SEOUL - The international rights group Human Rights Watch publicly criticized a popular British travel blogger for posting a fun and positive review of his recent visit to North Korea, while ignoring what the repressive state does not want the world to see, the country’s widespread poverty and repression.
Louis Cole probably did not expect the level of public anger he would ignite when he posted a series of videos last month about his 10-day trip to North Korea on his Internet travel video blog called Fun for Louis.
Cole says he was purposely trying to focus on the “beautiful positive things” in the video posts that show him at a water park, surfing and sightseeing throughout the country, while not emphasizing that North Korean government officials limited the group’s access to only approved people and places.
“I am not an investigative reporter journalist. I don’t really do political commentary and there are other places on the Internet that you can go to, to find those sort of things,” said Cole during a follow-up video about the trip.
Cole has been depicted in the media as either a clueless or willing pawn being manipulated by North Korea to improve its image. The travel blogger had to refute allegations that he was paid by the Pyongyang government to make a promotional video.
Another video blogger Philip DeFranco ridiculed Cole’s portrayal of North Korea on YouTube saying, “it’s like if you go into a giant mansion and there's like horrible things happening in a ton of the rooms, like people are starving to death, there's rapes, there's murders. But your guided tour only takes you to like the indoor heated pool, and the room with the Xbox.”
Writing in the Seoul newspaper Korea Times this week, Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia Phil Robertson contrasted Cole's picturesque and friendly depiction of North Korea with the documented systematic atrocities that occur in this secretive and authoritarian state, where the media is strictly controlled and individual rights are severely limited.
“Our concern was that this guy, who has a huge following on the Internet of over 2 million people on his YouTube and Twitter accounts, was portraying such a relentlessly positive message about North Korea that is completely out of line with what we know about human rights abuses there,” Robertson told VOA.
In 2014, the U.N. General Assembly voted to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The referral was based on a U.N. Commission of Inquiry report documenting a network of political prisons in the country and widespread human rights violations, including: forced labor, torture, enslavement, rape and murder.
The resolution has stalled in the Security Council, where North Korea’s allies China and Russia would likely veto the measure if brought to a vote.
Cole has issued a sort of apology, saying he does not endorse North Korea’s “ideology” and that he should have encouraged his audience to do their own research about conditions in the country.
“The assumption I made, which may have been wrong of me, was that people watching my North Korea blogs would have already had a broader perspective on North Korea,” he said.
The British blogger also defended his video of the positive side of North Korea as a form of engagement and a way to build peaceful relationships with the isolated state.
Robertson says Cole was not building bridges. He was just being used.
“I think the government is getting a lot of free publicity of a very uncritical sort from a guy who didn’t do his homework before he went there, and then acted all shocked and surprised when people called him out on it,” Robertson said.
Cole’s enthusiastic travel blog also downplayed the risk of arbitrary arrest in North Korea, especially for American tourists.
In January, a University of Virginia student was arrested in Pyongyang for taking a poster off a wall in his hotel, while on an organized tour. He was later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
The government in Pyongyang has in the past used detained Americans to extract high-profile visits from Washington.
At least 14 U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea in the past 10 years.
In April, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning advising American citizens to avoid North Korea.