August marks the time when many children pack their bags and head out to summer camp. But each year, a few hundred children experience a summer camp like no other.
In North Korea, the Songdowon International Camp hosts 400 students from across the globe every summer. For a country with one of the worst human rights records in existence and a history of suppressing foreign influences, this seems like an odd exercise. Many of the country’s own citizens risk their lives to flee the nation—just last week, a North Korean citizen walked into the South Korean embassy in Hong Kong seeking asylum.
In this context, why would parents willingly send their children to spend two weeks in one of the world’s most repressed countries?
To start with, the camp sounds fun. Really fun. Aside from typical activities such as football and swimming, rooms are equipped with video game systems. The pools come with water slides. The thousands of children living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) under horrific conditions would probably like access to these amenities, too.
The young attendees from around the globe make use of the camp’s shiny interior with a swimming pool, running track, and top-class dormitories. But for many students’ families, the camp is an affordable way to send children overseas for a truly unique experience. The Kim Il-Sung Socialist Youth League, the main youth organization in North Korea, heavily subsidizes the camp costs, which end up being around $300 for a week of jolly, propaganda-heavy excitement.
The food is also a treat for students. Pictures from the camp show piles of luxury catering for the participants to feast on. This is a complete contrast to recent reports by the World Food Program that claim food security in the DPRK is deteriorating due to reduced food production and a growing food gap. The most recent report in April said that 18 million people living in North Korea do not eat a sufficiently diverse diet, and according to a UN report in 2012, “a third of children under the age of five show signs of stunting. Because of poor sanitation, diarrhea is a leading killer of children.” Yet camp attendees enjoy luxurious dishes from a diverse range of national cuisines.
As kids come from all edges of the globe, it’s also a chance for international children to make friends with people their own age from countries such as China, Mongolia, Ireland, and Russia. The local children attending are likely children of the Pyongyang elite, garbed in clean and well-kept clothes. One of highlights of the camp is a performance day when each country gets together to showcase their culture and traditions through songs and dances.
“A summer camp attended by both North Korean and foreign students would provide a rare opportunity for interaction that would humanize foreigners to North Korean students and vice versa,” says Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, an international NGO that works with North Korean defectors. “After being so shut off from the outside world for so long, North Koreans are often very curious about other countries and foreign people.”
There are some dark undertones to the camp’s activities. Laying bouquets of flowers at the feet of statues of former president Kim Il-Sung and former supreme leader Kim Jong-il is enough to give any outsider the creeps. And though children may be learning a lot anecdotally from their fellow global students, the North Korean curriculum is decidedly biased. For example, footage from past camps shows students being taught Korean songs about the country’s current and former leaders. “They learn to sing songs about Kim Jong-un song, Kim Il-Sung, and Kim Jong-il,” says Tchalewa Ndeki, a teacher in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He has visited the camp nine times and takes a Tanzanian delegation to the camp every year.
The curriculum seems to have the desired effect on some students. “I’ve learned a bit of Korean and more about their country and what their leader has done for them,” adds Chimbelu Muyangwa, a student from Tanzania who attended in 2015. “I admire them because of their motto, which says, We have nothing to envy in the world, and for sure, they don’t. They taught me that you should be patriotic and not be jealous of other countries.”
Such positive accounts can be somewhat reminiscent of messages broadcast by the state-run media, or the propaganda-laden classes experienced daily by children in North Korea. Young students learn not only mathematics and Korean, but sit through ideological classes on such topics as the Revolutionary Activities of the Beloved and Respected Marshall Kim Jong-un and The Childhood Years of the Great Guide Generalissimo Kim Jong-il. Many classes discuss the Korean War, in which the teachers describe Americans as barbaric and dangerous.
During their time at the camp, international students are allowed outside of the grounds to visit specific sightseeing destinations, much like the tours set up for foreigners. Some of the sites they visit include the zoo, museums, historical sites, schools, and palaces.
“Foreign visitors can only travel in the country under the supervision of specially trained government guide-minders, and they go to considerable lengths to show a particular picture of their country that is driven by their ideology and fierce ethno-nationalism,” Park says. “However this doesn’t mean that everything foreigners see in North Korea is fake—it is impossible for the government to curate every scene, experience, and interaction.”
This is a reoccurring sentiment among people who have traveled to the summer camp. While some aspects of the experience are undoubtedly dogmatic, attendees say that North Korean people themselves—students, teachers, and shopkeepers—are kind and welcoming.
“They are polite and respectful people. They never interrupt you and always hear what you have to say,” Muyangwa says. “They are very friendly and the reason I got attached to the country.” Likewise, Ndeki thought that maybe the North Koreans would be “strange kids that wouldn’t want to mingle with our kids.” But when he arrived, they were “so friendly, taking selfies together and singing together.”
When this year’s summer camp in North Korea comes to a close, a new group of children will return home to their countries to spread the word of a peaceful and prosperous version of North Korea, with enough food and fun to keep them busy. Meanwhile, desperate citizens continue putting their lives on the line to defect and counter this message every year. (In 2015, according to the South Korean ministry, the numbers of North Korean defectors reached 1,276.)
For those North Koreans who remain in the country, perhaps the influx of international children is a good thing. How else will they learn about the outside world? The camp may even wind up backfiring on the country’s dictatorship.
“With our ubiquitous smartphones and international travel, I think we’ve forgotten what it might be like to be so shut off from other countries,” Park says. “[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?”