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.”