With all the current restrictions in place, around the world, I imagine many parents being at a loss as to how to amuse ‘their unruly kids’, or ‘their little darlings’, depending on the parent’s perspective. Well here is something that may not have immediately sprung to mind. How about packing them off for a couple of weeks at the Songdowon International Children’s Camp in Wonsan, North Korea?

Summer camps for children used to be popular in many parts of the world and particularly so in socialist/communist countries. This camp is not dissimilar the former East Germany’s Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation camps or Artek camps in the old Soviet Union.

Camp layout – With key in Korean, English, Russian and Chinese

The Songdowon International Children’s Camp opened in the 1960s with the specific aim of fostering international relationships by hosting children from outside North Korea and having them engage and intermingle with North Korean kids who were (and still are) selected, for government funded places, based on superior school results and, no doubt, their and their ancestors social, political and economic status, or their ‘songbun’ as it is referred to in North Korea. The cost to overseas visitors has always been subsidised by the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League. I understand it currently costs overseas children around $US 300 per week (plus flights) to attend and this includes a tour of the sights of Pyongyang en route to, or from, the camp.

While children, up the the age of sixteen, from any country (other than South Korea, citizens of which are banned from entry to North Korea) can attend the camp – our guide indicated that even Americans were welcome – visitors typically come from other like minded countries such as China, Russia, Nigeria, Mongolia, Mexico, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand and Ireland(!).

After a visit from Kim Jong-un in 2013 the Korean Central News Agency announced:-

“It is the firm determination of the WPK [Workers Party of Korea] to successfully remodel the camp closely associated with the leadership exploits of the great Generalissimos Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as required by the new century.”

In 2014, by which time overseas visitor numbers had severely dwindled as Chinese youngsters, in particular, became more interested in visiting Europe and North America than North Korea, the remodelling sought by Kim Jong-un was complete. The then fairly dilapidated facilities were updated to state of the art facilities in those beautiful pastel colours so favoured by Kim Jong-un and, rather than accommodate four to five hundred campers, the Camp could now accommodate 1,200 children.

This work aligned with Kim Jong-un’s aspirations to more generally develop the Kangwon province with a particular emphasis on Wonsan and Mt Kumgang.  A major ski resort and airport followed in more recent years and significant resort development continues in Wonsan.

Part of the 2014 remodelling included a major upgrade of the camp’s central square which was completely repaved and the rather dated statue of Kim Il-sung and two kids was replaced with a much grander and warmer stature of him and Kim Jong-il, now with six adorning and joyful children of various nationalities.

The Camp’s central square prior to its upgrade in 2014 – c. Benjamin Young – NK News
Kim Il-sung in the Camp’s central square prior to its upgrade in 2014 – c. Benjamin Young – NK News
The Camp’s central square in 2018
Leaders’ statue in 2018 – Accompanied by children of various nationalities.

Sadly, when I visited (mid September 2018) the camp was pretty much deserted. We were told that we had arrived at a group changeover point. That may have been true and it was also towards the end of the summer season ( I think foreigners only come during the summer) but the quality and cleanliness of the facilities and the general lack of wear and tear one would expect from ongoing use by 1,200 adolescents made me doubt that the camp had received much use in the four years since refurbishment. It really did look as if it had just been refurbished.  

As with many places in North Korea the statue of the Leaders was our first stop. Here the usual ritual of placing flowers at the statue, solemnly bowing and showing our respect for the Leaders was performed before we could explore parts of the complex.

The camp has an extensive range of facilities such that children can engage in soccer, athletics, archery, basketball, volleyball and other court games, gymnastics, swimming, orienteering, water sports and more.

Soccer field and athletics track – note the flower shaped light pylon
Archery
Boating lake

One thing that our guides did not mention when we were viewing the facilities and something I only picked up when writing this post is that as we walked around we were literally only a couple of hundred metres (across a presumably heavily fortified estuary) away from what I feel to be Kim Jong-un’s favourite private retreat/ residence outside Pyongyang, based on the frequency of his reported visits to it and his broader interest in developing the Wonsan area over other areas. Kim’s retreat has its own private train station and houses a number of expensive yachts, though I digress as the Camp’s kids do not get to play on his trains or with his boats…….

Kim Jong-un’s private retreat north of the estuary with the Songdowon International Children’s Camp to the south – c. Google

In addition to sporting facilities, the camp has its own private beach located on the East Sea (or to non Koreans, the Sea of Japan), its own aquarium and its own aviary together with a water park, mirror maze and other amusements which one might find at a funfair.

Camp acquarium
Water park
Mirror maze

The extensive camp grounds were well laid out and well tended with an abundance of trees and plants. While I personally did not see any, many of the trees have small plaques containing mathematical and language puzzles to challenge the children, even in their downtime. What I did see was the large number of stone sculptures and carvings located all over the camp.

Unlike in North Korean schools and Children’s Palaces (such as the massive Mangyongdae Children’s Palace – or a more typical one like that in Hoeryong) – specifically designed complexes where gifted North Korean children (mainly from the elite families) can partake of all kinds of extra circular activity – I found no evidence of anti-American or anti-Japanese propaganda or playgrounds decked out with play tanks and missiles at this camp.

The absence of military style playgrounds and anti-American/Japanese propaganda should not be taken to mean a lack of patriotism or loyalty to the Leadership. As noted earlier, the central square of the camp is devoted to the Leadership. In addition to this there are the usual pictures of the leaders in the entrance lobby to the main building

Pictures of the Leaders in the Camp’s main lobby

and a whole room, adjacent to the international dormitories, is devoted to a photographic display of the Leaders and their interaction with, and love for, children, clearly reciprocated. I found this display especially interesting as it contained many photographs I had not seen before and it brought to mind the key role schools/ childrens’ palaces and the ‘proper education’ of children has in maintaining and strengthening the Leadership through the creation of loyalty and patriotism in the citizenry at an early age.

Apologies for the quality of the pictures below, due to the poor lighting and shadows in the gallery.

A key feature of the camp is the importance placed on cultural exchanges and while it goes without saying that foreign children are heavily exposed to North Korean culture and traditions it is a requirement that foreign attendees also share something of their cultures with North Korean and other campers, typically song and dance.  To facilitate this the Camp has a large auditorium/ theatre and other areas where ideas and thoughts can be exchanged, in a supervised environment.

I deliberately use the word supervised as complete unsupervised intermingling for extended periods is not possible – a case in point being that international visitors do not share dormitories with their North Korean counterparts.

Speaking of dormitories, we were shown the appropriately (if no longer politically correct in some circles) coloured – pink for girls and blue for boys – single sex dormitories, breakout areas with computers and computer games, etc available to international visitors. As indicated earlier it was hard to see four years wear and tear by thousands of adolescents in these areas.

International campers accommodation block
Breakout area with computers

While many portray this camp as North Korean propaganda and dogma at its finest others such as Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, an international NGO that works with North Korean defectors see it in a more positive light:-

“A summer camp attended by both North Korean and foreign students would provide a rare opportunity for interaction that would humanise foreigners to North Korean students and vice versa.”

Park continued

“[For the North Korean students], it might spark more curiosity about the lifestyles of people in the outside world, as well as questions and desires that might run against the North Korean government’s interests. For instance, If children from around the world can come to our country, then why can’t we go to theirs?”

On this one, I am with Mr Park.

For my reader interested in sending their children to the camp or just wanting a closer look, you can find a government released promotional video (in English) HERE !!


My next North Korea – Wonsan 2018 review  HERE

Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Wonsan reviews – HERE


20 thoughts on “Songdowon International Children’s Camp, Wonsan

  1. I have to say that this camp would be very impressive if it sincerely functioned as your guides explained — a place where children could experience the joy of just being children while also learning about other cultures. I do wonder though if many parents from other countries would actually send their children there unaccompanied. And, how would/did they handle the language differences? One thing that bothers me about the photos of the current dear leader with children is the crying which seems to me to be a Pavlovian response, perhaps out of fear of punishment more than them being overcome by his mere presence. That didn’t seem to be the case in the photos of the children with his father and grandfather. Thanks for this great post and photos, Albert!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your detailed comment Sylvia. I appreciate the feedback. You raise an interesting point on language. The North Koreans that attend would have a basic knowledge of English which would be very helpful, as I imagine would the Chinese and most other visitors. You have me thinking now as to whether NKoreans learn Chinese in school – as most NK trade is obviously with China and by far and away most of NKs tourists come from China. The crying is to a degree scary – have you seen how they mourned when Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung died… if not Google. Some speculate that if mourning was not done correctly then punishment was handed out – I have no evidence of this either way. Frenzied crowds are not unique to NK and, sadly, we have seen quite a bit of it recently in other places. Just to clarify kids did cry in the presence of the two earlier Kims – just not in the pictures I have here – so not new for Kim Jong-il. Thank again for your wonderful feedback and support Sylvia.

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      1. As an addendum to this conversation, our UK guide told me that he’d seen NK visitors to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun break down in tears at the sight of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (more so the former) and he felt it was genuine rather than expected of them, given that by no means all of them do it. But of course it’s arguable that it’s the weight of all the indoctrination that makes them feel genuine grief or emotion – they’re mourning an illusion

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      2. Thanks for your reply, Albert. It’s all so interesting! When I mentioned I wondered how the Camp handled language differences it was because you mentioned that children come from “China, Russia, Nigeria, Mongolia, Mexico, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand and Ireland!” ; so with that many nationalities attending it must be quite something to be able to communicate with all of them. Yes, to me the crying of adults and children in the presence of the dear leaders seems to result from something other than the heart. Twice I’ve watched a documentary where US doctors have volunteered to perform eye surgeries on North Koreans who are blind or nearly so. (Eye problems must be quite a problem there — maybe due to poor diet, not really sure.) Anyway, when the patients had recovered enough to make sure the operations were successful, they all rushed over to photos/murals of the dear leader to thank him/them for their sight crying and nearly overcome with misplaced emotions. Not a word of thanks or acknowledgement to the doctors who performed the surgeries and restored their sight.

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        1. Thank you for the reference to the documentary. Sarah summed up things very nicely (I can’t recall now if it was in her blog or in response to one of my entries) when she compared the peoples’ devotion to the Leaders as being akin to a religion where the Leaders are the gods – a religion in all ways except without provision for the afterlife for devotees. The Leaders themselves are seen as ever lasting and still hold the highest offices in the Land. The sort of emotion shown to the leaders is certainly comparable to a number of religions outside NK, including evangelical Christianity. This is the best and easiest way for outsiders to understand the displays of loyalty and devotion in NK.

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          1. I may have mentioned it in a comment but I definitely did so in both my TravellersPoint blog and my new one (https://www.toonsarah-travels.blog/gallery-mosaic-portraits-of-a-dynasty/). And yes, I agree completely that regarding it as such is the best way to understand a lot about NK. Voltaire said that ‘ If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’, and maybe that is what the North Koreans have done? Maybe everybody (or almost everybody) has an innate need to believe in some sort of higher power, whether human or divine?

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    1. Yes, this is quite a normal reaction in NK … indoctrination or absolute loyalty? Have you seen videos of the mourning at the death of either Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-un? If not google .. the outpouring of grief is amazing … some say faked.. who knows?

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    1. The principle is sound and the facilities are excellent, if not what the average non North Korean teenager is into these days (though they do have video games there!). I perhaps over emphasised the non use aspect a little but, yes, if Disney owned it they would probably close it down due to lack of numbers!

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    1. I totally agree that is is wrong they cannot travel ( though in theory they can with Government permission which would rarely if ever be given for tourist purposes). Trying to keep it simple (and its a complicated matter) if they were allowed to travel the Government would loose control and the country would collapse. From the NK government perspective it does not want its people exposed to bad outside influences so external travel is restricted. This also explains why citizens do not have access to the world internet or overseas TV, radio and other media (a few of the elite do).

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  2. Very interesting read, especially as you saw some areas that we didn’t (the mirror maze, the photo gallery). But I did see (and photograph) the labels on the trees! I have to say too that although we also visited on a change-over day, there were lots of children around. Most were on guided tours around the camp, being introduced to the facilities, while others were being briefed on dorm allocation.

    There was also a large group of children in military-style uniform paying their respects to the Leaders, meaning that we were not invited to do the same. Our guide told me they were the children of soldiers killed in action who were given special support by the state – something our UK guide also confirmed.

    We even got a chance for a brief chat with a group of teenage girls, which I don’t think had been pre-arranged. They were from North Korean families resident in Japan so technically counted as ‘international’ visitors I guess. The one we spoke to had reasonable English and had even been to London!

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    1. Thank you Sarah. I remember reading about your interactions on your blog. The North Koreans from Japan would have been descendants of the original Zainichi Koreans I recently wrote about. When they travelled to London I wonder what passports they used .. As I understand it they cannot get Japanese passports but rather get some form of special travel documents. I actually don’t know if this group has North Korean passports or not ..something to look into some time !!

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