Summer 1978: An Evening Of Modernist Theater in North Korea

New photos at RetroDPRK.com reveal scenes from the Song of Paradise Revolutionary Opera
February 22nd, 2013
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by Christopher Graper

What was life like on the other side during the Cold War? That question motivates much of my own interest in the DPRK. Traveling to the country is the best way to learn about a part of history closed to the West for nearly 60 years. It is a rare and fragile opportunity to see how people lived under a very different set of ideas about political, economic and social organisation.

But what was it like in the heady years of socialism, the 1970s? This was a period when North Korea’s GDP was almost the same as South Korea’s, with socialist bloc countries working together fora common good at full force. Now for the first time these postcards of the North Korean musical “Song of Paradise” show just how North Koreans wanted others to see themselves at the time, providing fascinating clues about the belief in socialist virtues.

In accord with socialist realist narrative tropes of the time, in “Songs of Paradise” our protagonists travel from Mt Paekdu to Pyongyang, admiring the achievements in socialist construction with a camera in tow. Steel factories, sacred and mythical mountains, apple farming – it’s all there. Though the expression is different, it is very much the same sort of good natured, modernist hokum that was prevalent throughout the Western world of the 1950s and 60s. Think Disneyland — or better yet, Duffland — and you’re are in the same ideological era. In short, everything has got a creepy Pat Boon-ish quality to it.

Today we view the era and these “modern” tropes with irony. But what’s different, and this is worth understanding, is that North Koreans do not hold any such irony about these historical narratives. And it’s only tourists to the country who begin to see and understand this phenomena, in a way that is simply impossible to fully understand from the outside.

For more great vintage photos, please visit RetroDPRK.com. With thanks to Christopher Graper.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.

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