Glimpses: Aram Pan’s DPRK 360 Project

January 25, 2014 7:00 AM

We have been hard on photo essays on North Korea. The idea behind many is that by taking pictures, we can capture the “true North Korea.” Given that virtually all photographers—with few exceptions—are closely monitored, it is not surprising that the amount of “truth” allowed is bounded at the outset.

We now have a particularly naïve version of the genre in Aram Pan’s DPRK 360 project, a set of 360 degree panoramas shot in North Korea. The photos themselves are not particularly interesting. The picture of Galma Beach in Wonsan is—well, a picture of a beach that could pretty much be anywhere.

What is disturbing is Pan’s willingness to extol the regime’s authoritarian monumentalism. Pan is worth quoting on the project’s objective: “all attempts will be made so as not address any past, present or future political issues that may be sensitive. The purpose of this project is to encourage understanding of the country and uncover the mysteries that lay hidden.”

So what do we get to see that shuns “past, present or future political issues” and (thus?) reveals the “mysteries that lay hidden”? A short list of the highlights will suffice: the Arirang Mass Games, an appalling paean to totalitarianism; the Chongsan-ri Cooperative Farm, a Potemkin village that Pan characterizes as “a farm known throughout the country as the ideal model of DPRK farming technique”; the 'Tower of Juche Idea' (“the very symbol of the Juche Principle which focuses on self reliance. This can be summed up in one statement, 'Man is the master of everything and decides everything.'”); Lake Samilpo, in the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, where the North Koreans expropriated South Korean investments after killing a tourist at the resort in cold blood in 2007; the Mangyongdae Childrens’ Palace, “created to nurture the talents of children selected from across North Korea.” In fact, the children of North Korea continue to suffer from extraordinarily high levels of malnutrition, as we and others have documented at length. Maybe we missed it, but we didn’t see many North Koreans in Pan’s photographs. Too sensitive?

Do we need to continue? North Korea does not survive because of its foreign apologists. But they hardly “uncover the mysteries that lay hidden.”


Rev. Eric Foley

Great post, Stephan. As Kim Suk-Young's Illusive Utopia and Kwon and Chung's North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics remind us, there is nothing in North Korea that is outside of "past, present, or future political issues"--by design.


Stephan, your piece of North Korean children "continued suffering from extraordinary levels of malnutrition" - forget it.
You know we are in 2014 now.


@Roland, your point being what? Things have changed since 2013?


Michael, things have changed a lot since 1998. Hard times from 1994-1998 especially in the North East (South West did better)have passed away. It´s time to abandon stereotypes and look onto reality.


Roland, food insecurity is still a problem - perhaps not to the same extent, but every study undertaken shows it's still a problem. Again, what is the problem in highlighting that?


Much-needed debunking of the logical fallacy of "see past the political issues to the 'truth' of North Korea" type reports. Thank you!


Roland: Most recent summary of nutritional status of North Korean children can be found in the last World Food Program food security assessment; our discussion of the report is here: SH


Thanks Stephan, I was aware of that report.
But as you know, access of those people is very limited and sample of interogations not representaive. Results are disputed and in doubts.

Adam Cathcart

In case anyone has missed it, this post was written up / analyzed further by Jonathan Cheng in Wall Street Journal's "Korea Real Time" report.

Chad NK News

Sure, there are lots of generic photo albums taken by tourists going to North Korea but you can't deny this panorama project is something unique and new. What's more, these photos are interesting for people who want to get an on-the-ground sense of scale for the propaganda and monuments dotted all over North Korea. Where else can they do that? Through grainy Google Maps pictures? No one is going to be able to go and take this standard of photography without permission, so not sure the point of this attack on the “naïve” photographer. More so given the photographer doesn't claim to be offering any type of secret "glimpse" into the real North Korea and is quite up front about what he's doing.

Andrew Logie

I'm glad you've called out this site. The guy is probably well-meaning and/or stupid but it reeks of, if being generous, inadvertent foreigner-made propaganda. 360 degree photos, at least, are a nice way to reflect the bubble in which one has to choose to reside in order to maintain that fuzzy feeling of "friendship and trust" he believes he is developing with the DPRK.

Joshua Stanton

Chad, I think Stephan's point is that Pan is representing his pictures to be something they are not -- "the true North Korea." Nor do they "uncover the mysteries that lay hidden." For that, you're stuck with grainy Google Maps imagery. Or, you can look at the Flickr page of Eric Lafforgue, whose work really does make a credible effort to show all aspects of North Korea, including its propaganda monuments, its gritty apartment blocks, and the stifling poverty of its rural population. In fact, Lafforgue's work just about lives up to Pan's claims. Furthermore, when Pan claims to be avoiding politics while casting an approving and compliant lens on the regime's political monuments, he's also being disingenuous. Then, he lazily waves away messy questions about the social responsibility of his work. It may have occurred to him that no one really remembers Leni Riefenstahl for her cinematography anymore. Whether you find Pan's pictures worth looking at depends on your subjective interest in that sort of thing. They're pretty pictures, but they don't reveal anything new. Guttenfelder and any number of others have captured the scale of the propaganda just as well. It's a case of "same leash, different dogs" to me. I've been looking at pictures of the same dreary monuments for a decade now. Imagine how tiresome it must be to live among them.

Chuang Shyue Chou

I wonder if there are smuggled images of the forbidden North Korea, images of the savagery and repression.


I don't believe Americans, and many claimed to be academics, are so dense. From the few comments above, it only shows that your minds are completely closed and would only want to see a barren piece of waste land in North Korea with skin and bone natives that are starving to death. Like what Joshua Stanton said. You chose to see what you want to see and refuse to see anything that is different. I am a Singaporean who have nothing to do with the North Koreans. So is this innocent young man Aram who is as stupid as some of the harsh critics of his article. Good riddance. Stop behaving and thinking like hillbillies.


Fair enough, Josh. "I’ve been looking at pictures of the same dreary monuments for a decade now. Imagine how tiresome it must be to live among them." That's how I felt living in DC!

Joshua Stanton

Well, that's something else we can agree on.


Thanks to all of you for reading our blog. My point is simple: photographs--indeed all art--exists in a social frame. Photographs do not "speak for themselves." They are taken by photographers who choose the objects and people they want to capture. They constitute narratives. Mr. Pan makes two claims that struck me as dubious. The first was that his photos eschewed politics, when in fact they included numerous pictures of monuments constructed by the regime with very particular political objectives. Second, Mr. Pan claimed that his photos revealed the "mysteries that lie beneath" about North Korea. But there is no such thing as "the" truth about North Korea; pictures of starving children are no less incomplete a picture than photos of monuments. Mr. Pan contributes his piece, but overclaims for it. I also want to correct something in John Cheng's otherwise informative blog at the WSJ ( Marcus and I do not take a dim view of travel to North Korea; if anything, our mantra is "get people in, get people out." However, we do take a dim view of one common theme in the North Korean travel industry: the self-congratulatory idea that tourism to North Korea is in some way a progressive act. If contact is made that humanizes foreigners, all for the good. But it is also the case that the regime is targeting tourism as a source of foreign exchange, as in the case of Masik Pass. People are free to make their own tradeoffs; if we could go to North Korea, we probably would. Needless to say, we are hardly welcome. But deal with North Korea with eyes wide open, please. Again, thanks for reading our blog. SH

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