CHILDREN IN NORTH KOREA
In North Korea, some babies were turned over to government-run nurseries when they were two months old and stayed in the nursery until they were old enough for elementary school. The children were then indoctrinated with the personality cult worship of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and taught they should be happy the Great and Dear Leaders took care for them not their parents.
All North Korean children are automatically members of the Korean Children’s Union, whose uniform includes the red neckerchiefs of the Young Pioneers of other communist states. [Source: AFP, 2017]
Percentage of children under age 5 whose births are registered ( percent): 100
Percentage of children (aged 5-17 years) engaged in child labour (economic activities and household chores) ( percent): 4
Percentage of children (aged 1-14 years) who experienced any physical punishment and/or psychological aggression by caregivers ( percent): 59 [Source: UNICEF, retrieved 2021]
Percentage of children aged 36-59 months attending an early childhood education programme: 73 percent
Percentage of children (aged 36-59 months) with whom any adult household member has engaged in 4 or more activities to provide early stimulation and responsive care in the last 3 days: 95 percent
ercentage of children (aged 36-59 months) whose father has engaged in 4 or more activities to provide early stimulation and responsive care in the last 3 days: 21 percent
Percentage of children under age 5 who have 3 or more children's books: 50 percent
Percentage of children under age 5 who play with 2 or more types of playthings: 59 percent
Percentage of children under age 5 left alone or under the supervision of another child younger than 10 years of age for more than 1 hour at least once in the last week: 16 percent. [Source: UNICEF, retrieved 2021]
see Education, School
Children’s Health in North Korea
According to a 2012 UN report “a third of children under the age of five show signs of stunting. Because of poor sanitation, diarrhea is a leading killer of children.”
Under-five mortality rate (Deaths per 1000 live births): 17
Under-five deaths (Number of deaths): 6,116
Infant mortality rate (Deaths per 1000 live births): 13
Neonatal mortality rate (Deaths per 1000 live births): 10
Under-five mortality rate (Female) (Deaths per 1000 live births): 15
Under-five mortality rate (Male) (Deaths per 1000 live births): 19 [Source: UNICEF, retrieved 2021]
Careseeking for ARI - percentage of children (under age 5) with acute respiratory infection symptoms whom advice or treatment was sought from a health facility or provider ( percent): 86
Diarrhoea treatment - percentage of children (under age 5) with diarrhoea who received ORS (packets or pre-packaged fluids) ( percent): 74
Percentage of surviving infants who received the third dose of DTP-containing vaccine ( percent): 97
Percentage of children who received the 2nd dose of measles-containing vaccine, as per administered in the national schedule ( percent): 98
Maternal and newborn health
Postnatal care for mothers - percentage of women (aged 15-49 years) who received postnatal care within 2 days of giving birth (Female) ( percent): 98
Antenatal care 4+ visits - percentage of women (aged 15-49 years) attended at least four times during pregnancy by any provider (Female) ( percent): 94
Skilled birth attendant - percentage of deliveries attended by skilled health personnel (Female): Not available
C-section rate - percentage of deliveries by cesarean section ( percent): 13
Early childbearing - percentage of women (aged 20-24 years) who gave birth before age 18 (Female): Not available
Institutional deliveries - percentage of deliveries in a health facility ( percent): 92
Postnatal care for newborns - percentage of newborns who have a postnatal contact with a health provider within 2 days of delivery ( percent): 99
Early initiation of breastfeeding ( percent): 43
Exclusive breastfeeding (0-5 months) ( percent): 71
Continued breastfeeding (20-23 months) ( percent): 27
Height-for-age <-2 SD (stunting) ( percent): 19
Vitamin A two-dose coverage ( percent): 99
Iodized salt consumption (>0 ppm) among all tested households: Not available
Malnourished Children in North Korea
According to the United Nations more than a fourth of all North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition, and two-thirds of the country's 24 million people don't know where their next meal is coming from. Ng Han Guan of Associated Press wrote: “A team from the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reporting from North Korea, found that 2.8 million North Koreans "are in need of regular food assistance amidst worrying levels of chronic malnutrition and food insecurity." It said 4 percent of North Korean children are acutely malnourished. [Source: Ng Han Guan, Associated Press, April 5, 2013]
Mina Yoon wrote in NK News: “Based on the North Korean standard, there are not many people suffering from malnutrition. Or, I should put it this way: the North Korean people do not have any standard when it comes to malnutrition. That’s because it is such a common condition, for in North Korea you cannot get any medical support, even medicine for a cold. [Source: Mina Yoon for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, June 13, 2014]
“Doctors have left hospitals and started making a living on their own in the market. Of course, there’s no concept of “regular check-ups” in North Korea and so malnutrition is not even considered a medical condition. Only when you lose all energy and end up in a sickbed do you realise that you haven’t eaten well. In this situation, anyone who could walk was considered “normal”. My rough guess is that, based on global standard, more than half of North Koreans would be considered malnourished.”
Footage shot inside North Korea in 2011 revealed the extent of chronic food shortages and malnutrition inside North Korea at that time. Mark Willacy wrote in abc.net.au: “ Shot over several months by an undercover North Korean journalist, the harrowing footage shows images of filthy, homeless and orphaned children begging for food. The video shows young children caked in filth begging in markets, pleading for scraps from compatriots who have nothing to give. "I am eight," says one boy. "My father died and my mother left me. I sleep outdoors." Many of the children are orphans; their parents victims of starvation or the gulag. [Source: Mark Willacy, abc.net.au July 15, 2011]
On raising a child in the early 2000s, when hunger was still a serious problem, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Three years ago, the miner and his wife decided to have another baby. "North Koreans aren't having many children because they can't afford to feed them," the miner said. "But my daughter complained she was lonely, and we really wanted to have another child." The baby, a boy, was born at home, a neighbor helping with the delivery. He was full-term but weighed just 3 1/2 pounds at birth and had difficulty nursing from his undernourished mother. The child, unable to digest powdered corn, remains underweight. The miner said the food situation in Chongjin had gotten worse in the last year because of inflation. "There is food in the market, but people can't afford to buy it," he said late last year in China. People are "getting weaker physically, financially." "In North Korea," he added matter-of-factly, "I don't remember a single day when I had a normal, happy life." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]
Babies and Young Children in North Korea
Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “Parents are required to register the birth of a baby, with information about the new citizen kept in three places: at the local town hall, with the police and with the secret police. The first thing a newborn gets from the state is its songbun – one of the five social statuses allocated to all North Koreans. Depending on the status of its father, the infant will be classified as either “special”, “nucleus”, “basic”, “complex” or “hostile”. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardia, December 21, 2015]
“A policeman will stamp the songbun on the baby’s new file, establishing where this North Korean will be allowed to live, which university it will be able to enter, where it might work and whether it will be able to join the Korean Worker’s party. The newborn becomes entitled to access the Public Distribution System of goods, which, theoretically, will provide everything it needs. In practice, the system has largely been dysfunctional since the 1990s. Soon after birth the baby is inoculated against tuberculosis. Although the DPRK’s health system is not in great shape, vaccinations are routinely performed – which is rare for such a poor country.
Early Childhood in North Korea
Percentage of children aged 36-59 months attending an early childhood education programme ( percent): 73
Percentage of children (aged 36-59 months) with whom any adult household member has engaged in 4 or more activities to provide early stimulation and responsive care in the last 3 days ( percent): 95
Percentage of children (aged 36-59 months) whose father has engaged in 4 or more activities to provide early stimulation and responsive care in the last 3 days ( percent): 21
Percentage of children under age 5 who have 3 or more children's books ( percent): 50
Percentage of children under age 5 who play with 2 or more types of playthings ( percent): 59
Percentage of children under age 5 left alone or under the supervision of another child younger than 10 years of age for more than 1 hour at least once in the last week ( percent): 16 [Source: UNICEF, retrieved 2021]
Children’s Day in North Korea
From Pyongyang in 2017, AFP reported: “To celebrate Korean Children’s Union Day, the pupils of Pyongyang Number Four Primary School threw mock grenades at targets, crawled under a frame and threw themselves over a fence — all with an imitation AK47 over their shoulders. After completing the obstacle course, Myong Hyon Jong, whose favorite subject is mathematics, said she wanted to join the army when she grows up, to “safeguard the respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un with military power. We have to prepare ourselves to defend our country.” [Source: AFP, June 8, 2017]
“Hyon Jong is 10 years old. Her teacher, Ri Su Ryon, explained the race was intended “to give the children the spirit to defend our country when they are grown up, and to prepare them physically and mentally to beat down any enemies while upholding the Songun [military-first] revolutionary leadership of the respected marshal” — a reference to leader Kim Jong Un.
“Teacher Ri, 24, who took part in the obstacle race herself, told AFP: “I threw the hand grenade with the mind that I would beat down all the enemies who even try to infiltrate our country.” Ordinary North Koreans normally only express officially approved views when speaking to foreign media.
Children's Palace in North Korea
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The Children’s Palace, a massive, 2-million-square-foot building on the southwestern edge of the North Korean capital, is billed by the reclusive regime as a temple to youth, a testament to the care and devotion of the nation’s rulers to its future generations. A North Korean guide, pointing out the sweeping, half-circle design of the entryway, says it signifies the “loving embrace of a mother.” A near-mandatory stop for all tourists and journalists allowed into the country on carefully scripted trips, the Children’s Palace was recently refurbished, at apparently great expense, on orders of Kim Jong Un.” [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2016]
Our “minders arranged an excursion to the palace on Thursday afternoon to have us see, first-hand, the top-rate extracurricular activities offered to the capital’s most gifted children between 11 and 16 years old. I have no doubt that the talented North Korean youngsters granted access to this facility are enjoying the best their impoverished country has to offer, materially at least. There’s a pool building with a multi-tiered diving platform. Indoor basketball and volleyball courts. Classes in ballet, musical instruments, singing, embroidery and calligraphy. A computer lab.
“The walls are decorated with flowers, sailboats and stars. Whimsical light fixtures, looking like brightly colored balloons on a stick, stretch from floor to ceiling. But for such a supposedly joyous place, the Children’s Palace can feel deeply depressing, an institution where adults have tried to mask life’s cruel realities with some brightly colored paint and some rainbows and unicorns.”
Children in the Children's Palace in North Korea
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Kim Myong Hyok had a solemn role to perform, perhaps the biggest he’d ever been given in all of his 14 years. Dipping his calligraphy brush into a well of black ink, he carefully began to write out Korean characters on a sheet of white rice paper....I approached the wiry teenager, taking stock of his crisp white shirt and dark pants that nearly swallowed his slender frame. To me, he looked no more than 11, but above his breast pocket was a coming-of-age marker that’s required daily wear for all adults in North Korea: a red flag pin with the smiling faces of deceased national helmsmen Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. “Hello,” I said. “I’m a reporter from the United States. I’m wondering, can you tell me, what are you writing today?” [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2016]
For a moment, Kim froze, his eyes darting from his paper to the ceiling and finally to the government interpreter/minder standing nearby. Then he seemed to recall what it was he was supposed to say to the enemy in his midst. “I want to be in the army and defend our country and our marshal, Kim Jong Un,” he stammered. “The American imperialists and the Japanese are threatening us, so young people should serve in the army.”
“The youngsters here seem to be in the process of metamorphosing into robotic grown-ups, learning how to subsume their creative spirits to the all-encompassing cult of personality and party that three generations of the Kim dynasty have created. It is, after all, what is necessary to survive in this extremely controlled and controlling society. In a singing classroom, the students expertly belt out a song about how they wish every day was New Year’s Day. Why? Because that’s when founding father Kim Il Sung would come to hear children sing at the palace, and what could be more glorious than performing for him every day for the rest of one’s life?In a calligraphy workshop, young girls practice their needlepoint by sewing “2.16” and “10.10” – signifying the Feb. 16 birthday of Kim Jong Il and the Oct. 10 founding of the Workers’ Party, respectively.
Performance at the Children's Palace in North Korea
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “After the guides spend 90 minutes herding us through classrooms, the pool area and gymnasium, our tour culminates in a large auditorium for a 45-minute performance. When we foreign guests arrive 10 minutes before show time, hundreds of adolescents are already seated in the hall, dressed in matching uniforms, their hands folded in their laps. They are staring straight ahead. None of them is making a sound. The lights go down. The curtain goes up. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2016]
“The first act is an orchestra with chorus. As the students sing patriotic songs, a video montage starts in the background. First come some fireworks, then footage of Kim Jong Un’s recent rocket and missile launches. Later comes a song-and-dance number about the Children’s Palace itself. “This place is a dream, but if it’s a dream, I don’t want to wake up,” warbles a precocious young girl as three classmates in cute star getups dance stage right.
“Then it’s on to a band of boys in matching turquoise sequined shirts, who belt out a tune about how they’re thankful to Kim Jong Un for giving some vans to the Children’s Palace so they can take driver’s education classes (in a country where no one has a private car). There are a few brief segments without overt propaganda messages. An acrobatic young boy performs some amazing feats with hula hoops, without any political messaging. But he is the exception to the rule. Toward the end of the show, a large dance number features girls and boys singing about how they want to be pilots, seamen and artillery gunners. A final act features more singing, and Kim Jong Un’s face is projected against the backdrop.
“The performers take their final bows, to rapturous applause. The foreign reporters and tourists file out. But I’ve forgotten my backpack, and head back inside to retrieve it. To my surprise, the students in the audience are still sitting in their seats. They are not chatting, not moving. Just staring straight ahead. There is one other journalist still in the hall. He notices the same thing, and his crestfallen look telegraphs our mutual sense of demoralization. We both reach for our cameras, instinctively, somehow compelled to document the moment.
“And then, as we start snapping photos, there’s a crack in the ice. A student in the first row starts to crack up. The giggles give way to grins. Suddenly, the entire auditorium is smiling at us, and begins to wave. “Goodbye!” one girl calls out in English. Has the joke all been on us? I will probably never know. But I have to hope. And for the first time all afternoon, I smile too.
North Korean Nursery Schoolers Instructed on Machine Guns
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: At “Changchon farm community’s nursery school, my brain got a little fixated on the wall art: Just past a painting of children skipping hand-in-hand beneath large letters saying “We Are Happy!” were some fratricidal forest friends. First to catch my eye was a duck firing a machine gun at a wolf. Then I noticed the squirrel with hand grenades taking out a cowering weasel, with backup provided by a hedgehog with a RPG launcher. I suppose in a country that has long followed a policy of songun, or “military first,” the powers-that-be figure it’s never too early to let the youngsters know what’s what. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2016]
There is also “Squirrel and Hedgehog”. ““Squirrel and Hedgehog,” my guides informed me, is as familiar to and beloved by North Korean kids as any Disney toon is to Yankee tots. Produced by state-run SEK Studios, the long-running animated TV show centers on the inhabitants of a make-believe place called Flower Hill, which is populated by squirrels, hedgehogs, and ducks. The squirrels are the leaders, while the hedgehogs are the soldiers. Ducks are, duh, the navy. As you might guess, this squadron represents North Korea. The Flower Hill gang must contend with evil weasels (Japan) and wolves (the United States), while occasionally dealing with friendly but drunk bears (Russia). “It’s a classic,” my guide, Ms. Hwang, informed me. “Everyone knows Squirrel and Hedgehog.”
Even without Squirrel and Hedgehog, the angelic-looking toddlers of Changchon farm are getting their indoctrination in other ways – from the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging in the classroom, for instance, or the nationalistic anthems the kids are learning to sing. In North Korea, the propaganda starts early.
During the visit, one teacher even helped show a young charge how to handle a toy machine gun. Even an eye chart in the nurse’s health room featured military symbolism. Instead of “E” letters pointing various directions, the chart contained progressively smaller lines of everyday basic objects – stars, airplanes, apples, umbrellas. And, oh yes, automatic rifles and handguns.
Brainwashing Young Children in North Korea
Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: The North Korean regime brainwashes children from an early age to believe in “Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong-un “as godlike leaders. This indoctrination program has two basic goals,” a groundbreaking 372-page report by a United Nations published in 2014 “said: to instill utmost loyalty and commitment toward the supreme leader, and to instill hostility and deep hatred toward the United States, Japan and South Korea. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, January 15, 2015]
“When Lee Hyun-ji, a North Korean defector, was in elementary school, learning to throw wasn’t a simple matter of pitching a ball. No, in gym class,there was a wooden target showing a human figure with pale skin and a huge nose, with “cunning American wolf” written on it. A young Lee, now 19, and her classmates would practice their throwing with a wooden “grenade.”
“The brainwashing starts in kindergarten. “The milk would arrive and we would go up one by one to fill our cups,” recalled Lee, who came to South Korea only in March and asked to use a pseudonym to protect her family in North Korea. “The teachers would say: “Do you know where the milk came from? It came from the dear leader. Because of his love and consideration, we are drinking milk today,’ ” said Lee, looking every bit a South Korean with her dyed hair and trendy sweater. “I didn’t really ask questions,” she shrugged. “Somehow I just knew not to.”
“Children’s books are not immune. Take “The Butterfly and the Cockerel,” a story about an irascible, bullying rooster (the United States) that is outwitted by a small, virtuous butterfly (North Korea). Teachers don’t just teach history, they teach “revolutionary history.” And all music, storybooks, novels and artwork relates to the Kims. “When I taught math problems, they would go like this,” said Chae Kyung-hee, who used to be a middle school teacher in North Korea and now runs a school for defectors in Seoul. “If you have this many of Kim Il Sung’s anti-Japanese fighters and this many Japanese soldiers, and x-many Japanese soldiers are killed. .?.?.”
There are 365 days’ worth of education materials, so every day teachers could say to their students, “On this day, Kim Il Sung went there, did that.” At age 7, all children must join the Children’s Union and a year later, they start Saturday “self criticism” sessions in which they must confess how they fell short of the “Ten Principles” that are the foundation of North Korea's ideology. These principles include requirements such as studying the “revolutionary ideas of Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung” as part of daily life.
North Korean Children Secretly Get Into Pop Music and Frozen Despite Brainwashing
University of Sydney doctoral student Christopher Richardson wrote PhD thesis explores about how the North Korean state has taken over education and children's culture, controlling the songs, films and games they enjoy, indoctrinating them to hate the U.S., Japan and South Korea and worship their leaders as soon as they reach kindergarten. But he also argues that the North Korea's Workers' Party's influence is less than it was and some children illegally watch Disney films — including “Frozen.” [Source: Jenny Awford, Daily Mail, October 18, 2015]
Richardson told the Daily Mail: 'From the moment children are born, the first words they are taught are words in worship of the Kim family. 'From the time they are in kindergarten they are taught to hate the United States, Japan, and South Korea, and they are taught to love the leaders. 'Childhood is perceived as a time to create revolutionary consciousness, national cohesion, ideological purity and reverence for Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. The state knows that its future depends on the young, so they are trying to win over the hearts and minds of children.'
Jenny Awford wrote in the Daily Mail: “He has examined more than 70 North Korean children's book and said it was 'extraordinary' that some of the leaders were credited as having written some of the fairy stories and fables. Kim Jong-il, the current supreme leader's father, is credited with writing 'Boys Wipe Out Bandits,' a story about the 'redemptive power of ultra-violence'.And Kim Il-sung, founder of the dynasty, is listed as the author of an anti-American fable called 'The Butterfly and the Cock'. 'In between trying to develop the world's largest army and create a nuclear program, I think it's extraordinary that the leaders have taken time out to oversee the writing of children's books. 'Of course a ghost writer is likely to have actually penned the books. But just image if David Cameron...were credited with writing children's books.'
“He said that in stark contrast to the West which has a cultural free market, the state controls book publishing in North Korea. 'There is a very small number of state owners publishers and all authors are state appointed. The idea of a celebrity author writing a book is unheard of.' The young are encouraged to join the North Korean Children's Union - which is the country's version of the Hitler Youth, according to Mr Richardson. They are brainwashed with state ideology and taught that they should be prepared to risk their own life to save the supreme leader.
“But despite the nation's oppression of free speech and thought, Mr Richardson argued that aspects of the western world were becoming more prevalent in North Korea. 'More and more children have started listening to pop music and watching Disney movies like Frozen. They are also tuning into South Korean soap operas. 'It is all happening behind closed doors. The problem is that is it just so seductive and the state is not sure how to deal with it. 'People are commenting on how in North Korean girl's skirts are getting shorter and children are walking around with Mickey Mouse backpacks in the capital.'
Participation of North Korean Kids in Mass Games
From Pyongyang, Associated Press reported: “Thousands of North Korean child performers move their arms and legs in perfect unison, leaving the impression they aren't human but smiling robots trained to dance and sing. North Koreans boast it takes only a few months to teach the 100,000 students to perform in the massive propaganda spectacle known as a ''mass game.'' But most of the children learn their skills from a young age as part of their indoctrination into the regime's cult of personality focusing on late ruler Kim Il Sung.” [Source: Bo-Mi Lim, Associated Press, Chicago Sun-Times,October 12, 2005]
The show in 2005 was six times between August 15 and October 12. It was the largest in three years, raising expectations that it “could signal a major policy announcement, such as the naming of a successor to current leader Kim Jong Il, son of Kim Il Sung. The North Korean leader attended a special performance on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the North's ruling Workers' Party. The massive celebrations in Pyongyang also included a military parade on Monday with thousands of soldiers.
''There is no word to describe the performance. You have to see it to feel the grandness,'' said Hyun Yung Ae, an official at the mass games organization committee. ''It is amazing to see our students learn to perform so well in such a short period of time,'' she said, adding that students had practiced ''just a few hours in the afternoon'' since April.
Across Pyongyang, ''art centers'' teach youths between the ages of 5 and 17 the techniques that are part of the show. At Mankyongdae Children's Palace, the biggest such center in the North Korean capital, dance teacher Kim Sung Hee said more than 5,000 students attend after-school classes daily in art, sports, science and computers. As South Korean tourists entered each classroom, groups of 20 students dutifully performed their specialties — playing the 12-stringed Korean traditional harp or accordions — without a single note out of sync. ''These children are great, great art performers,'' said Shin Young-kyo, a retired conductor for a children's choir in South Korea. ''But they are too good, I feel like I have just watched a group of machines. . . . Their performance doesn't have a touch of humanity.''
Growing up in North Korea During 1990s Famine
Mina Yoon escaped North Korea in 2010. During the 1990s, when around one million people died from starvation, she recalls how her family ate tree bark and rice roots to survive. She wrote in NK News, I lived in North Korea I never thought I was suffering from malnutrition – even though I was not very healthy at the time. Perhaps that is because everyone was in a similar situation. And I was shadowed by my younger sister, who suffered from critical malnutrition, so my health was not a concern. “Only when you lose all energy and end up in a sickbed do you realise that you haven’t eaten well. [Source: Mina Yoon for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, June 13, 2014]
“My little sister went to kindergarten then, and she occasionally collapsed just while walking on the street. Then one day even her eyesight started deteriorating. She could not see anything at night. She could not even pick up her rice bowl. My mother could not do anything but shed tears looking at her, and my father did not know because, as always, he was always away (with the military) and busy with work.
“My friends and I went out to hills and an open field nearby, and collected shepherd’s purse, an herb known in North Korea to be good for night blindness. My kindhearted friends poured the shepherd’s purse they collected all day long, which could have made a decent dinner soup for their hungry families, into my basket. However, even the kindness of my friends could not save my little sister. There was no progress in her condition, and my mother finally wrote a letter to my father who eventually managed to get pig’s liver and sent it to my mother. She steamed it and fed it to my sister with salt, and fortunately it worked. My sister gradually recovered her eyesight.
“At a time when a kernel of corn seemed more valuable than gold, I think the biggest victims were the little kids in North Korea. In my hometown, there was a little girl named Soon Yi. I often saw her drawing something with a broken branch on the ground, waiting for her dad, who was out to find something to feed her. Because she was four-years-old, the same age as my own little sister then, I was a bit attached to her. Then, one day, I woke up and heard the sad news that she had died. Her mother passed away when she was still a baby and her father was the only one who could find something to feed her. However, at that time, it was not easy to find food.”
During the famine “I had not grown at all....I had become bony. My face was white, covered with age spots and my hair had become rough and brittle. I looked shabby... Back then I suffered from severe vertigo. When I felt dizzy, I had to sit down for a while.”
“None of our family died of hunger. My father’s social status as a military officer was of no help, but we three children survived all this with our sick mother. I was the eldest, and I wanted to find anything to feed my little sister and brother, even little pieces of herbs. I sometimes went out wandering around hills and fields nearby with some of the old ladies in the village. As a nine-year-old girl, there was no herb that I didn’t know. I can still recognise all the herbs on the mountain. Fern, bracken fiddlehead, bonnet bellflower, Solomon’s seal, mountain wormwood, victory onion, clavaria, naematoloma… all of these now have become a memory of those times.
Summer Camp for Elite and Foreigners in North Korea
The Songdowon International Children's Camp in Wonsan has been set up to help young foreigners get acquainted with North Korea. Welcoming several hundred participants from countries like Russia, China, Vietnam, Ireland and Tanzania along with students the same age from North Korea, the government-subsidized camp features cooking, volleyball, swimming at a private beach, boating and access to a water slide. Accommodations is in air-conditioned rooms with video games. [Source: Olivia B. Waxman, Time, July 30, 2014]
Sophie Williams wrote in Quartz: “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 US$300 for a week of jolly, propaganda-heavy excitement. [Source: Sophie Williams, Quartz, August 9, 2016]
“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. Yet camp attendees enjoy luxurious dishes from a diverse range of national cuisines.
“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. 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.
“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.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021