I stayed at a North Korean summer camp. We polished statues and played a game where we destroyed the White House. (2024)

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Yuri Frolov, 25, who in 2015 and 2016 attended North Korea's Songdowon International Children's Camp, which some Russian children will attend this summer. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

When I was a kid, I remember watching a TV documentary about North Korea. Although I was very young, my perception of the country was that it was under siege by its capitalist neighbors.

I knew little; I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

I tried to find more information, so I subscribed to a group called "Solidarity with North Korea" on VKontakte — Russia's equivalent to Facebook.

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The Communist Party of the Russian Federation offered members of the group a chance to go to a North Korean children's summer camp for about $300.

That included food, accommodation, all the facilities, plane tickets, and everything else — really cheap for a 15-day trip.

I saw it as an opportunity to see North Korea for myself, so I asked my parents, who agreed to send me to Songdowon.

I traveled alone from St. Petersburg, where I grew up, to Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia, where I joined a group of other children and some Communist Party officials. At 15, I was one of the oldest; the others were 9, 10, and 11.

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I was probably the only one traveling to North Korea to see this dystopia. The others seemed to see it as a chance to go to the beach or play in the playground inexpensively.

I stayed at a North Korean summer camp. We polished statues and played a game where we destroyed the White House. (1)

First, we spent two days in Pyongyang, where we were constantly supervised.

We visited many places, including Kim Il Sung Square and the war museum where they displayed captured American vehicles and the USS Pueblo, the American ship that was seized by the North Koreans in the 1960s.

They kept pushing us into supermarkets so we'd spend money.

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What was funny was that it was really easy to buy vodka and cigarettes.

Kids in our group, some as young as 12, bought North Korean rice vodka, brought it back to the camp, and got extremely drunk on the first couple of nights.

I stayed at a North Korean summer camp. We polished statues and played a game where we destroyed the White House. (2)

Upon arriving at Songdowon, the staff was very welcoming, cheering us on while they stood in a long line.

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About five buses of children arrived. Though most of us were Russian, there were also groups of children from Laos, Nigeria, Tanzania, and China.

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However, the North Korean children in the camp were quite segregated from us, and we only met them once on our last day.

I think that was deliberate, preventing them from talking with us about their experiences.

The summer camp had many activities, such as beach outings, sandcastle-building competitions, and swimming. But it also had some really weird rituals.

We had to clean statues of North Korea's former leaders. One morning, we woke up at 6 a.m. to clean the monuments of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

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We didn't have sponges or anything — we were just brushing off the dust, even though the monuments were cleaned professionally every week. It was strange.

We also had to participate in concerts, singing propaganda songs in Korean about North Korea's Supreme Leaders, using lyric sheets translated into Russian.

I stayed at a North Korean summer camp. We polished statues and played a game where we destroyed the White House. (3)

They tried to brainwash us in many ways. We played a computer game where your character, a hamster in a tank, had to destroy the White House.

One kid became so indoctrinated afterward that he joined the Communist Party in Russia and was always posting about North Korea.

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For me, it didn't work — the propaganda was too straightforward.

Also, I was too frustrated with the strict schedule to be brainwashed. For example, when I was sick, they wouldn't let me skip early-morning exercise.

The food was also really bad. The only things I could eat were rice, wedges, and bread.

I lost about 11 pounds in 15 days, even though I was already skinny.

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After leaving, I craved capitalist food so badly that I bought three Burger King burgers, two large fries, and a cola. It was impossible to eat all that, but I just wanted it so bad.

Despite the boring, miserable, and overly controlled experience, I returned the next year. I don't like confrontation, and the Communist Party officials had already signed me up, so I went again.

It was a stupid decision to return, and I don't know why my parents let me go, but I'd totally do it again.

I can easily make friends just by talking about my experiences — people just want to hear about North Korea.

I stayed at a North Korean summer camp. We polished statues and played a game where we destroyed the White House. (2024)
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