Aram Pan Goes to North Korea

We reported on Aram Pan in the past: an energetic young Singaporean and photographer who, accidentally, kind of fell in love with North Korea. Right, the hermit regime where no one dares to travel to. Must admit, travelled to North Korea twice and it was a unique experience. Now Aram Pan is a North Korea expert meanwhile. We spoke with him about his work and North Korea in general, and share some of his extraordinary work. Most fascinating stuff! You sure have never seen North Korea like this before — and sure never imagined to see it like this.

Aram, how did it all start with your North Korean adventures?

I stumbled into this project quite by chance. I’ve been photographing 360° virtual tours since 2007. Yes, the technology’s been around even longer, before all the present hype. My company Plus 720‘s focus has been primarily on interior and architectural work. I was planning to take a trip somewhere to do a little photography just to refresh myself. I looked around the Internet for somewhere interesting to go… Bhutan, India, Iran, then North Korea. It was back in 2012 and a quick Google search yielded only images of their military, their leaders and a state buildings. The first thing I thought, “There’s got to be more than this.”

Aram Pan’s 360° photography in North Korea has meanwhile grown into one of the probably largest photography and video databases on the reclusive nation.

I’ve always wondered about the mysterious North Korea and have occasionally watched news or movies related to them, but there’s no clear impression of what it’s like there. I wanted to take a trip there to capture several 360° panoramas and I wanted to make sure that what I did wouldn’t get me into any trouble. The general consensus was that everything is extremely strict over there and foreigners are forbidden from taking any photographs. I figured that if I was going to do this, I should get some kind of official permission. I wrote a simple one-page explanation stating I wanted to take 360° photos of their country and sought their permission. I then searched the Internet for all the North Korean embassy contacts across Asia and sent that request to them via fax and/or email.

Fast forward over a month later, I had received no reply and had already given up. I still remember clearly the day it all happened. It was the morning after some late night work. I had slept at 4 a.m. the previous night and woken up much later than usual. I was at home sipping a cup of coffee when my mobile phone rang… Hmmm… An unrecognized Singapore number. Now bear in mind I was barely awake for 10 minutes and the caffeine hadn’t kicked in yet. I answered the phone and this is what transpired.

“Good morning, is this Mr. Aram Pan?”, said a deep voice with an accent I’ve never heard before. My sleepy brain was scrambling to try and process his accent.

“This is Mr. (I didn’t get his name) from the DPRK Embassy to Singapore regarding your request for 360 photography,” continued the deep accented voice. It took me a further two seconds of mental processing before I asked “I’m sorry, what’s DPRK and where are you from?”

There was a silence for a moment before he said, “North Korea.”

(Note: DPRK stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)

Right about then was the moment my morning caffeine kicked in and immediately I was apologetic and proceeded to arrange a meeting.

That was the beginning of everything. I visited the DPRK Embassy in Singapore, showed them the most recent 360° images I had just done in Israel and Greece, and they said they have no issues with such photography.

I finally made my first trip in August 2013. Since then, I’ve been there a total of 15 times.

I’ve even conducted my own North Korea Photography Tour in 2015, gathering 16 photographers from Singapore and Malaysia, with everyone snapping out in the open! No need to hide.

How is it to travel to North Korea and in the country?

Before deciding to visit North Korea, one must remember that North Korea has laws just like any other country and jail terms are generally quite severe. Crimes such as trespassing, stealing and vandalism are absolutely not tolerated and will earn you a “long term stay.” Then there are also “special considerations” that are similar to other countries that you must take note of.

For example, proselytizing is banned in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Burma. North Korea is no different. So if you are going with the intention to steal a souvenir or spread religion, I would strongly suggest you refrain from such acts. Other considerations are that North Korea considers itself still under a semi-state of war, therefore national security takes precedence over everything else. Items that are deemed a possible threat to their national security will be detained at the customs inspection and a receipt given to you. You may collect your detained items with the receipt upon exit. Such items include GPS devices, Wi-Fi routers and satellite phones.

Visiting North Korea is easier than most people think. The only people banned from entering are South Koreans. Few realize that Americans are actually welcomed and shown extra hospitality, in an effort to try and smooth relations. I’ve seen it first hand all the time. Korean Americans perhaps get the best treatment of all as the North Koreans would eagerly chat away with them in Korean and even sit next to them for the entire trip.

The most common way to visit DPRK is via a travel agency officially appointed by the North Korean government. These travel agencies will settle all procedures to get you into the country and out, including visas, flights, trains and if you’re adventurous enough, even walking in via the China / DPRK border.

Aram Pan’s group selfie in North Korea

Describe life there a bit — food, hotels, the people.

North Korea evolved without much foreign intervention for 70 years. As such, their culture, manners and way of life are very different from what most people will be familiar with. Take for example advertising, something so prevalent all over the world, yet advertising is only making a more frequent appearance in recent years and only within the shops themselves. North Koreans therefore generally have no desire for ownership of big branded goods simply for their perceived value. They are aware of brands like Chanel, Burberry and Elle, not because of the desire to own them as a status symbol, but because China exports bootlegged versions to them at rock bottom prices.

I find the people are simple, hardworking and friendly. Children and young people are always curious of foreigners and will readily interact with you. This is a group selfie I shot with a bunch of students along the streets of Chongjin, North Hamgyong province:

I had my Fujifilm Instax printer and printed five photos for them. I ran out of film and they wanted more.

Time stands still in North Korea. The architecture and fashion is reminiscent of the 80s’ to 90s’ style. Check out this fashion show I attended:

As for the hotels, they are very clean and generally equivalent to our 3-star rating, with the exception of a few that have been upgraded to 4-stars in recent years. Visitors may find the free “standard meals” provided on tour to be lacking in variety, so I suggest you request your North Korean guides to take the group to detour to some of the cafés, restaurants and food courts frequented by the locals.

Such a detour of course would mean that the meals would cost extra but it’s well worth the experience. Check out my video that’s a compilation of all the additional places that I dined in 2015:

Doesn’t look like food shortage…

Right… And this is the latest one at a local food court:

Perhaps the only people who will experience any difficulty with food are strict Muslims and religious vegetarians. I mention “strict” because halal food requires special preparation techniques in order to be truly certified as halal. There are no halal certified eating places in North Korea, as they do not have the means to complete the true halal requirements from start to finish. The best they can achieve is to have the local chef avoid the use of pork or other forbidden ingredients. The same goes for religious vegetarians.

You enjoy total freedom with your photography?

I am accorded a much higher level of freedom to photograph around North Korea but still there are restrictions that I have to abide by. These fall generally into two categories, national security and leadership respect. I cannot photograph any military installations I see along the way or military that is deemed sensitive. Being a country that’s militarily on a perpetual standby, visitors will have a chance to see military movements. Photographing such movements are strictly prohibited. If you are caught doing so, the guide will request very nicely and firmly that you delete the photo.

The other restriction is tied to the respect of their leaders. Foreigners will be reminded constantly to photograph any image or statue of their leaders straight and complete from head to toe so as not to crop any part of them. This isn’t a rule or law but something deeply ingrained in their culture. You won’t get into any trouble if you do zoom in for a cropped shot but I’d personally rather not.

In recent years, North Korea has relaxed much more of their photography restrictions and many tourists have been very happy snapping away. They have also opened up the option for aerial photography over Pyongyang, and if you’re willing to shell out the extra bucks you can take a flight around the capital in a helicopter or light plane:

Flying over Pyongyang:

Or have a look at my Aerial Photography over Pyongyang album. In September 2016 they even opened up their Wonsan Air Festival to photographers and aviation enthusiasts from all over the world. There were 300 foreigners, including Americans and Japanese (supposedly arch enemies of the DPRK) that attended that event, and everyone got thousands of photos of military and civilian aircraft. Here’s my video on the air festival:

Would you make the case that photography can be a way to bring people and cultures together and overcome prejudices?

Before I visited North Korea, my impression of them was that everybody there were brainwashed drones who were ready to go to war at the drop of a hat. I was mildly afraid when I first landed and my heart was racing. Instead I discovered an entirely different culture and reality. There’s a lot going on in North Korea that the world doesn’t see. The world is so hyped up with the constant news of imminent war with them. But that’s the way the news is.

Ordinary stuff that goes on in everyday life doesn’t make the news. My project captures the mundane, everyday things around the country. When you can see the North Korean people for who they really are, then you’ll realize like I have that they are not much different from us and given the chance, would much rather not go to war and just continue quietly with their daily life.

Armed with this knowledge, I feel that outreach and dialog mixed in with a good amount of patience and perseverance will produce a better result than automatically choosing the option for war. Humans always fear what they do not understand and right now, I feel that this misunderstanding goes both ways. What I can do for now is just to continue capturing everyday scenes in North Korea. It’s a project that’ll continue for as long as I have the means and the support from sponsors.

What did you learn from North Korea and its people?

When I saw how the complete lack of advertising over the decades produced a nation that isn’t locked into the endless cycle of consumerism, I started to re-think and simplify my own life. The one thing that immediately happened was that I lost the constant desire for the newest and latest gadgets.

+++ For more on Aram Pan and his work, please visit his North Korea photography projects on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and his website with 360° images, with high-res GigaPan panoramas and much more.

  • right_writes

    I would be willing to bet that the only people that we see in those video’s apart from the tour party, are NPRK party members with rank.

    Where is everyone?

    I would guess that they are indoors until the local police say that it is OK to step outside again…

    Political establishments across the world would all dearly like to have such a frightened and compliant “people”, particularly those that have just recently received democratic votes that the establishment parties can’t cope with.

    Can Aram Pan go to Switzerland next? Just to see how FREE people live.

  • Sure freedom is relative. Nevertheless North Korea is changed from what it was around the turn of the millennium. There are tremendous gaps in society, but Chinese goods are flowing over the border, first hints of market economy attempts, more food and more choices. Not a free place, yet sure not as evil and one huge prison camp as media commonly report it without having any clue what’s going on inside the country.

  • North Korea does restrict the freedom of tourists as you’ll always be accompanied by a tour guide. However if you get along with the guides and don’t keep telling them about how great your own country is compared to theirs, you’ll open them up and find that they are actually very curious about the outside world and not only can you have meaningful conversations with them, you can even request detours from the usual tour itinerary and have some fun:

    The residents in Pyongyang, are a mix of people at various levels of society. Poor and rich. There is a misconception caused by the media that only the elite live in Pyongyang. What the media doesn’t talk about are the growing number of North Korean businessmen that work and live all around the northeastern provinces doing trade with china. Already, 10% of the population now uses mobile phones (Official figures cited by Orascom, the Egyptian telecommunications company supplying mobile services to North Korea) and their economy is changing. Based on what I have witnessed, I feel they are already no longer a pure socialist economy.

  • Not denying that North Korea is repressive, a Potemkin country for visitors. Iran’s a similar topic, hardly understood. I also traveled Iran, beautiful place, magnificent people, can only be experienced when not seen through the layers of mainstream media propaganda. Check out this trailer:

  • Passageways

    Try standing outside a U S military installation and taking photographs.

  • Sam

    Hi, blogs included in this site could potentially be appended to your main page :-)

  • Thanks for this Sam. A peculiar list in many ways. Some sites mostly promote product referrals and don’t produce unique content. THEME’s list is pretty conclusive and elaborate, at least that’s my humble opinion. Added Robin Wong though, long overdue!