For the last week or so, a British YouTuber named Louis Cole has been uploading dispatches from North Korea. Rather than focusing on the state’s constant surveillance, arbitrary arrests, and murders of its own citizens, Cole is focusing on the positive aspects of the North Korean experience, such as the water parks.
As Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair pointed out in a post this morning, Cole has written that he is “trying to focus on positive things in the country and combat the purely negative image we see in the Media.”
If the capital-M Media portrays a “purely negative” image of North Korea, that is because it is attempting to present things as they actually are. By being so relentlessly upbeat about what he sees, Cole is doing a pretty good job of propagandizing for the ruthless regime that is hosting him, whether that is his intention or not. And at about 1.8 million YouTube subscribers, his audience is not insignificant. When Cole visits Pyongyang’s Juche Tower in the video above, his tour guide tells him it represents “the guiding ideology of our party”—that is, the ideology by which North Korea’s leaders have justified the last 50 years of brutal dictatorships there. “Cool!” Cole says, panning his GoPro upward. “And it’s like a flame, on the top of it.”
Cole talks to some ordinary North Koreans during his travels, and that’s admirable, but by refusing to engage with the reality of their situations, he ultimately does them a disservice. At one point, a woman strokes his long dreadlocks, refusing to believe they are made of his natural hair. “They’re fascinated,” Cole says, turning to the camera with a laugh. Maybe that’s because locks aren’t on North Korea’s list of 28 state-sanctioned haircuts.
Cole’s job is to make his globetrotting life seem as enviable as possible, so that when he makes sponsored content for KitKat and Doritos, his followers want to buy them. We can’t really hold a travel blogger to the standards of an investigative journalist, but he shouldn’t be painting such a flattering picture of the regime, either. As Lawson notes, the series feels like the surreal apex of the culture of smarmy positivity that reigns on the internet, and especially on YouTube. If you write a bad review, you’re just being a hater; if you’re having a bad day, you just need some inspirational content to cheer you up; if you’re visiting the world’s most oppressive nation, go surfing in the gnarly wave pool.