Unless you’re Dennis Rodman, getting a peek into the notoriously secretive totalitarian state of North Korea may seem impossible.
But thanks to a project undertaken by 37-year-old freelance photographer Aram Pan, it's possible to get a 360-degree glimpse into scenes from inside North Korea.
In the countryside, Pan shot scenes from the Mount Kumgang tourist region, which was closed to South Korean tourists in 2007.
On his website, Pan explained that he started the DPRK 360 project (in which DPRK stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to "encourage understanding of the country and uncover the mysteries that lay hidden."
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However, critics argue that since Pan traveled with the official permission of North Korea's state-owned travel agency — Korea International Travel Company — the images offer a very limited scope of what life is like in the country.
In a blog post for Washington’s Peterson Institute for International Economics, Stephan Haggard, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, criticized Pan’s DPRK 360 project for being particularly “naive.”
Haggard argued that the amount of “truth” that Pan’s photographs can capture is “bounded at the outset” by the regime, which gave the photography project a green light.
Pan’s images depict seemingly ordinary scenes of daily life: a mundane strip of coastline, where beachgoers play volleyball and wade into the ocean, an amusement park filled with people waiting to ride roller coasters, commuters milling around a metro station, and young, smiling girls practicing choreography in a large dance studio.
There's no peek of the horrific human rights violations North Korea is accused of: public executions, prison camps, torture and child starvation. And there's no sign of societal problems such as widespread drug use, particularly methamphetamine abuse.
Pan told The Wall Street Journal that he was not a communist and had no political prerogatives in taking on this task, nor did he have any special ties with North Korea prior to his trip last August.
Although Pan insisted he wasn’t paid for the project, the WSJ reported that the tour agency, which paid for most of his travel, has diplomatic ties with North Korea.
In the October issue of National Geographic photographer David Guttenfelder and reporter Tim Sullivan set out to document spontaneous moments of daily life in North Korea, attempting to push beyond the carefully crafted image propagated by Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Sullivan characterized the challenges behind this undertaking perfectly: “Inside North Korea’s tightly controlled society, the truth is rarely simple.”
Here are some of Guttenfelder's images from last year: