Less than two minutes into his first vlog about his trip to North Korea, YouTube star Louis Cole reads a headline about the country to his 1.8 million subscribers: “‘North Korea says U.S. has crossed red line, declared war.’ I don’t really know what this means.” From the backseat, Lane, the American friend who helped set up the trip, wondered aloud: “I wonder if this is the first time he’s said that.” (Spoiler: It’s not.)
Cole and his cohort of buddies make YouTube videos about traveling and being stupidly adventurous for a living. If you’ve been backpacking anywhere in the world in your life, you’ve basically met them, even if you haven’t met these folks in particular. They’re the people I met in Laos who got stoned before rafting down a dangerous river; the people who walk the streets in conservative countries like Cambodia half-naked because it’s hot outside, try to argue with an Egyptian soldier holding a gun at you in the middle of the Sinai desert who has stopped your bus and demanded $20 from everyone on board. At the end of the day, you know God exists, because there is no way people this stupid can survive backpacking across the world if he doesn’t.
While watching some of Louis’ videos one morning, my husband incredulously asked, “How are they letting him film there?” Almost in response to him, Louis closed one of his videos with the following monologue:
Action-packed, full of cool things. Visiting amazing places, monuments. Seeing places like the water park just blew my mind, because it’s made me realize that a lot of what we see in the media about North Korea being frozen in time and very basic—there might be elements of that but it is primarily today realizing that there’s a very active, happy civilization getting on with their everyday lives that’s not too dissimilar from other cultures I’ve seen.
In a response to headlines about the trip, Louis told his audience, “The assumption I made was that people would have already had a broader perspective on North Korea…they would have seen documentaries and news articles.” In watching his first video, it’s clear Louis was clearly not quite as well-versed in the humanitarian crisis facing North Koreans at the outset of his trip as he must have become given the uproar following.
Dude, Google a Place Before You Visit, Okay?
Even after the outcry led Louis to record a response, he clearly wasn’t quite caught up on what happens inside the Hermit Kingdom. Louis compared this trip to others he made to places in the less-developed world that have political problems, like Rio or Cape Town.
Louis directly responded to another YouTuber, who compared his trip to someone who tours a mansion where in some rooms there’s torture and murder, and others where everything is fine. Louis told viewers he finds it important to tour the nicer rooms and get to know those individuals. What Louis still doesn’t understand is that the folks he surfed alongside in a water park weren’t just innocent inhabitants of the country, but the elites of the elite who perpetrate the murders and torture. Louis talks about friends he made in the water park, believing them to be average North Koreans, when they are anything but.
Louis is correct that a great deal about North Korea is underreported thanks to its bellicose weekly war declarations against South Korea and the United States. But the story that should be told isn’t about how nice his government-provided minders were or how well the elites of the country learned to surf from Louis and his compatriots.
The country is home to the biggest-operating concentration camps in the world, some the size of Los Angeles. Industrious users of Google Earth have identified several, and continue to use satellite images to uncover the 99 percent of the country people like Louis, on organized and supervised tours, aren’t allowed to see.
One of Louis’ dispatches from North Korea involved visiting wild-growing cannabis. Naturally, the surfers on his trip were in awe of the crops. What Louis didn’t understand then and likely doesn’t even realize now is that drugs in North Korea aren’t a recreational pastime, but a distraction for citizens from hunger, untreated pain and illness, and the constant risk of imprisonment and torture. Sales of illicit drugs help fund the elites who spend their country’s cash reserves on water parks instead of feeding millions of malnourished children.
Louis and his surfer buddies didn’t just make videos about how awesome another developing country is; they publicized exactly what their North Korean minders wanted them to about the country that is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of millions of their citizens.
The outcry regarding his visit wasn’t because its leaders are at odds with those in the Western world, but because the country is home to the longest-running human rights catastrophe in human history. Until these human rights abuses are firmly in the history books, those totally awesome North Korean monuments can wait to be seen until Western observers can be present to watch them topple.