Stunning photos reveal what childhood in North Korea is really like

source
KCNA/Reuters

Childhood is a precious time in human life, so it can be jarring to see kids working in fields or blindly supporting dictators.

But if you’re one of the 5.3 million children under the age of 14 in North Korea, that’s the reality of growing up.

Kids learn to love the country’s grisly history, from its founder, Kim Il Sung, all the way to its present ruler, Kim Jong Un. They may learn popular art forms like music and illustration, but it’s often in the pursuit of promoting the country’s political will.

Here’s what it’s like to grow up in the most secretive country on Earth.


From an early age, kids living outside the capital city of Pyongyang are made to work on North Korean farms. Forced labor accounts for a large portion of the country’s economic output.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Some reports have stated that workers who don’t comply can be sent to concentration camps as punishment.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Source: Human Rights Watch


In less developed regions, the trek to school can be fraught with construction projects and dangerous terrain. School buses, when villages have them, are often repurposed dump trucks.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Source: earth nutshell


For those without parents, life in North Korean orphanages can be especially brutal. Even the children who get adopted risk rejection later in life if their parents can’t support themselves.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Source: CNN


Meanwhile, families that have a bit more money can afford small luxuries, like traditional North Korean clothes.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

But money doesn’t free a family from political obligations. Many still worship the country’s leaders and make regular trips to the national monuments that honor them, children in tow.

source
Reuters

Often, students will be forced to visit the national monuments to pay their respects to the country’s leaders.

source
Reinhard Krause/Reuters

Last June, Kim Jong Un organized a performance titled, “We Are the Happiest in the World” — a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Korean Children’s Union.

source
KCNA/Reuters

Indoctrination starts even earlier, however — sometimes in kindergarten. Young kids learn anti-American messages and use toy rifles and grenades to attack cartoon images of soldiers.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Source: Washington Post


On International Children’s Day, a mock military parade in the capital city of Pyongyang features kids dressed up as members of the North Korean army.

source
Reuters

The conditions inside schools aren’t always sanitary. One kindergarten is located inside the Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang textile mill.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

But such is the nature of inequality in North Korea. Families that don’t live in poverty can give their kids a better chance at fun, joy-filled upbringings.

source
Jacky Chen/Reuters

For instance, some of the most high-achieving children train at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, a facility that provides lessons in foreign languages, computing skills, and sports.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Some have described Mangyongdae as supremely strange. One visitor to an art class never saw the kids actually touch pen to paper, despite the professional-level illustrations presented before them.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Source: Abandoned Kansai


Run by the Korean Youth Corps, Mangyongdae reportedly accommodates up to 5,400 children at a time in its massive concrete building.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Source: Abandoned Kansai


Their performances are grandiose extensions of the North Korean cult of personality. Themes of honor and greatness are pervasive throughout.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

During a performance for foreign journalists in May of 2016, for instance, many of the choral, dance, and acrobatic routines had heavy political undertones.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Nevertheless, coercion and fear-mongering come quickly in adulthood. People’s childhood years may be their only opportunity to live somewhat care-free.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

The children aren’t old enough to understand the propaganda they’re being fed or know how deplorable their living conditions are.

source
Jacky Chen/Reuters

It only lasts a short while, but childhood may be the time when North Koreans have the most in common with the rest of the world.

source
Damir Sagolj/Reuters