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British tour guide, Zoe Stephens interviews a military guide at DMZ. Photo: Zoe Discoversnk

Are YouTuber’s videos of North Korean parties ‘daily life’ or ‘propaganda’?

  • The Zoe Discovers channel shows the everyday lives of families in the totalitarian state taking trips to the lake or people enjoying beers after work at a local bar
  • Some critics slam her videos as propaganda, but British woman Zoe Stephens says ‘a lot of Western media is recycled with the same stark photos and catchphrases’
North Korea
A notorious supreme leader, prison camps, assassinations, nuclear missile tests and brainwashed citizens. Just some of the words that come to mind when referring to North Korea.

It’s also become customary to paint the “hermit kingdom” as dark, desolate and devoid of freedom.

That is why netizens were quick to label tourist YouTube channel “Zoe Discovers” as propaganda. It shows Zoe Stephens, a 28-year-old British woman, talking with a smiling North Korean guard at the heavily guarded Demilitarised Zone, dancing with locals at a public square, and singing karaoke with North Korean families visiting the mountainside during a national holiday.

“Some of my videos are just North Koreans playing volleyball against foreigners. I don’t know how that’s propaganda,” said Stephens, a marketing manager for Koryo Tours.

Zoe Stephens dancing with North Korean locals at public square. Photo: Handout
The 28-year-old, who first came to North Korea in 2015, has been out of work ever since the pandemic forced the country to close its doors to the outside world. In the meantime, the tourism and political development major has been focusing on uploading her previous trips to the capital Pyongyang and its surrounding rural regions to her combined 40,000 followers on YouTube, Instagram and Tiktok.

“What’s different about my content compared to past videos uploaded by tourists is that most went on short-term trips, whereas I had been working out of China for over three years,” said Stephens, who has more than 30 North Korea trips under her belt.

Her content is in stark contrast from typical Western news and documentaries which portray a sobering side of the country. Instead, Stephens shows the daily lives of families taking leisurely trips to the lake or people enjoying beers after work at a local bar.

Such videos align with the emergence of recent popular South Korean dramas like Crash Landing on You and films like Luck Key that have a softer, more modern take on life inside the country.


Trash or treasure? A researcher learns about North Korean culture through rubbish washed ashore

Trash or treasure? A researcher learns about North Korean culture through rubbish washed ashore

Netizens, however, commented on how North Korea resembles the 1970s and 1980s because of the dated clothing worn by both men and women. Then, there are the open and desolate roads, soldiers with guns, and children singing patriotic songs dedicated to the supreme leader.

“Any worldliness will surprise people who go inside North Korea for the first time,” said Simon Cockerell, the General Manager of Koryo Tours. “For example, you might be shocked to meet [a North Korean] who has read Harry Potter.”

Having visited North Korea “hundreds of times”, he assures clients they can “enjoy and have fun” on trips that could include hiking, skiing, circuses and film festivals. But, at the same time, he describes it as a “serious country” that shouldn’t be “treated as a game or a theme park”.

If the intention of the trip is to criticise the country’s leaders, you really shouldn’t go on the trip
Simon Cockerell

Trips range from two days to 24 days, and cost roughly between US$464 to US$4,000 per person according to the agency’s website. Tourists must follow a strict itinerary planned by the agency, and must follow a tour guide, driver and tour group at all times – unless they opt for a private tour. Permission is needed to take photos. Cockerell compares it to a “school trip”.

“Most importantly, you can’t distribute any religious materials or try to convert people into a different ideology,” he said. “If the intention of the trip is to criticise the country’s leaders, you really shouldn’t go on the trip. That is illegal and inappropriate here.”

Additionally, there can be mishaps caused by cultural and political differences. During one trip Stephens coordinated, a tourist needed to write a letter of apology after “throwing a newspaper in a bin”. One can even get in trouble for crumpling a newspaper, as publications have the faces of the country’s leaders.

According to Cockerell, tourism before the pandemic was “at a high”, with around 5,000 Western tourists a year, and as many as 200,000 Chinese tourists annually. His travel agency has a majority Western clientele with “a big chunk from the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada”.

“The process is quite simple,” he said. “There’s a five-minute online registration and you wait a couple of weeks to get your visa. There’s really no reason someone wouldn’t be able to get a visa into North Korea.”

Zoe hiked up Mount Paektu in North Korea. Photo: Zoe Discoversnk

Everyday culture

Hwang Jin-tae, a research fellow at the South Korean think tank Korea Institute for National Unification, studies YouTubers like Stephens who upload images of North Korea. As someone from South Korea, he is legally barred from entering the North.

“Because people tend to only focus on the extremity of the North, it’s important to research everyday culture in North Korea. It can remind us that the 25 million living there are all people like us. They can’t be summed by just one person,” Hwang said.

As for North Koreans, Stephens says they are interested in life outside their borders.

“Many of the tour guides I have met are quite educated and don’t have too many bad opinions about the Western world,” she said. “They’re more accepting than one might think, and, more importantly, they claim to be proud citizens of their own country.”

A New Year’s Eve party at Kim Il-sung Square in 2019. Photo: Zoe Discoversnk

Once the border reopens, Stephens wants to continue her mission of making content about North Korea more “accessible” because she said “a lot of Western media is recycled with the same stark photos and catchphrases”.

After all, it was the challenge to change her own opinions that led Stephens to the mysterious land in the first place.

“One of my best but, unfortunately, last memories in North Korea is the New Year’s Eve party just before 2020,” she recalled. “The most famous bands were playing in the middle of Kim Il-sung Square with thousands and thousands of people.

“I remember seeing all these North Koreans drinking, singing, dancing, having fun and filming on their smartphones. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be anywhere in the world’.”