Part 4 of 4 on my thoughts about Michael Palin in North Korea
OCTOBER 18, 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 the 4th and final part of a short series on my thoughts about his trip.
Early into his trip to North Korea, Michael Palin said that he felt like the propaganda was seeping into his soul. One might conclude, and many of the more cynical critics out there have, that the propaganda a visitor is exposed to plays a huge role in shaping their idea of the country. The critics would say that like some huge and real version of the movie The Truman Show, that everything shown to visitor is staged in order to present the best possible picture. Therefore if someone like Michael Palin visits North Korea and comes away with a view that is more positive than what they may have arrived with, then the propaganda machine has been successful.
There is no doubt that the North Korean government wants visitors to come away from a trip to their country with a more positive opinion. They fully understand that the typical view is of doom and gloom. Thus, in order to counter this, a person visiting on a tour will indeed be shown the best the country has to offer. It is also true that at times, some experiences might be set up.
After spending two weeks traveling the country Palin said this, “I know that the ideology here permeates every aspect of life.” He went on to say that he had not seen everything but what he had seen did not feel brutal or grim and in some ways felt like a happy place. This statement would seem to prove the cynical critics correct, that is, in Palin’s case the North Korean propaganda worked. However, in my estimation and experience, this conclusion would miss a very important point, which is that what you see on a tour is what life is actually like for most local people in North Korea.
I’ve experienced tours as well as visited villages way off the tourist path where I have not been not confined by a tourist itinerary. Through NGO work, I have been able to experience many opportunities of engagement with local people. It might have been as simple as an excursion to the beach where I’ve been able to meet people returning home from their workplaces. I’ve been to villages to plan water projects where no Americans had been since the Korean War. There have been opportunities for me to walk down streets in provincial cities where I have observed regular North Koreans living their daily lives. Whether on a tour or in a village, what I have seen of life outside of Pyongyang, is that it’s pretty much the same for most people. I am not saying that life inside North Korea is easy for everybody but what I can say that what Michael Palin saw on the tourist path, differed little from many other places I have been.
So did the propaganda work, as the cynics would suggest, or did Michael Palin’s opinion change because he was exposed to the real lives of local people? My answer is both yes and yes. The North Korean government was in a way successful but only because it allowed Mr. Palin to see how local people in North Korea really live and what he saw did not necessarily fit his preconceived notions. In essence, his view changed because he began to see them as people, living their lives in a country, which has limited freedoms compared to his but that they were doing their jobs, taking care of their families, and trying to live the best lives they could. Just like you and me.
This is really the crux of the issue; how do you and I view the North Korean people? Do we see them as fellow individual human beings or do we lump them all into one category and call it the North Korean Regime? A distinction does need to be made between the two. By the end of his trip, Michael Palin seemed to have made the distinction, which humanized the North Korea people in a way that changed his thinking. Can we not say this is a good thing?
This change in view also gave Mr. Palin hope for a better future for North Korea. “North Korea”, he said, “is at a crossroads.” He was I believe correct in this assessment, that the leadership of the country is a point where they must choose a new and more open way forward or keep the old system. He thought he had been lucky to have visited when he did because the country does seem to be moving in that new direction. While walking down Future Science Street in Pyongyang, Palin speculated about the future and noted that many say a market economy is taking hold. If they continue down the current path he noted, maybe in five years the street might be full of McDonald’s and iPhone advertisements. “If so” he said, “I’m glad to have seen it before it becomes like everywhere else.” If and when it does become “just like everywhere else,” such changes will be beneficial to not only the people in the North but to all Koreans and the world as a whole.
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 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