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Book Review: North Korea Journal – Michael Palin

Ford, G. (2019). North Korea Journal: Michael Palin looks back on an orchestrated trip to world’s most mysterious country, South China Morning Post, 26 November. DOI: korea-journal-michael-palin-looks-back-orchestrated

3.5 stars

With his new book North Korea Journal, former Monty Python star Michael Palin aims to do for Pyongyang what his comedy troupe’s lm The Life of Brian did for the New Testament. He almost succeeds.

Palin got the VIP tour, spending 12 days travelling the country by train, car and private plane. He and his lm 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.

From afar they inspect the world’s tallest unoccupied building, the unnished 105- story Ryugyong Hotel, and take the metro to Mansu Hill to be acquainted with the twin 22-metre statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il watching over the city.

They travel down to the Kaesong and the demilitarised 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 Mount 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 artefacts from Kim Il-sung’s insurrectionary war against the Japanese occupiers in the early 40s.

North Korea 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 full of photos which will be like meeting old friends for acionados of North Korea [1]: Pyongyang Railway Station and the view of the apartments opposite the Koryo hotel, the DMZ and Kim Il-sung Square all have their place. Palin had a breadth of access, but 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.

Pedants will have little trouble spotting errors – 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. The crossed hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush is the emblem of the Workers’ Party of Korea, not the State.

Still, we can be grateful for small mercies and salute the messenger. Palin’s public locus and media footprint will get this partial message to parts others cannot reach.

As the threat looms of going back to the future with a return of the bombast and belligerence of late 2017 between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, we can be grateful that there are a few more people in the West informed enough to stie the martial impulses that oer short-cut solutions to intractable problems.

[1] north-koreans-award-winning-photographer-new-book