Wonsan orphanage opened in late 2015 so we were very lucky to get a chance to visit during our trip to North Korea. Apparently, we were some of the first westerners to see it.
There were 2 newly renovated buildings. One is for babies and young toddlers aged 0-4 years old and the other was for 5-7 year olds.
There’s no denying that the facilities at this orphanage were incredible- pool, indoor play rooms with ball pits, bikes, loads of toys, a small theatre, dance room, an outdoor play area and more! Basically all the facilities were the same in each building, just some things were smaller/bigger to suit the ages of the children. We were really impressed by the orphanage itself but there were just a couple of things that worried us a little- especially the violent cartoons painted on the walls that depict children attacking American soldiers (read on for the pictures).
Outside the Orphanage
Upon arrival we were greeted by our guide who helps run the orphanage. We took off our shoes and washed our hands and they gave us slippers to wear. It was immaculately clean inside. Much like every location we had visited in North Korea, there was a room dedicated to pictures of Kim Jong Un on his visits to the orphanage as well as pictures of the renovation in progress like a mini museum.
Inside the Orphanage
The first building we entered was the 5-7 year old orphanage. The very first thing we did was make our way to a small theatre room with a little stage and watched a performance the children had prepared. The theatre had lots of small seats for children at the front and adult sized seating at the back which is where Josh, myself and our 3 Korean guides sat to watch the 15min show.
I really wish I had asked if I could record it because it was incredible ! I was too scared to get my camera out straight away due it being children. I thought they might not have allowed photography but they were happy for me to take pictures during the rest of the visit so I probably could’ve recorded the performance. Oh well, it will remain in my memory!
The children performed a mixture of song, dance and even some magic tricks. I have never seen anything like it in my life. This was no ordinary school performance. Every child could sing well. Nobody was out of time and everybody was full of expression and really animated as they sang. You could never in a million years get a bunch of English 5-7 year old school children to perform like this- there’d always be that one kid that’d be picking their nose instead of singing and everyone would be out of time. But not North Korean children, they were incredibly disciplined and not one of them stepped out of time.
I’m aware that there are quite a few countries in the world that train children to dance and sing well from an early age- I imagine it’s very similar in parts of China and I heard Russia is like it too. But this was the first time, aside from seeing the odd YouTube video, that I had seen something like this in real life. The children were all very smiley and happy and waved us off as we left but I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of discipline it takes to get children to perform like this.
After watching the performance, we were taken to a room where children were playing. Most of them were doing puzzles that seemed too difficult for their age group but we noticed that all of them were actually very good at it. All of the children were friendly but most were far too engrossed in their puzzle to pay much attention to us.
We noticed that there was a good mixture of kids toys but there was definitely a large amount of army and weapons based toys which you’ll see more of later in this blog from the baby and toddler orphanage.
The orphanage also had a small wading pool with showers and little cubbyholes for the swimming costumes and goggles (more photos of this later in the blog).
Kim Il Sung / Kim Jong Il Study Room
This is the room where the children are taught about the life of Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Un’s grandfather) and Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un’s father). The children learn about Kim Il Sung’s life and childhood and what he did for the country- they also learn some of the many songs written about him. I can imagine there is a room like this in every school in North Korea. It is clear from my visit to the orphanage that children are taught basically from birth about how ‘great’ their country and leaders are. There is no evidence of any other history being taught to the children aside from the life and work of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. It is no wonder people are ‘brainwashed’ into believing their country is perfect when it is instilled into their brain from such a young age.
The Dance Studio
Children learn to dance from a very young age. Although it looks much like a ballet studio, the children were learning a style of traditional Korean dance. Boys and girls were learning together.
The children’s dormitories were SO cute. Each child had their own bed and cubbyhole of clothes, shoes and even a separate cubbyhole for their toiletries. Everything was kept very neat by the orphanage staff.
Outdoor Play Area
We didn’t have the chance to get a close look at the outdoor play area since it was Winter and very cold outside so our guides didn’t want to stop for long. But we did notice the huge rockets, an army helmet, satellite and missile launchers built into the play area!
Next we entered the orphanage for babies and toddlers. We went into a room full of babies in walkers and I am not usually one to get all soppy around babies but these kids were adorable!
When we arrived the children were just having their lunch – in their PJ’s. Each child had a small sectioned plate and rice and a soup. Although I’m not too keen on Korean food myself it looked quite nice with good portion sizes. We were shown the area where food is prepared and it was very clean and hygienic.
Kim Il Sung Study Room
The 5-7 year olds had a playroom almost identical to this one I just forgot to take photographs because we were busy playing catch with some of the children! Because it was lunchtime this playroom was empty when we had a look around. Notice the huge amount of gun toys ! These are for 3/4 year olds!
Play Room 2
This room was for less active games like puzzles, books, building blocks and on the table in the photo is plastic foods with a plastic cutlery so the children can play ‘chef’.
North Korea has a strange obsession with triplets. Twins are considered to be special too but triplets get ‘extra special’ treatment. If you have triplets the government will send you gifts- a ring for girls and a silver knife for boys. We didn’t realise until our visit to the orphanage that the government also takes your children away to be cared for by the state! We entered a room that was only for these triplets (2 girls, 1 boy). When we asked if they too were orphans they told us,’no,their parents are alive and the dad works in the army’. They explained to us how the parents were ‘very lucky’ to have their children cared for here. I wasn’t so sure. We were shown a photograph of the proud parents and I asked if they visit very often. We were told that they do visit but I wasn’t so sure of that either.
Cartoons and Propaganda
Throughout most of our visit we were hugely impressed by the orphanage and its facilities. I’ve never said the word ‘cute’ so many times in the space of an hour! However every so often we would see something where we’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s not so cute.’
The large amount of military based toys was one thing – but even my little brother and I used to play with toy guns when we were little. But then we saw these cartoons- violent cartoons- that depicted children attacking US soldiers. It made me realise that these innocent children are being taught to hate. On top of this they are being told this violence is OK towards your ‘enemies.’ It was quite upsetting and disturbing to see.
Another cartoon depicted a child saluting and holding a gun. Sadly, these children will have no choice but to join the army for a couple of years as it is mandatory in North Korea. So they get it into their mind set early on that you should aspire to join the army and it is seen as an honour.
The two pictures I’ve included here are of the worst ones we saw but there were others. I was worried my guide would ask me to delete them so I got these pictures without anyone noticing but there wasn’t an opportunity to take a photo of every single one. Just to make it even stranger, amongst the violent cartoons there were paintings of Winnie the Pooh and other Disney characters like Pinocchio and Peter Pan.
Visiting this orphanage was one of the most interesting experiences of the trip. But it did leave me with questions. As far as we were aware all of the children were orphans except the triplets. But what had happened to so many of the parents? How did they die? Are there many more orphaned children in DPRK unable to get a place at this luxury school? We were not able to get answers.
For more on my visit to North Korea please see my other blogs.