Part 3 of 4 on my thoughts about Michael Palin in North Korea

*Screenshot courtesy of YouTube

OCTOBER 15, 2018

The 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 3 of a short series on my thoughts about his trip.

After visiting Wonsan’s newly renovated Kalma Airport, where he was pretty much the only person there, Michael Palin was able to visit the Cheonsam Cooperative Farm outside of Wonsan. I particularly enjoyed this segment because he joined a local farmer named Kim Hyan-whee, who I found to be a familiar face. During my 2012 trip to North Korea with Waves for Water, it was Mrs. Kim who was trained in how to use the bucket water filtration systems which our group left behind at the farm. We, like Mr. Palin were also able to visit her home. She didn’t feed us lunch as she did for Mr. Palin, so was a bit jealous! I was also pleasantly surprised that she had not seemed to age much and looked exactly the same as when I’d met her 6 years earlier.

From Wonsan Palin moved down the coast to Geumgang-san or Diamond Mountain where he seemed to feel a sense of freedom he’d not experienced in the country. I’ve been to Geumgang and due to its natural surroundings and a visitor’s ability to hike through the mountains, one does get a different feeling. Maybe it’s that of not being watched all the time. No matter the reason, I very much understand how he felt. He was also able to have picnic lunch in what he was hoping might be place to have an open conversation with his guide.

Palin’s questions and comments were about the differences between life in Great Britain and life in North Korea, particularly concerning his freedom to criticize his leaders. His guide responded as one might expect a North Korean to when being asked questions on camera. She responded that since the leaders represent the people, criticizing them would amount to criticizing oneself. That is, her replies were very much in line with a feeling of nationalism and pride in her country.

Some might point out that since she was on camera, what else could she say? She was certainly not going to be critical of her government and leaders while being videotaped by a British film crew. This might be so, but I think there is a deeper layer to her answers.

I’ve had many unscripted and what you might call semi-private conversations with guides inside North Korea. In all of these conversations, no video cameras or other recording devices were present. It was just me and them and every time questions of politics or loyalty came up, the answers were always along the same lines of Palin’s guide. Here one might question that it’s their job to deal with foreigners and point out that only people loyal to their government and system would be picked for such a job. While I am sure there is some measure of truth to that point, I’ve also heard the same kinds of answers from people who were not tour guides but regular local workers. What I’m getting at is that when we hear North Koreans answering questions from foreigners about their government and system, we pretty much hear across the boards the same kinds of responses.

Now it may be that a positive response is really the only kind of response they can safely give. That’s a point I would grant since it’s still not a place where one can openly speak their mind. However in my observations of quite a lot of local people in the country, patriotism and respect for their government seems to be a genuine feeling across all strata of society. Certainly they respond in a certain manner because that’s how they must respond but it’s also, I believe, the only way they really know how to respond.

If my observations are correct, then what we see in this conversation between a British visitor and a local North Korean guide is not something unusual and it’s not something necessary staged or only said out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Although I am sure there are exceptions, by and large, her feelings and answers actually reflect what one might hear from any local, anywhere in the country at any time.

The reality inside North Korea is that for the vast majority of people, respect for the government and a sense of nationalism is baked into their thinking through years of education and propaganda. This is important to recognize because it again brings us back to the idea of understanding how they think and act. If we want to see a better future between North Korea and the outside world, at least for our part, we need to have some measure of understanding of the people and what they believe.

Michael Palin ends the conversation with his guide by saying he respects her respect of her leaders and that he would not want to try and change her way of thinking. He’s right on this point as well because there is not much we can do from the outside to change their ways of thinking. We can give them a picture of what the world looks like, and that is really important, however real changes can only come from within.

If you haven’t seen the special, I’d highly recommend checking it out. You can find it on the National Geographic Channel’s website

Keep an eye out for my take on Palin’s final thoughts on his visit to North Korea in part 4 of this short series of my thoughts on his trip.

Gabe Segoine

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

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