Seeing Kim Jong Un centre-stage in both Singapore and Hanoi was without doubt a monumental event, but this was far from the first time North Korea had tried to be big on the international stage. Back in 1989 they hosted the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students (WFYS) from 1st – 8th July 1989.
So what is it? And why did they host it? The World Festival of Youth and Students – let’s just henceforth call it the WFYS – was an event organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth – the WFDY (loving these acronyms). The WFDY was founded in London in 1945 as a broad international youth organization opposed to imperialism, and you could say is a little left wing!
Nowadays it might not exactly be “going strong”, but it still exists, with its last 4 yearly conferences taking place in Havana. Its (surprisingly numerous) members tend to come from the youth wings of communist/socialist countries.
Now why would North Korea want to host so a huge event? At the time Seoul had been given the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and North Korea pretty much wanted their own event.
The planning took a long time, and was somewhat epic! In the 4 years of planning for the event the world’s biggest stadium The May Day Stadium and lots of new houses to host participants were built, as well as the Youth Hotel. Serious money was spent on this!
And then there was the Ryugyong Hotel! The infamous “Hotel of Doom”, which was supposed to be finished in time for the event, still stands unopened.
On the first of July 1989, the event duly began at the (now) world’s biggest stadium, the May Day Stadium. 22,000 young people from an impressive 177 countries went there for the 8 days of events. And the slogan for the festival? “For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship”. Catchy!
There were a lot of elements that North Korea still rightly feels proud about with this festival, as it was not on the first one to be held in Asia, but had the first American group to visit the North since the war!
And largely the event can rightly be called a success for Pyongyang, with the only real controversy being a Danish group that unfurled a banner criticizing the human rights of North Korea. They were arrested and later released.
The rest of the 8 days involved over 100 events with a different theme each day, such as “peace”, “friendship and international solidarity” and “day of the host country”.
At the end of the event the one South Korean student who had participated crossed back over the DMZ back into South Korea, and was, as promised, arrested on arrival. North Korea then duly showed footage of her family being interviewed on TV, which caused controversy from multiple angles.
Historically, people look back in different ways on the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, usually depending on their own political slant. But in North Korea, at least, it was certainly seen as a success, and when visiting you will often be told about it, or showed various buildings that were created for it.
And now there’s talk of a joint Korean bid for the Olympics, so who knows what the future might hold?