North Korea is one of the most repressive countries in the world. But that didn't faze the British YouTube celebrity Louis Cole, a 33-year-old travel blogger with nearly two million subscribers, from jumping onto a guided government tour to try and find some new material to promote himself and his FunforLouis video channel. Evidently Cole thought his motto of "peace out, enjoy life and live the adventure," combined with the outlandish goal to promote surfing for North Koreans, would be so much adventure that no one noticed he was completely ignoring the dire reality of life for most persons living under a government whose egregious human rights abuses have been described by the U.N. as "without parallel in the contemporary world."
Maybe Cole didn't do his homework, but he seemed genuinely surprised when he came under fire from other Internet video loggers for uploading videos from his 10-day trip in the North Korean government-controlled bubble. He shouldn't have been.
After all, it's not every country that can compete with North Korea in having more than 80,000 people in remote political prison camps that resemble gulags where few that are sent there ever return. North Korea's systematic use of forced labor from ordinary people for government and ruling party projects is not something one sees in many other countries. And in few places in the world are controls so strict on what the media produces, or the rights of people to speak their mind, join a group of other people without interference, or even publicly assemble for their own purposes. The control of the state security forces, and their informer networks are pervasive. Cole could have found all this out with a quick web search before he went, and explained this to his followers, but the only thing that seemed to disturb him was that he was off the grid, without Internet connectivity, in North Korea.
It restores one's faith in the Internet that the image of Cole merrily tagging along behind his government and military minder/tour guides, was too much for netizens to take. Perhaps the hardest hit came from Philip DeFranco, the host of a popular Youtube news show, who took him to task, saying in his program that "It's like if you go into a giant mansion and there's like horrible things happening in a ton of the rooms, like people are starving to death, there's rapes, there's murders. But your guided tour only takes you to like the indoor heated pool, and the room with the Xbox."
Accusations flew fast and heavy, particularly on Cole's failing to provide sufficient explanation and details on why he thought it was a good idea to publicize narratives from North Korean government minders, and portray his Potemkin Village tour without any disclaimers that he where he went and what he did was controlled.
Particularly damning was Cole's claim that he was just "trying to focus on positive things in the country and combat the purely negative image we see in the media" – as if he suddenly knew more about what was happening than the professional journalists who cover North Korea regularly.
As he was hit by this crescendo of criticism, expressed in blogs, entertainment websites, and mainline media, Cole responded by posting another video on YouTube, saying he wasn't paid by the North Korean government, he isn't a journalist, and doesn't do political commentary. And then the damage control continued, with his manager sending out a news release, explaining that Cole felt sorry if his blog came across as dismissing "any negative issues that plague the country." Suddenly, a note appeared at the start of his North Korea vlogs, saying he went to "help strengthen the fragile bridge of peace and diplomacy through surfing" and "I'm sharing what we were shown," and suggesting "please do your own research on North Korea."
Yet he was obviously not too contrite, since within days, Cole issued a music video called "Surfing in the DPRK", in which he and his friends join their government-appointed minder Miss Kim to sing and strike poses, interspersing bad boy dancing and skateboarding with government staged cultural performances and posing near the statutes of dictators Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, who the UN have determined were responsible for crimes against humanity. Of course, a sexy North Korean woman lounging on a surf board completes Cole's surfing in dictatorship fantasy.
Travel and new perspectives often do build bridges, but only if both sides are determined to cross the bridge. Unfortunately, FunforLouis was taken for a ride by a government desperate for some positive spin with an international community repulsed by Pyongyang's systematic and pervasive rights abuses. Perhaps Louis should have tried looking up a different tour participant – the US college student Otto Warmbier, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for taking down a government banner (proclaiming "Let's arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il's patriotism!") from a hallway in his hotel. Then perhaps the FunforLouis caravan would understand just a little of what is really at stake for people who do something the North Korean government doesn't like.
The reality is very limited information comes out from North Korea, and Pyongyang is very good at controlling it. Cole may have not been paid to produce his carefree videos in a country that has extinguished basic civil and political rights, but he's fooling himself — and his viewers — if he thinks that his trip performed a public service or helped North Korean people. The real damage he's done is to present North Korea to the global YouTube generation as a normal country when it is really far, far from that.
Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @Reaproy