Pyongyang. Their efforts bore fruit when, shortly after, the country was awarded the right to host the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989. 

With more than 20,000 foreign visitors expected to arrive in Pyongyang for the festival, this was easily the largest international event ever held in North Korea at the time. The Rungrado Stadium was one of the many structures built in preparation for this event. Other projects initiated for the festival include the Chongnyon Youth Hotel, the Sosan Hotel, Liberation Street, and the ill-fated Ryugyong Hotel, which is yet to be completed more than thirty years later. 

Organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth and attended by 177 countries (including the United States), this event was held between the 1st and 8th of July in 1989. The government of North Korea spent more than a quarter of the country’s yearly budget in preparations for the festival. Mercedes-Benzes were shipped in to convey the foreign athletes around the country and many expensive architectural projects were undertaken. 

Ultimately, the event was widely considered to have been a success, with students from around the world participating in sporting competitions, political discussions, and other activities over a course of eight days. However, it is alleged that, in preparation for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, the North Korean government prohibited short and disabled people from entering the Rungra Island, and consequently, the Rungrado Stadium. 

Ever since its construction, the stadium has hosted a number of national and international events. One of the biggest among them was titled “Collision in Korea”, a wrestling event organized in 1995 by the World Championship Wrestling and Japan Pro-Wrestling. The Arirang Festival has also been organized and held at the stadium by the North Korean government almost every year since 2002. In recent years, the stadium has hosted important national and international sporting events such as the Pyongyang Marathon and the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship qualification games.

Features and Facilities

The stadium complex comprises a number of offices, training rooms, dressing rooms for the players and referees, and restricted locker rooms. In all, there are over 1,300 rooms in the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium. The structure also boasts no less than 80 entrances, which make it possible for 150,000 people the fill the stands completely within fifteen minutes. 

A handful of these entrances were designed to be used specifically by VIP dignitaries, such as high-ranking national leaders and special foreign guests. One such grand, wood-paneled entrance is flanked by a pair of golden footballs, as photographed by British architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright. 

A recent renovation, ordered by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, has added new features to the stadium, such as custom physiotherapy suites, media centers, board rooms, and new hi-tech changing rooms. Right behind the stadium stands a new football academy, built at a cost of $800,000 under Fifa’s development program. From the upper stands, two gigantic portraits of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, and Kim Jong-il, the last Supreme Leader, gaze down upon the stadium. 

Notable Sporting Events and Performances Organized at Rungrado

Over the decades, the Rungrado Stadium has hosted numerous athletic competitions, mass pageants, and military parades. Now, we’ll talk about some of the most notable events to have been held at this colossal multi-purpose stadium. 

  • Arirang Festival
arirang festival
The Arirang Mass Games, held in the Rungnado May Day stadium (incidentally the largest in the world by seating capacity), retells the history of the country, well, their version of it at least. The performance is famed for huge mosaics created by thousands of school children and complex mass gymnastics and dance routines.By Kok Leng Yeo, is licensed under CC-BY

The Arirang Festival or the Arirang Mass Games is North Korea’s largest annual gymnastics and artistic festival. It is held every year between August and September at the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium. The festival was held annually between 2002 and 2013, following which it was organized once again in 2018 after a five year hiatus. 

The name ‘Arirang’ refers to a Korean folk story about a loving couple torn apart by an evil landlord, which is intended as a metaphor for the division of Korea. The extravaganza has been recognized internationally and included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest event of its kind. 

  • Collision in Korea

Officially known as the Pyongyang International Sports and Culture Festival for Peace, Collision in Korea took place on the 28th and 29th of April, 1995, and was the largest pay-per-view professional wrestling event at the time. To this day, it holds the record for being the most attended wrestling event in the history of the sport. In Pyongyang, it attracted a crowd of 165,000 people on the first day and 190,000 on the second. 

Famed boxer Muhammad Ali (then retired) was the guest of honor at the event. Each match was fought between wrestlers with pre-existing storylines and scripted feuds. In such a match, one of the competitors would portray the hero and the other would play the villain. CNN correspondent Mike Chinoy, who traveled to North Korea to cover the event, said that Collision in Korea (held soon after the death of founder Kim Il-sung) was an important stepping stone to North Korea’s broader diplomatic aims.

  • September 2018 Inter-Korean Summit

Between the 18th and 20th of September, 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Pyongyang – to find a strategy for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – in a summit hosted by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un at the Rungrado Stadium. More than 150,000 North Koreans reportedly arrived at the stadium to witness the summit. 

In their presence, the two leaders gave a speech on the themes of cooperation, peace, and unification. An agreement titled the ‘Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018’ was signed during the event, which called for civilian exchanges, military agreement, and the denuclearization of North Korea. 

  • Invincible Socialism: Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance (2019)

In July 2019, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, arrived in Pyongyang to attend a special Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic performance called “Invincible Socialism”, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s relations with China. 

The ‘Invincible Socialism’ event took place on Labor Day and was (fittingly) held at the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium. Thousands of North Koreans participated in the special mass games. Xi Jinping was treated to mass aerobics displays, lavish fireworks, and a gigantic image of his face produced by thousands of performers holding up multi-colored flip-cards as they moved through the stadium in a synchronized manner. 

  • Pyongyang Marathon

Each April, the Pyongyang marathon race is contested at the Rungrado Stadium between existing (or former) communist states, and countries that had once been part of the Soviet bloc. In the 2010 edition of the marathon, Ukrainian participant Ivan Babaryka became the first European in almost 25 years to win in Pyongyang.

The 2020 edition of the marathon was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak in China. In 2021, the marathon will once again be open to foreign amateur runners, who can choose to participate in the 5k, 10k, half, or full marathon events. If you want an opportunity to see the Rungrado Stadium with your own eyes, entering this race might not be a bad option. 

Allegations and Controversies

There can be no doubt that the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium is a remarkable architectural achievement. However, since the time of its construction, the structure has been haunted by controversies, rumors, and allegations of various kinds. Due to North Korea being one of the most secretive countries on earth, many of these controversies and rumors are hard to substantiate, as foreign journalists and investigators are hardly ever allowed access to any relevant information. 

kim jong un
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with
North Korea’s leader
Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok,
Russia April 25, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei
By Alexei Nikolsky, is licensed under CC-BY.

Nevertheless, there have been claims of some very sinister events taking place at the Rungrado stadium. Most notably, in the late 1990s, a number of North Korean army generals hatched a plan to assassinate the then leader Kim Jong-il, and end the communist dictatorship that had controlled the country for decades. However, the plot was uncovered and the conspirators arrested before they could go through with their plans. Reportedly, the conspiring generals were executed publicly by being doused in petrol and burnt alive inside the stadium, in front of a live audience of onlookers. 

Between 2013 and 15, the Rungrado Stadium underwent two years of renovation and remodeling, during which it was closed to the public. While visiting the stadium in September 2013, Kim Jong-un reportedly found the facilities to be below his expectations and ordered a major remodeling of the structure. 

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the Supreme Leader wanted to remodel the stadium into an icon of sports facilities that would befit a “highly civilized nation” such as North Korea. Under his orders, new seating was installed at the stands and the running tracks were fitted with rubber mats. The natural grass of the football field was reportedly replaced with an artificial turf and huge, artificial lighting facilities were added to the stadium. 

This massive renovation project was announced just weeks after the United Nations called on the global community to help North Koreans affected by famine and food shortages. In January 2013, the Japanese Asia Press agency claimed that more than 10,000 people had died of famine in the North and South Hwanghae provinces of North Korea. As renovations began, a temporary container city was built around the stadium, at a time when various international news outlets, such as The Independent (UK) and The Atlantic (US) circulated stories of North Korean citizens being forced into cannibalism due to a lack of sufficient food.

In conclusion, the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium has contributed much to North Korea’s economy and reputation over the years. However, as long as the country remains closed and secretive, it might be hard to say for sure whether the net effect of its presence in Pyongyang has been a positive or negative one for ordinary North Koreans. 

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