Singaporean photographer plans school in N Korea

He sees 'incredible need' for training in areas like business administration, construction

A Singaporean photographer - known for offering glimpses into North Koreans' everyday lives through his images - has plans to set up a school in the secretive country, and is looking at the possibility of taking educators there.

Mr Aram Pan, who is based in Singapore, explained that there is now "an incredible need" for training in areas such as business administration and construction.

The 40-year-old said such educational ventures would bring many benefits for the country, including helping people there to assimilate into the global community. "I have reliable information that (North Korea) has plans to move towards global and international policies but, before this can happen, the locals need training in various areas to prepare the country to be part of the global community," he added.

The proposed school would begin with a modest office space, which will function as a classroom to train people of various age groups. He said: "The idea of having a big school building is still a bit far-fetched. I'll begin with a humble classroom space."

Mr Pan, who is working out the finer details and is in discussions with his North Korean counterparts, said he is unable to comment on the timeline. He said: "Things sometimes happen slowly in North Korea. But if there's official endorsement, it can happen really quickly."

Since 2013, he has made more than 10 trips to the country for his photography project. Over the years, he has earned the trust of people there and decided to take things up a notch by making improvements to their lives.

Earlier this year, he brought a group of six North Koreans, who are from the tourism sector, to Singapore for a week to learn from business professionals about the travel industry. These individuals, aged 25 to 48, were introduced to advertising and business concepts, and also learnt about the Internet, including social media. They observed how businesses are run, and were also taken on a tour around Boon Lay, where they visited amenities such as the shopping mall, library and foodcourts.

Two of the younger visitors also tried out the indoor skydiving facility in Sentosa. "It helped to give them new perspectives that are beyond the textbooks," said Mr Pan.

He hopes to organise more of such trips and has registered a new firm, called Mallima.

The term Mallima - taken from the North Korean slogan Mallima Speed - literally means a horse moving at the speed of 10,000 li, or Chinese miles, in a single day. The slogan has been used recently by the North Koreans to refer to rapid development.

Mr Pan is a former marketing and communications professional who decided to pursue his passion for photography about 10 years ago. He said that, in the long run, it would be cheaper to set up a school in North Korea than to bring North Korean students to Singapore for lessons.

His photography work has given him access to places not normally granted to tourists. For instance, he has visited a marketplace where locals sell foreign goods brought in from China. These goods, such as food, car parts and cosmetics, are sold at simple stalls at the market,where the Chinese yuan and the American dollar are used.

"Education will open up avenues for the locals to develop their own businesses, as North Korea is experimenting with its own type of free market economy," said Mr Pan.

On criticism that such trips are staged as part of North Korean propaganda, Mr Pan said he has been "pushing the limits to what we can do in North Korea".

Adding that new places are opening up for tourists because of efforts to persuade the government, he said: "I can understand how most people are unable to relate to what I do because they don't see the work that goes on behind the scenes."

On his trips to the reclusive nation, Mr Pan has met many North Koreans from different walks of life. He said: "They are just like any one of us. They are concerned about work and promotion, have goals like saving up to buy a camera, and even worry about whether their daughters can find a nice boyfriend."

See also: Singaporean 'reunites' N Korea defector and daughter through videos

This article was first published on May 16, 2016.
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