Round North Korea with Michael Palin in rose-tinted spectacles

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

Michael Palin in North Korea, a two-part documentary in which the Python is given a tightly choreographed tour of that country, aired on Channel 5 last year. Palin dances with cheerfully drunk residents of the country on International Workers’ Day; picnics with his guide, a woman called So Hyang; plays catch with an inflatable globe with some children; learns Taekwondo; sees some beautiful scenery — mountains, rivers as well as cities comprised of coordinated, colourful blocks, with monuments dedicated to the Great Leaders (as the rulers of North Korea past and present are collectively called). But there are some more sinister sights, such as a road lined with huge concrete pillars, ready to be knocked down to obstruct it in the event of an invasion from the south. This book is the journal — though evidently very edited; it reads nothing like a diary kept during the trip.

Palin states his aims in the documentary as being to meet — truly meet — ordinary North Koreans and show that ‘people, no matter their background, are much closer to us than we think’. It’s an ambitious task, as the journey has been planned by a travel agency that arranges carefully curated, government-approved visits to the closed-off country. Palin is chaperoned by two guides and a ‘gaggle of officials’, who (as becomes apparent) monitor everything. While the crew prepares to film anti-American cards and posters in a gift shop, these men quickly clear them away, leaving only cards of the Great Leaders. In another shot of Palin and a farmer working in the fields, the same officials hurriedly arrange for a tractor to be brought in, to present the country as being more modernised to western viewers.

Palin is candid in this book about feeling there is something missing: ‘They’ve been playing a game with us. We have been indulged, but never fully informed.’ He recognises that the country he is shown is, for the most part, fake. But his desire to find something good is overriding. When he visits a school, he writes: ‘Is this a show school? Undoubtedly’, and then, as though grasping for something positive, concludes: ‘But even if just one school in Pyongyang is equipped like this, it’s impressive.’

There are good anecdotes. The crew’s minders and guides organise a 75th birthday party for him, with cake, balloons, singing and drinking. So Hyang, in her ‘black business suit’, draws a greeting on a sandy beach with her heel —a giant heart with ‘Michael’ inside. The production team even show her the fish slap scene from Monty Python and she laughs loudly. ‘Friendships grew,’ Palin writes.

But the book doesn’t do much to make us feel we know the North Koreans. Palin’s writing lacks the vigour of his presenting; it isn’t as evocative or inspiring as it should be when describing somewhere so cut off from the rest of the world. The documentary — showing scenes of rejoicing, dancing and eating — manages this to a greater degree. It makes a big difference to see a smiling face rather than having one described.

Above all, Palin doesn’t seem to be searching for the truth. While he investigates the Great Leaders’ connection to Mount Paektu — near where the first leader was said to have led the Korean army during the Japanese occupation — he never wonders how content the people surrounding him really are, or questions what he interprets as peacefulness in the places he visits. In Kaesong he writes: ‘This feels like… a relaxed town. It’s spring, the trees are in blossom, the place is well kept. The people seem happy.’ This misplaced optimism was also reflected in an interview he gave at the Edinburgh TV festival: ‘North Korea was very serene and peaceful. Pyongyang is a wonderful city; it’s very quiet, there’s no traffic or advertising. I’d love to go back.’

Everything about this book, and the documentary it supplements, can be summed up in Palin’s appreciation of the silence of Pyongyang — the lack of sirens, traffic, shouting. A silent city may sound like a dream. But in this case, calm isn’t a reflection of the mood of the people but  a symptom of the oppression they live under. It’s a sinister silence that speaks of lack of freedom and basic human rights, a silence that speaks of fear.

This book is little more than an inadvertent tourist guide to a state no one would want to live in.

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