Part 2 of 4 on my thoughts about Michael Palin in North Korea
OCTOBER 3, 2018
National Geographic Channel recently aired a new special on North Korea. After a reported three years of negotiating the terms of the trip, Michael Palin of Monty Python fame traveled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) otherwise known as North Korea. Here is part 2 of a short series on my thoughts about his trip.
After his time in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, Michael Palin set out for the DMZ. They seemed to get a fair amount of footage on the road but apparently were not able to shoot much of life outside the capital. I thought this was a shame as there is a pretty big contrast when you leave the city and enter the countryside. By contrast, the capital is a bustling metropolis with people leading busy city lives but countryside life is simple and for many a lot more difficult.
In my experience as a non-journalist, taking photos and video outside the capital has been fairly easy as long as we don’t shoot things which they would consider “bad.” In other words, poor people, military and the like.
Countryside life in general, at least as observable from the confines of a bus does not seem to be off limits for us non-journalists. However for journalists, it seems there is still a pretty big trust gap which prevents them from having the same kinds if access. I view this as a problem because it prevents journalists from telling the broader story of life inside North Korea. My hope is that the general trust gap between the north and outside journalists might be closed and the broader picture of life outside Pyongyang might be more easily captured.
It was not Palin’s first time at the DMZ as he’d visited from the South in 1996. During his previous visit, it was his dream to someday visit from the North. We get to see his dream finally come true but it was not all peaches and cream. One comment he made which caught my attention was that the DMZ itself represents a massive failure of diplomacy. This was reflected in his dialogue with the North Korean official military guide.
Things took a turn when he questioned how the North could claim they won the Korean War. Their conversation brought to my mind a memory of when I visited the same location with my family in 2013. Our group joined another for the DMZ tour and one of the other group members, a man from Australia also questioned how the North could claim they won. Since the conflict ended in an armistice between the US an UN forces and a ceasefire between the North and South, how was that a victory? The response was exactly the same as the official’s to Michael Palin. Since the North’s version of events is that they were attacked first, their having successfully defended themselves from being taken over by outside forces was in itself a win.
This kind of dialogue gives us an important window into the minds of average North Koreans and how they see things. We like to ask why they need a nuclear program. Michael Palin brought this subject up as well and was immediately answered with the standard “we need them for self-defense” response. I’ve also heard this response and it’s the basic position of not only officials but regular North Korean people. In their minds, the North is constantly under threat of invasion and war, they must be able to defend themselves, and that nuclear weapons are the best tool for doing so. Whether we think this position is reasonable or not, in order to have dialogue, we need to at the very least understand where they are coming from.
Michael Palin pushed the guide on the nuclear question but at the same time had the presence of mind to try and understand where the other side was coming from. This is something which the Australian visitor I observed in 2013 totally missed. As the military official defended his countries position, Palin was at his best as he totally defused the situation by making an amazing statement. In effect he said that we can understand each other by meeting, talking and sharing our experiences, rather than fighting. He concluded with, “It’s a simple message, and I hope one day more people will understand it.” The North Korean soldier responded to this overture by saying he is also “one of those people who want to see world peace” and with a smile, agreed with Palin’s wish for success with no more loss of life.
One might be tempted to think this kind of conversation doesn’t really make any difference in the larger picture. To those who may be tempted to draw such a conclusion, I would point out that this one conversation can be taken as a microcosm of how things can work if we pursue understanding instead of conflict. In my personal conversations with North Koreans, they have indicated they are tired of war and really do want peace. Did Michael Palin and the North Korean military guide agree on everything? Of course not, however a simple gesture of peace and understanding offered by one individual to another succeeded where decades of geo-political diplomacy have failed. If we can take the response of this military guide at the DMZ as any indication of how most regular North Koreans might also respond to such a message of peaceful understanding, then it should give us great hope for a North Korea that wishes to live at peace with the rest of the world.
If you haven’t seen the special, I’d highly recommend checking it out. You can find it on the National Geographic Channel’s webste nationalgeographic.com.
About Gabe Segoine: President and founder of LNKM and author of Surfing North Korea and Other Stories from Inside, Gabe has passion to see peace and ultimately unification of the Korean peninsula. He engages NK through various avenues such as humanitarian aid, business and sports-cultural exchange, and endeavors to see beneficial development opportunities change the way NK and the rest of the world interact.
Tags: North Korea, Michael Palin, Discovery Channel, NK, Michael Palin in North Korea