Amazing 360-degree panoramic images show new sides of North Korea

Story highlights

  • Curious about North Korea, Aram Pan was invited to take panoramic images and videos of the country
  • Pan's most memorable day involved a visit to a local market in Rason
  • His work attracts both sides of the anti-capitalism and anti-socialism debate

(CNN)Like many of us, Singaporean photographer Aram Pan is curious about North Korea.

Unlike most of us, he actually decided to contact the secretive country directly with a proposal for a photography project there.
    "I faxed and emailed various North Korean contacts that you can easily find online and after about a month or so, someone contacted me," says Pan.
    "We met up and I got approval... just like that."
    As a full-time photographer with a penchant for panoramic shots, Pan has visited North Korea six times, capturing it in over 60 panoramic stills and 360-degree full-motion videos.

    "You bring what three journalists carry"

    (Drag the screen around with your mouse to see the various angles of this 360-degree video.)
    The panoramic stills are high resolution, high quality photos that offer a spherical view.
    Pan says they're shot using a DSLR then stitched together in post-production.
    He also uses an Entaniya 360 video capture system to employ multiple cameras to shoot panoramic videos.
    That's a lot of luggage -- especially when North Korea's national airline strictly limits travelers to 20 kilograms.
    Pan says one customs officer even told him: "I have seen many media people, you bring what three journalists carry."
    "My heaviest load was three DSLRs with five lenses, one broadcast quality video cam, one handycam, three GoPros, one iPhone, two regular tripods, one eight-meter-tall tripod extension, a laptop and a whole lot of batteries and chargers," says Pan.
    The full results of his efforts can be viewed on his website and Facebook page DPRK360.
    We've included a selection of Pan's favorite shots in the gallery above. He says the moonlit night scenes, taken in the North Korea countryside, are the most special to him.
    "I live in Singapore where many parts of the year we get haze from neighboring forest fires and permanent light pollution at night," says Pan. "A city dweller like me finds the North Korean countryside and mountains particularly spectacular."
    Pan's project allows him to go beyond Pyongyang to less traveled areas, from the country's highest mountain Mt. Paektu -- where Kim Jong-un recently trekked -- to a local market in Rason, a special economic zone.

    Inside North Korea's local market

    "The most memorable day was the time spent in Rason," says Pan.
    "I was allowed to visit the harbor port, factories and the local market."
    The open air market is about the size of a football field with rows of stalls covered with corrugated metal roofs for shade.
    Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed inside.
    "The place is packed shoulder to shoulder with locals," says Pan.
    "All manner of products are sold here, from meat and vegetables, to mascara and BB face cream. There are even automobile spare parts."
    But one discovery was particularly surprising for the Singaporean.
    "North Korean women do wear very colorful, fancy and sexy underwear. Knowledge that would otherwise elude me."
    But his favorite story from his North Korea trips relates to a tour leader.
    "For my last trip, the tour leader was an Australian who is 2.06 meters tall," says Pan.
    "He's considered a giant in North Korea and all the locals were incredibly curious about him. If the locals came up and chatted with us, he would also grab them and spin them around -- guys only, of course.
    "That really breaks the ice."

    His DPRK360 project

    Pan's DPRK360 project was independently initiated but since gaining a bigger following, travel companies -- Universal Travel Corporation (Singapore), DPR Korea Travel (Malaysia), Juche Travel Services (UK) and Young Pioneer Tours (China) -- have been willing to cover some of the costs of his trips.
    He says people can support him by buying him a trip from one of those travel companies or by sponsoring equipment he can use on his journeys.
    His website has ignited debate among those who try to decipher his photos but Pan stresses that his project has nothing to do with politics.
    "There are those who are extreme supporters of communism and socialism who want to use of my images as ammunition to attack capitalism, then there are those that seek to find proof of the failure of the North Korean government through my images," says Pan.
    "Both extreme ends of the spectrum are always a source of irritation for me."
    His next trip to North Korea is in October but he says he has a bigger plan for the country.
    "The other more audacious dream I have would be to open a cafe/training school in Pyongyang with an international theme," says Pan.
    "That gives me the chance to stay in there longer with a business visa and reach out to train the locals with various skills."