TOKYO — Americans may now be banned from going to North Korea as tourists, but thanks to the power of the Internet, you can now see what it’s like to fly over the showcase capital of Pyongyang.
Aram Pan, a Singaporean photographer who has published lots of 360-degree videos from his trips to North Korea, flew over Pyongyang in a microlight plane last month, filming video and taking photos the whole way.
They take off from the Mirim Air Club on the outskirts of the capital, an airstrip built under North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is a keen pilot and often flies himself around the country. Lots of other light aircraft can be seen alongside the runway.
The video offers amazing views over the capital, home to the 2 million North Koreans most loyal to the regime, which is infamous for keeping the country isolated.
There’s a bird’s-eye view of the central monuments of Kim Il Sung Square and the Juche Tower, the impressive-looking apartment towers of the Mirae Scientists’ District and Ryomong Street, two of Kim Jong Un’s landmark development projects. That’s without even mentioning the sparkling blue of the Munsu water park or the shining silver roof of the May Day stadium.
It’s a bright sunny day, and the sun glistens off the Taedong River that bisects the capital. The fields look green and lush.
Pyongyang looks like a modern and thriving city — which is exactly what the North Korean regime wants people to think it is.
The Kim regime is notoriously restrictive in what it allows outsiders to see. Visitors to Pyongyang are always accompanied by government minders and are restricted in their movements around the city. They don’t pass sensitive sites such as the leader’s residence or security offices, often taking the same routes through the city no matter what direction they’re going.
For that reason, the footage is extraordinary because it offers unfettered views of the city, although North Korean officials did delete some of the photos and footage, Pan told NK News, a specialist website devoted to North Korea that published the video on its YouTube channel.
He didn’t say what footage was deleted, just that he was allowed to keep about 90 percent of what he shot. The deleted footage was probably of sensitive places such as military installations or anything related to the leader.
Pan, who has been to North Korea at least 15 times, has previously shot video from inside a light plane. But this was the first time the North Korean authorities allowed him to attach a 360-degree camera to the bottom of an aircraft.
North Korea, which has been promoting tourism, last year started offering microlight flights over Pyongyang but did not allow any photography from the air. Pan said he was told it was a safety issue — the winds are strong and a phone or camera could be knocked out of the holder’s hand. But after appeals through the country’s tourism agencies, Pan was allowed to take up equipment that could be tethered.
He went up during September, a time of year when the capital looks its best. The North Korean authorities prefer to allow outsiders in over the summer, when the air is clear and the city seems most verdant. Visiting in winter months gives a very different impression: Gray skies and smoke from power plants make the whole city look dull.
Some critics of Pan’s project have said he is helping the regime with its propaganda, showing only the best parts of a police state that commits widespread human rights abuses. Conversely, Pan says that some people laud his project because they deem it to be anti-capitalist.
“The last thing I want is for this project to become a tool for either side to use as ammunition against each other,” Pan writes on his website, saying that he is simply publishing what he sees on his own “journey of discovery.”
Asked if he felt he was presented with an idealized view of North Korea, Pan said he didn’t think so.
“Let me give you just one example,” he told NK News. “I’ve been visiting their trade fairs regularly, and with each visit, I see consumerism on the rise. Advertising is also being more widely implemented, but for now, it’s still within the shops.”
Regardless of the constraints, the footage will be welcomed by analysts who usually pore over satellite imagery and Google Earth. The resolution of those images is often not great, and images are not always timely. Given how little information there is about North Korea, every little bit helps.