Travel Vlogger Accused of Misrepresenting North Korea
It's an understandable way to be if you're fortunate enough to spend such a huge portion of your life trekking all across the planet, but it's been a long time since the first 'Where the Hell is Matt?' and the market has become slightly over-saturated. Granted, it's still one of the less mind-numbing corners of YouTube, but there's only so many times you can watch a white guy in Oakleys brandishing his GoPro over the edge of Victoria Falls and talking about how 'sick' it is.
The real appeal comes from seeing someone look at an unfamiliar place from a familiar perspective, so you can see where it might be interesting for such a traveler to go somewhere as unsettling and bizarre as North Korea. Tourists do visit the infamous nation, but the government are very careful about what they let them see, so often the impression they come back with is airbrushed, theatrical, and utterly removed from the brutal oppression we read about in the news.
One shouldn't logically expect even the most intrepid YouTuber to be able to sidestep such a heavily regimented tourist package, but you would think they would at least be able to understand and pay some credence to that fact.
This is why Louis Cole has drawn in so much controversy since he started posting about North Korea. The 33-year-old, dreadlocked Brit has more than 1.8 million subscribers, he's posted videos from all over the world, either solo or with his partner, and he recently returned from North Korea. The videos he's posted of the trip have titles like 'BEYOND THE TOURISM', 'PLAYING WITH LOCAL KIDS' and 'BREAKING BARRIERS', and he states that he tried to accentuate the positive aspects of the country during his time there.
The problem with that is that Cole isn't the only vlogger to have spent time in North Korea recently. In fact, it's become something of a haven for them, and many have pointed out that they were only ever allowed to see staged attractions, and draw disturbing conclusions from that. Cole, on the other hand, never even implicitly broaches on that, and it's made some people very suspicious.
On the most extreme end of the spectrum, some have said that Cole was in the employ of the government, tasked with presenting a squeaky clean impression of the country to throw westerners off the scent. Others have offered more measured criticisms, saying that his attempts to stay positive have resulted in a complete misrepresentation of North Korea, and does a disservice to the countless people suffering under the regime of Kim Jong Un.
Cole has since posted a response to the ongoing criticisms, in which he states that he is very much aware of what's going on there, that he is in no way affiliated with the North Korean government and that the reasoning behind his approach was to meet people and spread positive messages which would ultimately resonate through the country. If you ask me, this probably was indeed Cole's approach, and his biggest mistake was not to address that in his other videos. Without such a disclaimer, he seems hopelessly naive, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he is.
One of the biggest voices being thrown around in this debate has been Philip DeFranco's. The YouTube megastar initially criticised Cole for accentuating the staged aspects of his North Korean tour, using the analogy of being shown around a mansion which you're only allowed to see part of because people are being murdered in the other rooms, and then not mentioning that. Cole actually addressed this in his response video, stating that it's also important to interact with and tell stories about the people in the 'rooms' which you are allowed to see.
It's a complicated situation, and one could argue that anyone who participates in one of these staged tours of North Korea should have some reason for doing so beyond mere curiosity, especially since the money they pay to do it eventually finds its way to the government there. Equally, it could be suggested that a visit to any country with an oppressive government, or mass poverty (many of which are popular holiday destinations) could be judged by the same token.
Vlogging is an odd, young medium and the accusations being levied against Cole are ridiculous when you consider how many other people like him have done the exact same trip. The only difference is the tone of their commentary. Should he have talked more about the bigger picture? Almost certainly, but the fact that Cole is suddenly at the centre of the most widely broadcasted news item about North Korea just goes to show that the scale of someone's internet fame rarely lines up with their significance. If Cole had only a few hundred, or even a few thousand subscribers, none of us would have even heard about this.
Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @Songbird_Callum
Travel Vlogger Accused of Misrepresenting North Korea Reviewed by Callum Davies on Monday, August 22, 2016 Rating: