During the fortnight he spent in North Korea in May 2018 travel writer (and ex Python) Michael Palin kept a journal which he shares in this new book.
Michael had been invited to go there to make a documentary for Channel Five accompanied by a camera crew. He had high hopes that he would be able to prise open this notoriously secretive country, officially known as the DPKR, for his viewers and to have a chance to mix with ordinary people. But these hopes were soon dashed as his visit was tightly controlled by the authorities. At all times he was accompanied by two tour guides and a gaggle of official minders.
On arrival in the capital city of Pyongyang, he was somewhat disappointed to find it was just another conventional big city apart from one huge futuristic glass pyramid which at over 1000 ft high is the tallest unoccupied building in the world.
Almost everyone in the city was dressed in subdued colours and inexpensive fabrics and wore a party badge. The smiling avuncular faces of the Great Leaders which were displayed everywhere side by side, equal in size and neatly framed, looked about as threatening to him as a Specsavers Ad.
His days were filled with official visits to landmarks and various institutions. At a middle school, he was greeted in English, which he was surprised to find, was a compulsory subject. The irrepressible Michael played a geography quiz with the students which included bouncing an inflated globe of the world around the class.
At the Mansudae Art Studio, the creative hub of Pyongyang, and a massive state enterprise 1000 people are employed to make artworks glorifying the regime in different media. Some of the posters he saw here were fierce and shockingly anti -American.
At a beauty salon and barber’s shop was a wall chart showing the15 officially approved haircuts. Michael opted for a massage which was duly delivered by a stern lady with fingers of steel (the outcome was better than he expected.)
The meals for him and his team were served in hotels and in restaurants run by the KITC (The Korean International Tourism Company) where they were kept well away from ordinary people. Only once were they taken to dine at a small friendly Korean barbecue restaurant filled with family groups. And on May Day, a national holiday in the DPKR, they were allowed to go (accompanied by their minders of course) to the city’s biggest amusement park where people were enjoying themselves rather raucously, eating and drinking and playing games. Michael was invited to mix and mingle with them briefly.
The tour continued away from the city and into the countryside where there were more organised visits including ones to an old temple, an ancient Confucian Academy and a co-operative farm. He could ask questions, but the answers invariably sounded more like PR speak.
At the Demilitarized zone, which divides Korea into communist North and capitalist South, he heard the official North Korean, but historically incorrect version of the Korean war (it is known there as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War).
Over time he developed a friendly avuncular relationship with So Hyang, his young tour guide. Very occasionally, he could not resist trying to engage her in a political discussion.
“Our way of life is based on freedom of speech.” he once said.” people can be as rude as they like about their leaders. In my country, we are able to criticise our leaders if they do something wrong, and like any human beings they frequently do make mistakes.”
So Hyang played it straight back to him.
““That’s what makes us so different,” she replied. ’Our leaders are very great. They are not individuals. They represent the masses, so we cannot criticise ourselves, can we?”
At the end of his visit, Palin felt that despite the increasingly warm contact they had had with their minders they had been playing a game with them and that they had been subtly manipulated for a greater end.
Michael Palin is an excellent travel writer, and his diary provides an entertaining glimpse into the North Korean way of life. But it did not tempt me into adding North Korea to my bucket list.
To build tourism with the Western world this repressive and secretive dictatorship would first have to relax the rules and not curtail the freedom of tourists to such an extent. And there are other dangers to be aware of, which is why it is important to read the cautionary advice on the New Zealand Government website Safe Travel should you be at all tempted to travel there.
North Korea Journal is by Michael Palin. Imprint: Hutchinson. RRP $38
Reviews by Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveller, writer & passionate home cook