Girls playing on the beach, hair salons and bored commuters: Tourist who took camera inside North Korea expecting to find 'really, really sad people' is shocked to discover a happy country
- Singaporean photographer Aram Pan visited North Korea last year
- Gained permission for his 360 photography project after sending emails and faxes to North Korean contacts
- A BBC Panorama documentary led him to believe he would see lots of starving people
- Discovered healthy looking men and women shopping, playing volleyball and clocking off work at 6pm
- Believes that 'North Korea needs more friendly interaction with the outside world, even if it is just tourists'
By Sarah Dean
Published: 13:26, 29 May 2014 | Updated: 17:17, 29 May 2014
When a man from Singapore had his wish to visit North Korea granted, he braced himself for the scenes of 'barren lands' and 'really, really sad people' that he had seen via a BBC Panorama documentary.
But what he found blew his mind - for all the right reasons.
Inside the communist enclave in 2013, photographer Aram Pan witnessed bustling markets, men and women enjoying themselves at a Western looking water park and miles and miles of crops ready for harvest, shattering all of his illusions about what a holiday to North Korea would entail.
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The Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang, North Korea, features colourful water slides, swimming pools and glass pyramids roofs. The complex opened in 2013 and appears popular with locals
North Korean men wearing suits enjoy ice cream in the sunshine, contradicting the most commonly cited cliche that North Korea is a 'destitute, starving country'. One man perches on a kerb and waves in his white socks and sandals
Unlike other tourists who have visited the country, Mr Pan did not have to hide the photos and video he was taking from inside the country - he simply asked for permission.
'I have been curious about North Korea for many years. The average person has probably seen more photos about outer space than of North Korea. It's one of those great mysteries that I wanted to discover for myself and I figured it might just be possible,' Mr Pan told MailOnline.
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He decided to set about planning a trip in 2012, by writing and asking permission to do a photographic project.
'It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I didn't want to do a sneaky, undercover project as I didn't want to get into any trouble,' he said.
Explaining how he got inside the secretive state, he explained: 'I sent several mails and faxes to multiple North Korean contacts, all of which are easily available online if you do a search. Then one day someone actually replied and I met their representative. It was a lot easier than I expected.'
Women in brightly coloured bathing suits throw sand on the beach, as others stand with their bicycles in the background. In June 2013 it was reported that, as part of his plans to turn North Korea into a 'world class' tourist destination, leader Kim Jong-un ordered the transformation of the industrial port of Wonsan into a beach resort town
Photographer Aram Pan stands in front of a bronze monument. He has now been on two visits to North Korea and plans to go on a third this autumn
Mr Pan, a commercial photographer by day who specialises in 360 degree panoramic virtual tours for real estate, hotels and automobiles, has now been on two visits to North Korea and plans to go on a third this autumn.
'I was supposed to book my first trip in August 2012. Unfortunately I was suddenly unwell and had to postpone my first trip to August 2013. Later when I approached the local travel agency (Universal Travel Corporation) specialising in North Korea tours with my proposal, the manager was very excited about it and immediately offered to sponsor my first trip.
'After that first trip, the manager of a second travel company (DPR Korea Tourism) based in Malaysia offered to sponsor my second trip.
'Currently, talks are already underway to plan a third trip this autumn and I’ve been told that more travel agencies in Singapore and Malaysia are already interested in marketing exotic tours to North Korea.'
A stunning view from Mount Kumgang, a 1,638-metre-high mountain in Kangwon-do, North Korea
A woman in a pink gown gets her hair dyed at an old fashioned hairdressers. Mr Pan said: 'People seem to go about their daily lives and everything looks so incredibly normal.'
Consumer goods, such as electrical rice cookers and other kitchen appliances, have begun to flood North Korea via China
'The things I've seen and photographed tell me that the situation isn't as bad as I thought,' Mr Pan explained after he saw healthy looking men and women play volleyball together on the beach
'Coming back from my second trip, many things still puzzle me. I've travelled from Pyongyang to Hyangsan to Wonsan to Kumgangsan, to Kaesong and back. The things I've seen and photographed tell me that the situation isn't as bad as I thought,' he said.
'People seem to go about their daily lives and everything looks so incredibly normal. Some of my friends tell me that everything I've seen must be fake and all that I've photographed are a massive mock up.
'But the more I think about that logic, the more it doesn't make any sense… would anyone mock up miles and miles of crops as far as my eyes can see and orchestrate thousands of people to seemingly go about their daily lives?'
In the late 1990s, North Korea suffered a major famine that is thought to have led to between 500,000 and 600,000 deaths.
However, despite starvation no longer being a fact of life in North Korea, the most commonly cited cliche about the country is still that it is 'destitute' and 'starving'.
Fireworks explode during the climax of the Arirang Mass games 2013. The Stadium is undergoing renovation so there will be no Arirang Mass Games for 2014
Young girls hold up red flowers at the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang, a gymnastics and artistic festival held in the Rungnado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea
Sights: A woman stands with a black umbrella (left) and a horse statue (right) at the tomb of King Tongmyong. The sacred site was built when King Jangsu transferred his capital from Hwando Mountain Fortress to Pyongyang in 427 AD. The Royal Tomb of King Tongmyong is one of 63 tombs that exists in five zones of North Korea
Mr Pan believes that to fake everything on such a massive scale would mean North Korea's organisation skills are 'far beyond that of any developed country'.
He was escorted throughout his time in the country but said he had no schedule to follow and was given the ability to move around 'quite freely'.
He has also reasoned that none of his photographs or video were confiscated or deleted.
His stunning photos show the streets of North Korea's capital Pyongyang, the countryside, the beaches and the famous Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang.
The city of Pyongyang seen from the Yanggakdo Hotel, where Mr Pan was staying
A sunny afternoon in Kaesong Town. The city is near Kaesong Industrial Region close to the border with South Korea and contains the remains of the Manwoldae palace
Landmarks: The Tower of the Juche Idea (left) is a monument in Pyongyang named after the ideology of Juche introduced by its first leader Kim Il-Sung. It was built in 1982 and the Tower is sited on the eastern bank of the River Taedong, directly opposite Kim Il Sung Square. Kumgang Reunion Centre (right) is 'the place where families from the North and South side meet'
Different: The Meari Shooting Range (left) has a restaurant that will cook the chicken that you've shot. And a typical house in the countryside (right)
He also visited landmarks like the Tower of the Juche Idea , the Royal Tomb of King Tongmyong and the Kumgang Reunion Centre - the place where families from the North and South of Korea meet.
And in one of 'the most unusual dishes' he'd ever eaten, he tucked into clams cooked with gasoline.
'I hope some good will come about from my project as I believe that North Korea needs more friendly interaction with the outside world, even if it is just tourists,' he said.
Mr Pan captured a stunning sunset as he drove through the rural areas of the country. He said he was escorted throughout his time in North Korea but had no schedule to follow and was given the ability to move around quite freely
The fields looked ready for harvest as the photographer visited. 'Why would anyone mock up miles and miles of crops as far as my eyes can see?,' he wondered in disbelief that the things he saw could have been put on as a show
Mr Pan sampled the local cuisine while in North Korea. 'Possibly the most unusual dish I've ever eaten. Gasoline cooked clams,' he joked
On his early morning walk around the country's capital, Mr Pan hoped he could capture photographs that would show a glimpse of the people and everyday life that has been often overlooked in favour of military and political images
When Mr Pan visited North Korea he saw workers clocking off at 6pm and heading home. Contrary to what a majority of people tend to believe, the last decade has been one of moderate economic growth north of the DMZ
The Pyongyang Metro shows school children waiting to board a train and commuters leaving the station
The streets of Pyongyang featured cars and buses like any other city but far less traffic
There is more traffic than ever on the once notoriously empty avenues of Pyongyang. In this photo shiny looking cars are seen driving along the highway as the sun sets