Maybe Louis Cole’s North Korean adventure wasn’t wrong after all…

Louis Cole in North Korea, August 2016 | http://bit.ly/2bCIHVn

Last week I tweeted a rather snarky comment about Louis Cole’s touristic trip to North Korea; today I’m having a bit of a moral crisis.

Was it really wrong of him to make those videos? Is it wrong of ME to accuse him of partaking in DPRK propaganda? After all isn’t he acting in line with my favorite axiom? Isn’t he using tourism as a tool to promote cultural understanding?!

What I could really use right now is a high school debate team- a group of spritely, unjaded seventeen-year-olds keen to help me work out the pros and cons, the rights and wrongs of North Korean tourism, but then the twittersphere might start writing snarky comments about me and I don’t think I could handle that, at least not until my readership grows to a number larger than just one.

At any rate, the DPRK is not really a place visitors go to relax, goof around, surf, but Louis Cole did AND he vlogged it!

For anyone even remotely abreast of the politically repressive situation in North Korea, Cole’s vlogs should have raised some red flags. They certainly did for me.

The backstory

About two weeks ago, Louis Cole, a British filmmaker and Youtube personality, entered North Korea on a tourist visa with his camera and a skateboard. He visited several pre-approved sites, like Kim Il-sung Square and a vibrant water park. He also linked up with a group of volunteers to teach local tour guides and children how to surf and skateboard.

Throughout his visit, Cole focused on how happy, welcoming and gracious each person seemed and he did exactly what he set out to do — explore a country that he never thought he’d have a chance to visit.

But given the amount secrecy enshrouding North Korea and the reported human rights violations, the internet was not at all pleased with the story Cole chose to tell.

Over a span of ten days, Cole published his footage with an almost complete disregard for the overarching realities of contemporary North Korean life. To the conspiratorial community of Youtube commenters, this was a clear sign of vlogging propaganda.

I agreed.

I couldn’t believe how easily Cole accepted the carefully curated images he was presented with. While I didn’t think he was literally receiving money from the government, I did feel that his videos were an irrefutable form of propaganda and that North Korea was likely conscious of this when they approved his request to film. It should be noted, however, that Cole did try to deflect this criticism early on.

On Day 1, he notes,

“obviously I can only share and show you guys what we’re getting shown and there may be a whole other side to things that we’re not getting to explore here, but that’s the same in a lot of countries that I visit, so I’m just going to focus on the really cool things that we see and the positive stuff…” (http://bit.ly/2c5q2xu).

Still, I’d argue that it’s a rather egregious decision to ignore such important details when your videos are viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

And later, in response to the ensuing wave of outrage, Cole further denied all accusations by saying,

“I am 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 kind of things. So this trip to North Korea, as many of my trips, I went on as a tourist […] As much as we can be skeptical about how much was real and how much was staged, that is what I experienced, and I can only share with you guys what I experienced.” (http://bit.ly/2cn01xQ)

While I didn’t fault Cole for withholding political commentary, along with the rest of the internet, I did fault him for failing to acknowledge that the images he captured were meticulously crafted by the North Korean government and I was frustrated that he barely breached the surface of what North Korean tourism truly is.

My moral dilemma

We have an extremely limited understanding of what is happening in North Korea. When I think of the DPRK, I immediately think of Hyeonseo Lee, Shin Dong-hyuk, and Suki Kim; I think food shortages, child labor and secrecy.

As an outsider privy to western freedoms and accustomed to certain cultural norms, it’s easy for me to focus on the shocking and negative side of a story, which leads me to my moral dilemma — maybe it was okay for Cole to feed us a one-sided story, the mass media sure does.

How dare I say something like that! I know….

As problematic as it is to ignore human rights abuses, isn’t it equally as problematic to see only one side of a story? Maybe, just maybe, Cole helped to inform a more balanced view in all of us. After all, this is the first time that I’m truly considering the daily lives of North Korean people at a micro-level.

DPRK tourism

Balanced view, or not — I’m still frustrated with Cole’s failure to highlight the issue of DPRK tourism itself.

In Pyongyang, Cole ate plentiful meals, witnessed a number of development projects, and stayed at none other than the Yanggakdo International Hotel. Everything Cole saw and did on his trip was pre-approved and planned on his behalf.

It’s fine that he didn’t make any sweeping claims about government practices, but again, I’d argue that failing to highlight the choreographed nature of each day is a hefty omission.

Cole seems to believe that by being a “geuine” and “chill guy” that he snagged a look behind the curtain of government restriction, a look into the real North Korea.

It’s as if he saying ‘ hey man, if you just open your heart and look deep enough, you’ll find that North Korea is just an off-the-beaten path, upbeat tourist destination like anywhere else’. But to think that North Korea has loosened its reigns over what outsiders can and can’t see is foolish. Louis Cole didn’t steal a look behind the veil — I’m sorry Louis, you just didn’t.

Five years ago, in pretty groundbreaking, albeit arguably insensitive, Vice documentary, Shane Smith weaseled his way into North Korea on a tourist visa granted in northern China. When Smith started his tour he knew that he’d be watched closely, but it wasn’t until his first full day out that he learned, “[in North Korea] you’re not a tourist, you’re on a tour. You come in, you’re shown what you’re shown. You’re escorted out, you’re escorted the whole time.” (The Vice Guide to North Korea, 2011)

Five months ago, Otto Warmbier found this same truth when he was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for stealing a political flag from a North Korean hotel room. Time has passed, but in this regard things have not changed much.

Cole’s videos are great and humanizing and have made me question some of my assumptions, but I can’t imagine that he experienced anything other than exactly what North Korea wanted 200,000+ Youtube fans to see.

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