Louis Cole never set out to show the reality of living in North Korea, as he and his agent have been quick to clarify. But that’s the problem.
Last month, the popular vlogger traveled to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, filming a series of videos that extolled some of the country’s more positive aspects, such as its beaches and water parks. Cole and his crew also made time to film a short music video called "Surfin' in the DPRK," which begins with this short title card:
In the midst of war.
We decided to make History instead.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The first pop music video to come out of North Korea.
A collaboration between
America, Europe, South Korea, and the DPRK itself.
We are the World.
What Cole and the music video ignore is over a half-century’s worth of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, and public executions. The nation severely restricts the political, economic, and social freedoms of its people.
North Korea has attempted to rehabilitate its public global image with a different strategy
North Korea has faced increased scrutiny in recent years as the nation has worked to develop nuclear weapons and the capabilities to deploy them across the Pan-Asian region. Where the country has failed to win over supporters in the world of international politics, North Korea has attempted to rehabilitate its public global image with a different strategy: securing the affection of minor celebrities.
In 2013, the DPRK invited former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who called the nation’s leader Kim Jong-un his "friend for life." Media publication VICE also participated in the 2013 visit for a controversial series of videos. In some respects, Cole’s videos feel like the collision of Rodman and Vice, the intellectual scrutiny of the former combined with the latter’s knack for accessible cinéma vérité.
A fantastic article from Richard Lawson on Vanity Fair raises the big question beneath these videos:
The more you watch Cole’s videos from North Korea, the more you wonder if he’s plainly ignorant to the plight of many people in the country, or if he’s willingly doing an alarmingly thorough job of carrying water for Kim Jong Un’s regime—not really caring what the implications are, because, hey, cool trip.
Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe this is a surreal extreme of the unthinking, vacuous new-niceness that occupies a large amount of YouTube territory, content creators so determined to deliver an upbeat, brand-friendly message that the uncomfortable truths of the world—personal and political—go mind-bogglingly, witlessly ignored.
And so Cole responded to the criticism from Lawson, other journalists, and fellow travel vloggers, denying that the country was a partner in the project. And Cole offers a modest defense: his series does provide a rare look around the secretive DPRK. He and his friends shot video of themselves as they flew in to Pyongyang and went into the countryside. The vlogger noted that he wanted to get past some of the darker images that shroud the country and meet some of its people:
I am looking for the beautiful, positive things. I want to connect with local people, learn about the culture, and the country. I am not an investigative journalist, I don’t really do political commentary and there are other places on the internet where you can find those things.
Despite the sanctions, North Korea does have a tourism industry: around 1,500 visitors from the West enter the country each year, with additional thousands from Asia. Once on the ground in the country, visitors are strictly guided and monitored through state-sanctioned tours, which take them throughout the capitol and elsewhere. Up until 2013, visitors were required to hand over their phones when they crossed the border. Cole’s visit is notable because he’s a rare vlogger allowed to report from within the country’s borders.
Cole was seeing what the DPRK officials wanted him to see
However, Cole was seeing what the DPRK officials wanted him to see, participating on one of the state-sponsored tours, led from point to point by government officials with an interest in presenting the best possible image of their home. Cole’s visit to the country is particularly infuriating as they stop by prominent locations to breakdance or pose, all in the interest of essentially saying "Look! These people are like us — they have libraries and can learn to surf!" There doesn’t appear to be much — if any — effort to connect with anyone outside of their tour guides. Most of the videos keep the Westerners in full frame.
Travel is an inherently political exercise, and despite Cole’s insistence that he’s not an investigative journalist, he is acting as a journalist, in this instance, delivering information about the DPRK to over 1.8 million subscribers. In one episode, he plays footage of his tour guide insisting that they not display peace signs before statues, and that the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un is universally beloved by his people. At no point does Cole reflect on why they’re accompanied by tour guides, or why one of their tour guides hasn’t a clue as to who Justin Bieber is. And yet, Cole and company seem to grok something isn’t quite right. In "Surfin’ in the DPRK," one member raps, "First people to breakdance, beatbox, and DJ in the country." The implication being that in North Korea, these activities simply don’t happen.
The most maddening and disturbing logic comes from Cole himself in one of the tour videos. He mentions another video blogger, Philip DeFranco, who described the situation as being led around a mansion where he knew that people were being tortured and murdered in the other room. "My only question to that," says Cole, "is what about the people in the house in the nicer rooms? I think that the only way to make a difference is to connect with those people and show them love and that might affect the entire household."
These people aren’t theoretical. In fact Cole can lear the answer quite easily, no trip to the DPRK required. Here’s what Human Rights Watch has to say about North Korea:
A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the contemporary world. They include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. North Korea operates secretive prison camps where perceived opponents of the government are sent to face torture and abuse, starvation rations, and forced labor. Fear of collective punishment is used to silence dissent. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom.
While Cole comes closer to DPRK than the vast majority of Americans, he seems impossibly far from its reality. Connecting and empathizing with North Koreans is certainly a positive thing to do: understanding and empathizing the people under a repressive regime is a good thing to do. But, failing to understand or comprehend the controlled nature of these interactions, and that it’s incredibly hard to enact any sort of change with people who are completely unable to enact it. Since the uproar, he has begun placing disclaimers
Cole has essentially provided North Korea something that they desperately need: a positive, gleeful face to present to the world
While Cole and his crew enjoy their time surfing, North Korea presently detains two US citizens, Kim Dong Chul (for espionage) and Otto Warmbier (for committing "hostile acts" by stealing a poster). These are just two of those people in the rooms Cole isn’t eager to look into. Meanwhile, Cole has essentially provided North Korea something that they desperately need: a positive, gleeful face to present to the world, something that they can use to deflect criticism, at least on a social level. Because North Korean officials effectively control their visitors’ access to the country, they could dictate exactly what ended up in the final product. Cole is simply an unwitting or simply terribly naïve participant in this.
Cole is wrong when he calls this a collaboration of "the America, Europe, South Korea, and the DPRK itself." This isn’t a collaboration, it’s a publicity campaign, one that pushes North Korea through Cole’s goofball mouthpiece.
When Cole and his representatives claim it wasn’t his intention to "gloss over or dismiss any negative issues that plague the country," is like me introducing you to a thief and forgetting to mention this stranger intends to rob you. It lacks maturity, due diligence, and intellectual integrity.
As a travel vlogger, Cole isn’t simply introducing us to the cool swimming pools in far off places. He’s introducing us to the world, expanding our horizons beyond the cities in which we live. When we travel, or simply when we watch travel videos, we hope to learn about the people and their culture beyond our homes. What Cole presented wasn’t a nation, but an amusement park, a staged performance of people and places, designed to conceal reality. In this case, that reality is tragically grim.