When British YouTube star Louis Cole launched his 10-part North Korea series last weekend, his legion of followers got a rare glimpse into the world's most reclusive state.
In each video, Cole, 33, took viewers past the usual government-guided official tour of the country's war monuments to a water park in the capital Pyongyang, a posh beach resort in the seaside city of Majon and to glitzy restaurants where he and his team of fellow "vloggers" were treated to elaborate feasts.
The series, which culminated on Saturday, was a hit on Cole's FunForLouis YouTube channel — a page that boasts nearly 2 million subscribers. Cole said his trip was intended to "focus on positive things in the country and combat the purely negative image we see in the media."
The backlash, however, was swift.
"The more you watch Cole’s videos from North Korea, the more you wonder if he’s plainly ignorant to the plight of many people in the country, or if he’s willingly doing an alarmingly thorough job of carrying water for Kim Jong Un’s regime," wrote Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson.
Others concurred with Lawson's hypothetical, charging Cole and his team as willing agents of an expansive government propaganda machine.
Cole, apparently taken aback by the torrent of criticism, issued a video response. In it, he said the trip was not government-sponsored and countered that he was not an investigative journalist but, rather, only an observer who shared with the world what he saw. Cole then added a written disclaimer to each video, where he urged viewers to do their own research on the country.
NBC News reached out to Cole's business representative for comment but did not receive a reply.
“The idea that you would go in to present another point of view appears nonsensical to me," Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told NBC News. "The labor camps, the human rights abuses; to simply ignore all that without even so much as an explainer is, I think, distasteful."
Butler said it was possible to report from North Korea in a "responsible way," even with the government's total control over what visitors can and cannot see. He pointed to dispatches regularly produced by the Associated Press' Pyongyang bureau chief, Eric Talmadge. Talmadge, who himself has come under criticism for not reporting some stories considered to be sensitive by the regime, frequently posts everyday scenes from the capital on his closely followed Instagram account. The images, he says, are meant to show a different side of the country.
“I think there is a tendency abroad to caricature North Korea in ways that aren’t constructive, and to resort to dismissiveness or mockery much too easily,” Talmadge told the Washington Post last year.
Not all North Korea observers, however, were so dismissive of Cole's trip. For Stephen Noerper, a Columbia University professor and director of the Korea Society —the dedicated non-profit in the United States for Korea-U.S. relations —Cole's trip represents an opportunity.
"We need every channel of information and exchange, especially given the political impasse and security concerns," Noerper told NBC News. "We should be discerning with vlogs and other controlled or influenced messaging, but we should not miss opportunities for trust building or opening, however small."
Last month, North Korea cut off its only diplomatic channel — known as the New York channel — with the United States at the United Nations in retaliation for Washington's sanctions against its leader, Kim Jong-un over human rights abuses. With no communication at all between the two countries for the first time in years, experts argue that an opening between the two adversaries has never appeared further.
In a statement to NBC News, a U.S. State Department official would not comment directly on Cole's group, which included American nationals. The official urged Americans against all travel to North Korea "due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention." At least 14 U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea in the past 10 years.
"Foreign tourism provides a source of foreign currency to the DPRK regime," the official added.
Ultimately, Noerper said, it was the responsibility of viewers to consider Cole's videos "as portrayals of small slivers of life alongside our greater and more relevant concerns about human rights abuses, missiles and nukes."