North Korea is a land of water slides, skateboard parks, golden beaches, surfing and, above all else, plentiful food. At least that is the picture painted by Louis Cole, a popular British video blogger who is now facing a wave of criticism.
The dreadlocked Mr Cole, 33, who specialises in travel “vlogs”, has posted a series of videos on YouTube that portray the rogue nation as a playground paradise. He is an optimist who makes no reference in his holiday films to the atrocities committed by the North Korean regime. This has led to accusations that he is a willing vehicle for the secretive state’s propaganda.
His YouTube videos have attracted many comments from critics, including one who says: “Surely this tourism is simply helping fund an oppressive government.” Another says: “At least be critical, have some common sense.”
Mr Cole is one of a growing band of star vloggers who make sometimes lucrative careers from filming their lives and sharing them with the wider world — particularly teenage girls. He has more than 1.8 million subscribers on his FunForLouis YouTube channel and more than 800,000 Twitter followers.
Vloggers are particularly influential among teenagers and young adults, who spend more time browsing YouTube and other video-sharing sites than they do traditional media.
After arriving in Pyongyang, Mr Cole and his entourage are treated to a banquet of traditional fare. They then head to a 43-floor hotel with a pool, bowling alley and massage parlour. “I’m booking a massage, 100 per cent,” Mr Cole says as he speeds upwards in a glass elevator.
The group later visit a water park, a skateboarding park and a beach, where they take surfing lessons with North Koreans. Each video is interspersed with close-up shots of what appear to be generous meals. “People are way more friendlier, smilier, got a sense of humour,” Mr Cole muses in one video.
An inquiry by the United Nations in 2014 found that human rights abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the modern world. They included targeted killings, rape, enslavement, forced abortions and torture of political opponents in secret prison camps. Human Rights Watch describes North Korea as “among the world’s most repressive countries” where “all basic freedoms have been severely restricted”.
Mr Cole is a member of Live the Adventure, a collective of travel vloggers who work on marketing campaigns for big brands including Marriott, Toyota, Microsoft, Nestlé, Starbucks and Booking.com. Several videos starring Mr Cole have been sponsored by tourist boards or tourism companies.
In his first video, he hints at his arrangement with the North Korean authorities. “Obviously, I can only share and show you guys what we’re getting shown,” he says. “There may be a whole other side to things that we’re not getting to explore.”
Writing online, he says: “I’m trying to focus on positive things in the country and combat the purely negative image we see in the media. I advise you to do your own research on the DPRK. These videos are from one perspective of what we are being shown and experience whilst here.”
The visit, Mr Cole said on Twitter, was “about trying to connect with people and show love”.
In a YouTube video posted last night, Mr Cole said: “I’m not being paid by the North Korean government. I do not agree with the North Korean ideologies. But I do care for and love the people there. I’m not an investigative journalist. I don’t really do political commentary and there are other places on the internet you can go to find those things. We went on an organised tour so the same kind of tour anyone going there as a tourist would experience. I could only share with you guys what I experience. The assumption I made, which may have been wrong of me, was that people watching my vlogs would have already had a broader perspective on North Korea. I do know what’s going on out there. I’m not being naive.”
The Hermit Kingdom vlogs
“Because of the socialist culture, they [North Koreans] often don’t have things that are personally theirs. It’s more about sharing and owning things as a community.”
“They’ve selected certain data from the internet and put it on an internal internet for North Korea. Then people can access that data and learn stuff.”
“Learning some pretty cool things . . . in the holidays, they even provide the population with clothing and shoes and stuff.”
“This is the Arch of Reunification, and it basically symbolises North and South Korea unifying. Which is the dream, basically.”
“I’ve completely lost track of time because we don’t have any access to the internet.”
“Seeing places like the water park blew my mind.”
“They have Harry Potter in their library. That’s so cool!”
“Another term for North Korea is the DPRK, which is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. That’s what they refer to it as here. Yeah, we’re learning a lot.”