Boys and girls in white shirts and red ties sitting on steps
DPRK,  People

Songdowon International Schoolchildren’s Camp

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

George 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.

Large fish-shaped board among trees with a map and captions
Plan of the camp
Part of a map with caption about monument
Detail of the plan – the ‘peerlessly great persons of Mt Paektu’ are of course the Great Leaders

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.

Boys in white shirts and red ties sitting on steps
New arrivals
Girls in white shirts and red ties talking
New arrivals

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.

Open air pool with water slide
The water park
Stage with piano and rows of fabric draped chairs
The performance space
Flower beds and low round building
The aquarium

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.

Man's feet with elasticated fabric slippers
Chris in the corduroy slippers!

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!

Two colourful birds mating
Love birds

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.

Group of boys and girls in white shirts and red ties
New arrivals on the tour

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.

Group of statues of men and children
The Dear Leaders with happy children
Children in green military uniforms in front of statues of men and children
Pupils from a military school

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).

Accommodation block

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!

Three beds with pink covers in a pink painted room
Girls’ bedroom

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


  • Alison

    Super interesting Sarah, it’s hard to believe that holiday camps like this exist in North Korea, they would be well off children I imagine, all being indoctrinated!

  • TheRamblingWombat

    A country where nothing is as it seems on the surface but where everything leads to the same end – glorifying the leadership. We too visited the girls pink quarters – I assume there were blue quarters somewhere for the boys. Not sure if you saw it but a few days ago they announced they are going to start opening the country up again … I suspect tourists will be fairly low in priority in the phased opening but you never know.

  • Christie

    I love the quote you started this post with!! So appropriate😀
    I’m pretty sure, these kids from the camp (and all the others) will never have a chance to read that book, or watch the movie..
    But nevertheless, you had an amazing kind of a trip!

  • grandmisadventures

    this looks like a really fun camp with lots of things to do. Although I think it is sad to see so many whose parents died in the military- that’s a lot of kids with high honors but no parents

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I reckon the kids must enjoy themselves here. As for the kids in the military school, quite a few will be there because of their parent’s high rank in the military, so not all will have lost a parent. But for those who have, yes, that’s sad indeed.

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    This is a super interesting post, Sarah! Songdowon looks like a camp that even I would like. Who wouldn’t like aquariums and water parks? Those beautiful children look excited to be there. I find it especially fascinating that they teach English.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Kellye 😊 Yes, the camp has a lot going for it, but fun on the water slide would be interspersed with regular sessions on the teachings of Kim Il Sung, the greatness of their country and the kindness of all the Great Leaders towards their people 🙂 As for teaching English, they know how widely spoken it is and how useful it will be to anyone taking a significant role in their government or in important jobs such as monitoring foreign media (only those from the best families are trusted with that work) and in tourism (ditto). Prior tot he pandemic Kim Jong Un had made growing international tourism a top priority but I suspect that has been put on the back burner for now, they have more pressing issues.

  • margaret21

    What an opportunity you had! We were lucky enough to spend a whole day in the junior school our daughter was teaching in during her year in South Korea, and were beyond impressed with its facilities. Mindful of European strictures against taking pictures with children in, I avoided taking shots including them, which I now regret, as Emily told me it wouldn’t have mattered a hoot. Without them, my pictures are rather dead, and no kind of real record of fascinating day.


    What incredibly different places you saw in North Korea. Learning about different lives and different cultures is something which attracts every single traveller, and we love those moments, but this trip took that element of travel to a whole new level. What an experience.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Absolutely an experience Phil, and one I’m so glad to have had! They took us to such a wide variety of places from the historic to the everyday, and we got as close as any outsider can do there to experiencing their culture.

  • Leela Gopinath

    You have enlightened me so much on N.Korea…a country which I will probably never see! Thanks…

  • Anne Sandler

    Great post Sarah! I’m enjoying your glimpse inside No. Korea. Even though it is devised to show you the best side of the country, it’s still a glimpse inside a very closed off nation. I’m also surprised they let you take pictures. How much freedom did they give you for photography?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Anne, I’m glad you’re enjoying these posts 😀 I was surprised how much freedom we did have for photography. In places like this, that they are proud of, we had a free reign – it was positively encouraged. We were given three rules on arrival. No photos of military installations or personnel. No photos depicting poverty. And only respectful photos of the statues of the Leaders, which meant full length, face on (never from the rear) and no silly poses in front of them. The middle one was the hardest, as a rural scene might include oxen being used in farming (not allowed!)

  • Brad M

    A somewhat “human” look at the inside of the country closed off from the rest of the world. Thanks for sharing.

      • Brad M

        As an old boss once told me, nothing of significance ever happens in this world unless it’s between two people. (regardless of world leaders)

  • ThingsHelenLoves

    Fascinating, a world that few people get to see. The intentions of the camp might be questionable but the facilities and landscaping are quite something. And all the children look relaxed and quite happy.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Helen. The intentions aren’t all questionable. Yes, there is of course plenty of indoctrination, as there is across all their education system, and probably particularly of these kids as they are being groomed to take on significant roles in society. But there is also, as is often the case throughout Asia, a strong belief in the value of education and a desire to give kids the best start in life.

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!