North Korea Journal by Michael Palin (2019)
Michael Palin is (at time of writing) 76 years of age. His career as a comedian, actor and adventurer of sorts has taken him across Africa, to both Poles, through the Himalayas, Latin America and now into The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This book is his account of twelve days spent meeting the people of this secretive state, and journeying across their homeland (where allowed).
The DPRK is not the easiest place to access. Palin goes first to China and then takes a train to cross the border. The first leg of his journey seems to be pleasant enough and the train is in good shape. The Korean staff are courteous and professional at all times under the glare of Palin’s critical eye. His train journey takes him from Sinuiju on the Chinese border all the way to the capital, Pyongyang, through arable land where mechanisation appears to be almost non-existent. He paints a medieval portrait of the DPRK.
Upon arriving, he books into a huge hotel with questionable service, according to Palin, where governmental motivation music can be heard through the walls at 6:30 am to inspire the population for the day ahead. It’s a common occurrence, the use of music to provide cohesion and motivation for a loyal people. Palin is not impressed. In fact, the one thing that stands out from this chronicle is Palin’s desire not to be impressed. Yet, he is, despite himself.
The book details his experiences each day for the duration of his stay. He and his team are assigned two ‘guides’ and are further accompanied by members of the Korean government’s tourist department throughout. Palin is unhappy that this is an infringement upon his personal freedom to go where he pleases. Yet, although he does mention in passing the levels of destruction perpetrated by the US air-force during the Korean War, he fails to understand, or try to understand, why the Korean people and their government might be so suspicious of an English film crew. Propaganda, anyone?
During a visit to the Juche Tower, a monument to Communism, Palin meets a tour guide at the top of the building. He questions her about her views and the political situation in the country. He questions his other female government-assigned guide and he questions just about everyone else he meets, trying to get them to speak freely on camera. Yet, he appears not to care that perhaps any condemnation of the government by these citizens could lead to trouble for them, maybe imprisonment. Rebel Voice found Palin’s approach to be selfish in the extreme at times. He seemed to be only concerned with his own agenda which was getting the inside line, the scoop, regardless of the danger that he could be putting Korean citizens into. Those he speaks with are polite with him, but uncomfortable. Yet he persists.
Palin does manage to get access to areas few other tourists do. He visits Kaesong and Panmunjom on the border with the south. He gets to see the DMZ, one of the most heavily fortified places on the planet. Again, during his chats with a soldier there, he gets into it regarding the leaders. The Koreans seem to suffer his foolishness quietly and with about as much good humour as they can muster. But his conduct might strike the reader as self-absorbed. OK, he wants the truth about how they feel living there, but do they have to be imprisoned for him to get it?
A cross-country trip to Wonsan is a curious one. This resort was built to accommodate a multitude of south Korean tourists, but was almost abandoned after a female tourist as shot by a soldier for straying from the permitted zones. South Korea is desperate to encourage tourism but suffers from paranoia regarding the malign influence that they suspect westerners, in particular, might have upon the populace. To this end, visitor movements are carefully regulated.
Throughout his stay there, Palin reflects upon the orderly nature of society. He meets with Koreans having a picnic during the May Day festivities and is surprised by the openness and obvious enjoyment they have day to day. Yes, the government keeps a tight rein on their lives and no, they do not have the same personal freedoms as we in the West, but is that such a bad thing?
Let’s be clear on this. Rebel Voice is not a Communist site and does not believe that Communism is a practical political ideology. Humanity has not evolved sufficiently to fully embrace Communism and will not for perhaps 2-300 years of global socialism. So don’t hold you breath for a Communist revolution. However, Communism does have much to recommend it. Palin harps on about the right of Westerners to openly criticise their governments. North Koreans don’t have that luxury. But does Western freedom to criticise achieve anything, or is it a sop designed to let people think they are making a difference by complaining, whereas in fact they make little headway in improving their social circumstances? At least in the DPRK the people know where they stand which is in obedience to the state. In western nations we are often hoodwinked into believing ourselves free when that is not the case.
Debt. Debt is a means of control in western nations and societies. Governments here encourage the purchase of debt. Houses. Cars. Loans for holidays. Loans for Christmas gifts. Loans for home improvements. Debt. TV ads. Newspaper ads. Magazine ads. Ads on buses. Ads on vans. Ads on cars. Ads on hoardings. Internet ads. Ads in movies. Ads for movies. Ads on radio. Ads for radio. Ads. Ads. Ads.
The DPRK does not have ads. Anywhere. No commercial enterprises. No invasion of privacy. No cajoling towards debt. No debt. The housing is provided by the state. Your job is provided by the state. Your wage is provided by the state. There is no worry about debt. The controls that are inherent in debt are replaced by the controls provided by the government. One master for another. Is the West so perfect?
Korea is a land where only about 20% is suitable for arable farming. The rest is mountainous. The population is about 22 million. When the Soviet Union fell, the DPRK experienced a severe famine form 1994-1998. The DPRK refers to this time as the Arduous March in reference to historical events. It is unknown exactly how many Koreans starved to death. Western (US) estimates cite figures as high as 3.5 million but this has not been corroborated and we can expect the US to have presented higher figures than are accurate. As the Koreans do acknowledge that there was a food shortage, we can accept that the numbers were certainly in the hundreds of thousands. It was a catastrophic failure of government and prompted a serious overhaul of the Korean food production system. The DPRK had placed all its eggs in one Soviet basket which then fell to pieces. Palin discusses this during his foray through the DPRK.
The reader might get the sense that Michael Palin was conflicted about his time there. He does, to be fair, state that there is much he enjoys about the DPRK, the cleanliness for example, the politeness, the lack of graffiti, the highly organised society. The negatives have already been mentioned. He also guffaws somewhat at the ‘matronly’ women dancing in the mornings as an inspiration to workers. But overall, he seems impressed by a state that is not as he had been led to believe. The people of the DPRK, it appears, have a great deal more freedom than Palin had previously thought.
In the afterword to this book, the director of Palin’s documentary about the DPRK, Neil Ferguson, speaks about the preparations for Palin’s visit. He details his desire to visit a DPRK pub to get a slice of normal life. The ‘guides’ steer him away, but he does manage to sneak a peek at the people inside and finds… that they’re as normal in their behaviour as those anywhere else. The population of the DPRK enjoy their alcohol and it’s a way of life there with state-issued beer tokens being regular currency. It becomes very interesting to learn of how DPRK citizens conduct themselves day to day almost the same as anywhere else, excepting the devotion to their Kim dynasty leaders.
This concept of an unfailingly obedient people who accept their place as subservient to a dynasty is not one which Michael Plain is comfortable with. He constantly refers to the twin portraits of the two dead Kim’s who ruled the DPRK since its formation. Palin’s comment are subtle but obvious in his abhorrence of the requirement to idolise the two men. In 2000, Michael Palin received a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) from Lizzie Windsor, monarch of England and the commonwealth. His colleague in Monty Python, John Cleese, turned one down in 2006 calling the award ‘too silly’. In 2019, Michael Plain received a knighthood from the same monarch. John Cleese turned down a life peerage from said monarch in 2009. So we can see that Michael Palin has a problem with the supremacist position of the Kim dynasty, but is OK with the supremacist position of the Windsor dynasty. Palin appears to sneer at the iconic (at least to north Koreans) portraits of the two Kim’s on walls and their images in statues. Yet he, presumably since he knelt before the Queen, is OK with Lizzie Windsor’s face on all the coins in her realm, and on bank-notes, and in portraits in government buildings, and with having special days to commemorate her birthdays and those of her family, and having a national anthem that lauds the monarch (even the official DPRK anthem does not do that). Palin is OK with being elevated above other Englishmen as he was when he accepted his CBE and knighthood. In short, Michael Palin is something of a hypocrite.
As the Palin chronicle, and journey, comes to an end, he turns 75 and celebrates his birthday in the DPRK. By his own account, the officials there are very generous in their expressions of joy towards him. Although they start out very regimented and even severe, the Koreans relax once they realise that their guests are not spies and become effusive. Rebel Voice got the sense that the officials were pretty nice people placed in an awkward position by the need to prevent Western interference in the running of the north Korean state. They’re not alone in the world in that, and one need only look at the attitudes of certain citizens in the USA towards those suspected of being Communist or, increasingly today, Muslim, to see greater intolerance than that found in the DPRK during Michael Palin’s visit.
The Democratic people’s Republic of Korea is a complex state. The people are, as is the case with all East Asians, polite, friendly, hard-working and determined to enjoy their lives. They also want what’s best for their children just like parents everywhere. They expressed no resentment towards Plain or his crew which would stand in stark contrast to many other states around the globe. The government is autocratic, supremacist and perhaps stubbornly independent to the point where they lack the mechanisation necessary for more efficient food production. US sanctions also play a substantial role in this systemic failure and that is a deliberate ploy by the US Establishment in their attempts to break the DPRK. But the state survives, and today could be said to thrive in so far as we can see. The current leader, Kim Jong Un, is trying to modernise attitudes and the DPRK is perhaps stronger than it has ever been.
Upon leaving, Michael Palin had this to say:
“As Pyongyang recedes into the distance, we turn and exchange smiles. Of relief, but also of regret. One thing we all agreed on at our farewell meal last night is that none of us would mind coming back.”
Michael Palin was someone perhaps determined to find faults everywhere during his trip to the DPRK. But the state, and more importantly her people, apparently won him over. There are many things that can be learned from this book. One is that the western MSM are not to be believed when it comes to the DPRK, or anywhere outside the remit of the Capitalist paymasters who own said MSM. Another is that people are people, no matter where you find them, each governed by rules and regulation which vary but never really change their essential nature. Palin discovered this in the DPRK. One more is that the only way to understand a place is to visit it with an open mind, with context being everything.
The North Korea Journal is a fine book in that it explores aspects of Korean society that outsiders rarely get to see. It showcases the best of the DPRK and the citizenry there whilst also pointing out the flaws. It has some very intriguing photos which may even be the best thing about this book. Sometimes a photo can be better than a thousand words and the DPRK appears beautiful and ordered in Palin’s pics. The text is light and well-structured and it’s not a heavy read. This book is recommended, but Plain’s jibes should be understood in the context of being made by a man contented with aristocracy in his own country whilst casually deriding it’s equivalent in that of another.
Sult scale rating: 7 out of 10. The photos alone would earn this book high marks. Palin’s account is light, informative but heavily biased in favour of what he perceives as Western democratic perfection. It’s an attitude most usually found among those of means in western societies and runs contrary to life on the working class streets of England and elsewhere. Yet his DPRK chronicle is well worth the short time it takes to read, if only for the pictures within.