What its really like to be a child in North Korea

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:

20 PHOTOS
Children in North Korea
See Gallery
Children in North Korea

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.

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 

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

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 

SourceHuman 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.

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Sourceearth 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.

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj 

SourceCNN

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

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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.

 REUTERS/Kyodo 

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.

 REUTERS/KCNA 

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.

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

SourceWashington 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.

REUTERS/Kyodo 

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

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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.

 REUTERS/Jacky Chen 

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.

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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.

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

SourceAbandoned Kansai

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

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

SourceAbandoned Kansai

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

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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

 REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

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

REUTERS/David Gray

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.

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.