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This Rare Aerial Video Of North Korea's Pyongyang Paints An Eerie Picture Of The Sprawling Cityscape

by Penn Collins

September 11, 2017

Many, if not most, accounts by Westerners visiting North Korea focus on the lack of activity in the city. Wide streets and highways see nary a vehicle for minutes at a time. Stores, often thought to be fabricated by the government as indicators of economic activity, sit devoid of customers. 

However, those accounts, save for a few photos, remain mostly anecdotal because the government closely controls who can photograph what during their escorted and controlled trips throughout the capital city of Pyongyang. 

A recent video, filmed in 2016 but just released on YouTube, reveals the breadth of the city’s inactivity from afar. According to The Straits Times, this video was shot by Aram Pan from a Piper Matrix PA-46 light plane circling the city with permission from the government. 

Pan is a Singaporean photographer who runs the website DPRK360, an effort to “open a window into North Korea through the use of photography, videos and VR.” In many instances, Pan’s work reveals a city more active and relaxed than many would imagine, but in this instance, the streetscapes remain stark.

An earlier video from Pan in 2015, taken from a North Korean-built light plane, paints a similar picture. While occasional cars dot sprawling bridges, the most glaring sign of life in the city are smokestack emissions on the area’s periphery. Speaking to The Straits Times, Pan spoke to the infrequency of such opportunities, possibly due to the conclusions one would draw from a birds’ eye view of the city’s activities or lack thereof. "It was quite an exhilarating experience overall. I felt quite privileged as being allowed to fly over Pyongyang in a light plane that was usually reserved only for diplomats," he said. 

In addition to serving as North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang is also its most populous city, home to roughly 3 million people in 2010, but now home to perhaps no more than 2.6 million per recent studies. The drastic 10% population drop is thought to be directly attributable to the government’s desire to make Pyongyang a less populous area. Given the context of these two videos showing virtually no activity, one must wonder — why? 

The footage contained in these two clips will likely do little to dispel previous accounts that the city appears to be one running on fumes with little daily activity, social or otherwise, in its core. Though the vantage point is quite far removed from street level, the lack of people visible remains astonishing. Pyongyang appears to have all the elements of a city, save for much human activity, causing many to continue to wonder where they could be and what keeps the civic engine of Pyongyang operating. 

Comparatively, Chicago has an estimated population of 2.7 million as of 2016. From a greater height (a landing jetliner), far more activity is apparent. Granted, this video and the two North Korean aerials may have been taken at different times of day, but even the presence of parked cars here versus their absence in North Korea is a very telling proposition. 

Pan’s other videos on YouTube show that the metropolis is capable of “turning on” for certain events. 

These videos encapsulate the different presentations of the isolationist state but do little to answer the questions surrounding daily life in a city that seems to activate only at times. Perhaps most notably, we see that the city — or its infrastructure, at least — appears to be modern and ample. Among the countless buildings comprising downtown Pyongyang, we see roads, waterways, and other elements that appear, from a distance at least, to be in good, functioning repair. 

What we don’t see are people, suggesting that while North Korea may be moving forward in matters of technology or even urban development, we’re still left with a populace that is kept, either voluntarily or by state mandate, behind closed doors. The outside world isn’t privy to the civic forces at play in Pyongyang or elsewhere in North Korea, but the footage above suggests that Pyongyang is far more concerned with looking like a great city rather than actually becoming one. 

Share image via Aram Pan/YouTube.

Correction and update 10/26/2017: An earlier version of this post included Aram Pan’s video of Merlion Park, which, of course, is in Singapore and not Pyongyang. A newer video by Pan of Pyongyang has replaced it.

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