Former Monty Python’s star Michael Palin aims with North Korean Journal to do for Pyongyang what The Life of Brian did for the New Testament. He almost succeeds.
Palin got the VIP tour, spending twelve days cornering the country—West, South, East and North—by train, car and private plane. He and his film crew come in by train from Beijing and tour Pyongyang’s revolutionary sites, the Juche Tower and Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, the Funfair and the Arch of Triumph and inspect from afar the world’s tallest unoccupied building, the unfinished 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, and take the metro to Mansu Hill to be acquainted with the twin 22-meter statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il watching over the City.
They travel down to the Kaesong and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), visit Wonsan’s beaches and Kumgang’s mountains, all punctuated by model farms, schools and “motorway” service stations. They fly from Wonsan to Samjiyon—the entry point for Mount Paektu, the North’s Fuji—but the peak eludes them as the weather trumps the mountain, and they are forced to settle for the foothills and a pilgrimage around the remnant artifacts from Kim Il Sung’s insurrectionary war against the Japanese occupiers in the early 40s.
North Korean Journal is the collateral perk of the central purpose of Palin’s passage to Pyongyang, shooting two documentaries for Channel 5 Television and ITN Productions all carefully choreographed in advance. The itinerary is detailed in this spare volume redolent with photos which for aficionados of North Korea will be like meeting old friends: Pyongyang railway station and the view of the apartments opposite the Koryo hotel, the DMZ and Kim Il Sung Square all have their place. For all his short trip, Palin had a breadth of access. Did that lead to a depth of understanding?
He certainly quickly saw through the tired stereotypes that thwart attempts to understand the North. But anyone with eyes can see. Bad maybe, but mad certainly not. As he notes
the trip had been an eye-opener, a chance to look behind the headlines and see this secretive country as few other Westerners ever will.
There is some introspection: “I still feel we have been manipulated for some greater end.” Yet the people of North Korea are people like us with the same cares and woes, pleasures and pains, trying to do their best in the face of adversity. The whole team agrees “none of us would mind coming back.”
The medium is the message. Of all the niche publishing of “holidays in North Korea”, this is the best. Palin says little that is not already known by those interested in contemporary events on the Peninsula. In fact he says less than many. Pedants will have little trouble spotting errors and infelicities. Kaesong wasn’t spared the “Allied bombing” because it was so close to the South, but rather it was part of the South below the 38th Parallel and was just “unlucky” to end up on the wrong side of the armistice line. The crossed hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush is the emblem of the Workers’ Party of Korea not the State. Nevertheless we can be grateful for small mercies and salute the messenger. Michael Palin’s public locus and media footprint will get this partial message to parts others can’t reach.
As the threat looms of going back to the future with a return of the bombast and belligerence of late 2017 between Trump and Kim Jong Un we can be grateful that there are a few more people in the West informed enough to stifle the martial impulses that offer short-cut solutions to intractable problems.
Glyn Ford is a former Euro-MP and author of North Korea on the Brink. His Talking to North Korea: Ending the Nuclear Standoff was published by Pluto in September.