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.
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.
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.
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…….
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.
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
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.
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.”
“[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