Photos of a simpler time ... in North Korea

Retro DPRK is a blog that collects images of North Korea from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Getting into North Korea from the United States and Western Europe is not easy today. But up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was even more difficult. If you weren't also from a Communist country, chances were good that you weren't going to get even a glimpse of the place.

But, at the same time, North Korea was also promoting itself through propaganda, and as a tourist destination for citizens of the USSR. Christopher Graper — who leads tours into North Korea today from Canada — has scanned scenes from postcards and tourism brochures — rare peeks into the little-documented history of a secretive country.

The collection blends familiar scenes that wouldn't look terribly different from American advertisements of the same era with an amusingly odd sensibility (who wouldn't want a whole book of postcards documenting every detail of Pyongyang's new gymnasium?) and quietly disconcerting scenes like the one above, where a seaside resort town appears eerily empty — like a theme park before opening time.

Retro DPRK

Thanks for pointing me toward this, Gidjlet!


    1. Yes, I sat through the whole of this documentary and loved the presentation.  It’s good to look at one’s own country through a different lens.

  1. Vacationing in North Korea strikes me as similar to vacationing in Dubai, except not as much fun. In Dubai at least, while you still have to follow a set of laws that would make Pol Pot blush, at least you don’t have to be constantly accompanied by security and a propaganda official to make sure you don’t wander off the path of what the government wants you to see.

    1. Now, now.  I live in the UAE, just up the road from our own little sin city, Dubai, and I’m here to tell you: I’d rather visit Pyongyang.  It’s true you can drink and whore around pretty much to your heart’s content (you only have to follow those laws when there are locals – at least locals who aren’t drinking and whoring with with you – around, which isn’t often since they’re less than 10% of the population). 

      That aside, it’s a horrible, horrible place – the world’s worst combination of slave labor and gold lamé, wrapped up in sanctimonious faux-piety and replete with racism that would strike George Wallace as a little over the top.  At least in the DPRK, you wouldn’t go in with many illusions…

  2. “…quietly disconcerting scenes like the one above, where a seaside resort town appears eerily empty…”

    Google satellite views of Pyongyang also show a remarkably empty city – very little traffic and no noticeable crowds.

      1. “Comrade”? I’m not a communist. I’m just telling you that it is easy to enter North-Korea by use of a travel agency. Of course, when you enter NK you are not allowed to bring your phone inside. You can’t travel freely in the city, only in a group with three minders.

        But there is still no problem of going to North-Korea. Was a lot of tourists there at the same time as me. Check out the Wikitravel-page for tips on what travel agencys to use.

    1. I have a number of friends who went there this year and would have gone myself if I thought it was worth the money (it’s not that much, about $500 for a week’s tour). I also know an American friend based in China who is looking into expanding his business into the economic development zone there. It’s much more difficult to go if you’re South Korean, but Malaysians seem to have very few problems (they don’t even need a visa, apparently).

  3. The fact was that the DPRK actually was a nicer, more prosperous place than it is now, with both China and the USSR subsidizing it heavily.  And really, until the past couple of decades, it probably was a nicer place than South Korea was at the time. Yes, it was then as now an oppressive dictatorship where it was easy to get jailed for being anti-government, but so was South Korea.

  4. There’s a Cold War novel just waiting to be written about a group of Cuban and Angolan merchants marine whose free accommodations in the Chongjin Foreign Seamen’s Club turn out to be not so free after all. And when the promised Soviet oil tanker fails to arrive in port . . .

    1. Adding . . .

      “Day 37. The game room. Ping-pong. It’s always ping-pong. Zé-Zé said, “The Soviets will be here soon, and we can go home.” Somehow my ping-pong ball found the bridge of his nose, and blood ensued. When our hosts had restored order, we were offered conciliatory gifts, elegantly wrapped in tissue paper and presented on lacquered trays. The Angolan got tobacco and sugar, and I received chocolate and palm oil. It has been over a month, and our cargoes have been unloaded and catalogued, but nothing has left the port of Chongjin. The palm oil is a wonderful salve against the cold.”

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