All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than othersGeorge Orwell, Animal Farm
North Korea may have been founded on communist principles but as we all know, humans find it hard to resist the temptation to rank each other by perceived degrees of importance, value etc. This tendency is the foundation of the country’s songbun system.
A bit about songbun
This is a ranking based on the political, social and economic background of your direct ancestors, your behaviour and actions, and those of family members. It affects all aspects of your life, including education, employment and housing. You can influence this to a certain extent. Membership of the Workers’ Party will improve your songbun, as will taking a lead role in your community. But it is also all too easy to damage it. Step out of line and the consequences will affect not only your own songbun but that of your children and grandchildren.
Songdowon International Schoolchildren’s Camp
On the same day that we visited the Kosan Fruit Farm near Wonsan we were also taken to this children’s holiday camp on the outskirts of the town. And while, like the apple farm, that might not sound especially worth visiting, it was, like many places in North Korea, unexpectedly interesting.
The camp caters to secondary school children and accommodates 1,000 at a time on stays of ten days. We were told that the aim is for the children to enjoy a holiday while also learning. The camp takes some foreign children, in early August, most (but not all) of them from Russia. Hence the use of ‘international’ in its name.
While there are a number of such camps in the country this one is, by all accounts, the most prestigious. To be chosen to visit it is a real honour accorded only the most hard-working and successful students from, I suspect, the families with the highest songbun.
We met some of the children, including a group of ethnic Koreans visiting from Japan. One of them had recently visited London and spoke enough English for a brief conversation about it before she was whisked away.
I think these labels on the trees are intended to help them learn English. But with so many dotted around the camp they must think we have a lot of different names for trees!
The camp’s facilities
We toured the remarkable range of facilities which included an aquarium, aviary, water park, cinema/performance hall, sports field and more.
In the aquarium we donned fetching grey corduroy slip-ons to protect the floor from our outdoor shoes. and saw fish and reptiles in tanks, some of which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a well-kept zoo.
There were educational posters on the walls covering topics such as erosion as well as one with a rather scary image of a tsunami!
I was less impressed in the aviary where the birds were living in very small enclosures. Although some of them did seem to be comfortable enough in their accommodation. We spotted that the lovebirds were obliging with a very ‘educational’ performance!
Our guide told us that this was ‘change-over day’. Most of the children were touring the camp in groups, being introduced to their temporary home and its wonders, rather than making use of the facilities.
But at the sports field we saw a group on the far side watching some of the girls participate in a bout of ssireum, the traditional Korean form of wrestling. This is similar to Japanese sumo and is practiced as both a combat sport and for self-defence.
Statues of the Great Leaders
Between the two main accommodation blocks are the obligatory statues of the Leaders. But here they are a little different from usual, depicting them surrounded by adoring children.
Our North Korean guide mentioned that the group of youngsters in green uniforms, having their photo taken here, were members of a youth organisation for children who have lost one or both parents through military service.
Our UK guide Carl later told me that they were most likely from a Revolutionary School. There are a small number of these elite schools in the country. Those chosen to study at these schools are historically children whose parent(s) died while serving in the Armed Forces, as our guide had said. This automatically gives these children a high status. Some very bright children and those of high-ranking party officials also study at these schools, which provide military training alongside academic lessons. The most famous example is the Red Flag Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang (near the birthplace of Kim Il Sung).
We went into one of the accommodation blocks where we saw the really rather nice rooms that they share, looking very much like a children’s hotel room! No prizes for guessing that we were looking at a girls’ room, by the way!
We were shown a large globe here which, we were told, had once been used by Kim Jong Il. We were struck by the style of décor which would not have appealed to that age group back home. It seemed much too childish and twee, more suitable for a seven-year-old or even younger.
However it certainly appeared that the children being welcomed at the camp that day were happy and excited to be there. And I doubt a cute bear with a fishing rod would spoil their stay in the slightest!
I visited North Korea in 2019