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Summer camp has changed quite a bit over the past few generations.
In large part, macrame and campfires have given way to skills-based
programs that prepare kids for careers. There's a
"Young Investors Wall Street"
camp, run by the Future Investor Clubs of America. Children ages
8-12 can learn their way around a Mac at
, taking place all summer at participating
) retail stores. College freshmen and sophomores can work on their
coding skills at
at the Googleplex, in Mountain View. And aspiring video game
designers can attend
any number of camps
specializing in creating games for everything from the
) Xbox to
) style games .
But, while some kids are being sent away to summer camps like the
ones mentioned above, others are on their way to the Songdowon
International Children's Camp in Wonsan, North Korea.
Songdowon is one of the last vestiges of a type of cultural
exchange seen in similar countries from across the Communist bloc
in decades past, not entirely unlike the Soviet Artek camps and
East Germany's Ernst ThÃ¤lmann Pioneer Organisation.
Photo: NK News
Far from just a getaway for North Korean children, thousands of
young people from countries including China, Russia, Nigeria,
Mongolia, Mexico, Syria (where North Korean military officers have
Assad's forces), Tanzania, and Thailand
the Songdowon camp since it opened in 1960, which expanded to
accommodate 1,200 guests in 1993 "under the special care of
President Kim Il Sung and the leader Kim Jong Il."
Campus of the Songdowon International Children's Camp - Photo
by Benjamin Young
We know where the international campers at Songdowon come from, but
who, exactly, are they? Details are pretty much nonexistent. As 40+
, honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at
Leeds University, said, "Thanks for writing, but alas I have no
info to offer. I've often wondered the same thing myself."
Enter Valentina Boltacheva. Now a student at Vladivostok State
University of Economics and Service, at the age of 14, she was a
camper at Songdowon.
Valentina grew up in Arsenyev, a town of 56,000 in Primorsky Krai,
Russia's Far East, and the home of Progress Arsenyev Aircraft
Works, manufacturer of, among other things, the Ka-52 "Alligator"
As is - or at least was - a common practice in certain countries of
a certain political persuasion, vouchers for meals, holidays, and
so forth will, on occasion, be doled out to dedicated (or
well-connected) workers. In 2007, the regional authorities "decided
to support those who worked at the plant," Valentina told me, "and
allowed the Progress workers' children to compete for 30 available
trips to Songdowon."
"Every candidate had to answer many questions about North Korea and
the plant where my mother works," Valentina said. Her mother helped
with information about the factory, but as Arsenyev's Internet
service was spotty at that time, Valentina did her research at the
library. A few weeks later, Valentina's mother got the news that
her daughter had been selected go to Songdowon.
"I was happy," Valentina said. "It was my first trip abroad."
The trip would comprise one week in Wonsan and one in Pyongyang.
Valentina's family "paid only for making my passport to travel
abroad, [but] my trip and flight were free - it was a present for
the workers' children," she explained. Before they left for
Songdowon, the kids were told to prepare what Valentina described
as a "culture program" to perform at the camp. They chose a
traditional Russian folk dance, which they staged in the campus
"Everyone from our group took part; we rehearsed for a long time,"
she told me. "We had many talented students - some of them danced,
some of them sang and played musical instruments."
The Arsenyev detachment was joined by campers from Tanzania, China,
Mongolia, and North Korea, as well as other Russian students from
Vladivostok and Nakhodka (of which the latter,
according to KCNA
, semi-confusingly hosted its own Kimjongilia show in April "on the
occasion of the birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung's
birthday"). Though the Songdowon campers' living arrangements were
kept restricted ("Russians lived with Russians and Koreans lived
with Koreans," Valentina said), she was able to connect with a
handful of North Koreans during her stay.
A dorm room for Russian campers at Songdowon - Photo by
"I made friends with two Korean boys, Tom and Jerry - I don't know
their real names; this is what they wanted us to call them,"
Valentina recalled. She also got to know "a Korean girl named Chen
and a Tanzanian guy, Oswald."
Communicating didn't pose a problem, as many of the North Korean
campers were proficient speakers of English, Russian, or both - and
they weren't shy about reminding the international guests what a
treat it was for them to be there. "They told us that in Korea,
only A-students were allowed to go to this camp," Valentina said.
"I can make a conclusion that Songdowon is a really prestigious
camp in North Korea."
As for activities, Valentina remembers "swimming, boating, and
doing morning exercises." Other memories include "dancing
traditional Korean dances" and, this being the DPRK, "learning
songs about Korean political leaders."
A room at Songdowon / Photo by David Flack
Valentina said she has fond memories of Songdowon-a sentiment
seconded by Miraj Jakaya Kikwete, son of Tanzanian president Jakaya
Kikwete, who described his time to me at the Songdowon camp as "an
experience of a lifetime."
Over the past few years, Matthew Reichel, co-founder of the
, a Canadian venture committed to responsible engagement in the
DPRK through education, tourism, social entrepreneurship, and
knowledge exchange, has gotten to know Songdowon's "publicizers"
quite well - bureaucrats operating under the auspices of the Kim Il
Sung Socialist Youth League.
"They pick two people every year who have to go to out and sell
this camp, which is really becoming a tougher and tougher sell,"
Reichel told me.
"Parents in China don't want to send their kids to North Korea;
they're sending their children to camp in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the
United States. So, these guys are having to go to second-tier
cities in China's Northeast and Central Coastal areas to try and
convince local schools, governments, and travel companies to send
kids to Songdowon."
The Songdowon flag, which reads: "Let's always be ready for our
socialist homeland! Always be ready! Songdowon International
According to Reichel, many of the schools in Pyongyang organize
short trips to Songdowon all summer long for their local
A-students, which, he said, "doesn't necessarily have anything to
do with grades." But, by Kim Il Sung's decree, Songdowon is
supposed to be an international camp. If there are no foreigners
there, someone's failing. As Reichel said, "Kim Il Sung gave them
Kim Il Sung and young friends / Photo by Benjamin Young
In North Korea, government entities sustain themselves by running
businesses - the Youth League owns the Pyongyang Chongnyon (Youth)
Hotel, their own trade and tourism companies, and Reichel said
"several of the fried chicken restaurants in Pyongyang are theirs."
However, the Songdowon camp runs at a severe loss.
A stagnant, centrally-planned economy coupled with ever-tightening
economic sanctions doesn't normally beget financial generosity.
But, the North Korean government almost completely finances
Songdowon campers' trips.
Photo by Matthew Reichel
Some kids, like Valentina, are sent as part of a fully-paid
exchange program. And some, it seems, receive partial scholarships
from their local governments. In an email, the
Nakhodka City Administrator's office
told me that parents are responsible for about 300 euros in fees
and travel costs for their child's two-week stay, with all other
expenses being "met by the Korean side."
"Remember, this is a political thing, not an economic thing,"
Matthew Reichel explained. "It's just one of the many appendages of
the Youth League; they're losing money on Songdowon, but they have
to do it, they have to continue to operate it as an international
socialist youth summer camp."
Songdowon water slide / Photo by David Flack
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Still, he said, they "can't make it cheap enough" to fill
"Thing is, the [recruiters] have a quota," said Reichel. "They
asked us once if we could get Westerners to come; we said
absolutely, we could do some great things there - with university
students. They said no, it has to be kids, something in the charter
that they can only be up to age 16. So, can we organize a group of
Canadian kids? We were like, 'Uh…that's not going to work out.'"
The beach in Wonsan: One section is for foreigners, the other
for North Koreans (beyond the blue fence, above). But, as Matthew
Reichel says, "It's not that hard to go back and forth between the
two." Photographer David Flack said these kids' curiosity got the
better of them in a matter of minutes and came over to meet his
Photo by David Flack
The Songdowon International Children's Camp was visited just last
week by Kim Jong Un.
"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,"
Kim's visit "makes sense for a few reasons," said Reichel.
Primarily, "there are people in North Korea interested in pursuing
more international connections and outreach these days."
This has translated, Reichel said, into "a drive to invest in
Kangwon province, focusing on Wonsan and Mount Kumgang," with
reported plans for a ski resort and an upgrade to Wonsan's airport.
As for the future of the Songdowon International Children's Camp,
an intriguing take comes by way of North Korea
(and NK News
) Benjamin Young, and a video he shot of the Mongolian campers'
cultural performance at Songdowon last July:
Said Young, "The Songdowon Children's Camp represents the current
dilemma confronting North Korean society: the influx of Western and
South Korean culture but the desire to stick with 'revolutionary
As evidenced in the video, foreign children enjoy Western music,
like The Black Eyed Peas, but, said Young, "have come to spend the
summer in a nation that prohibits its citizens from listening to
this same type of music."
"The questions that arose from my experience in the camp are
numerous," he recalled. "Why did the kids come to North Korea? Why
does the North Korean state support this camp and these
international students? What purpose does the camp serve?"
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