North Korea Journal by Michael Palin, Book Review

Reviewed by Brian W Major, member of the Communist Party of Canada.

Many of you might know Michael Palin. He was one of the Monty Python comedy troupe. His comedic antics were quite hilarious, and his work has been shown around the world. In later years, he also became a well-known BBC personality. In 2018, he took a camera crew to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea) for a 12-day trip around the country. Earlier this month, he published a travelogue about this trip.

It is very unusual for those of us on the Left to be able to read about the travels of Westerners to socialist countries. Some work has been written about travels to Cuba, but very little has been written about the DPRK. It was therefore surprising to read of this book documenting such a trip.

Michael Palin is clearly not a Communist. He begins his discussion in ways you might expect from a mainstream Western personality. Throughout the book, he often disparages the system and leadership of the DPRK. As his discussion continues, however, he clearly became quite fond of the Korean people, including his guides and “minders”. He even made quite critical remarks regarding how Korea is portrayed in Western media through its anti-communist propaganda machine. He successfully deconstructs dominant western narratives which minimize the achievements of the DPRK while also documenting his relatively open access that his camera crew was afforded on their trip.

In the book, Palin recounted an interaction between himself and his Korean guide. His discussion succinctly summarized a fundamental difference between capitalist and socialist ideology,

“Our way of life is based on freedom of speech…people can be as rude as they like about their leaders. In my country we are able to criticize our leaders if they do something wrong”. His guide responded, “That’s what makes us so different…Our leaders are very great. They are not individuals. They represent the masses, so we cannot criticize ourselves, can we?” (p. 123).

He talks about the rapprochement between the two Korean republics which led to the recent summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. His journey found that even Korean “propaganda” and discourse is changing, and reflecting the move toward peaceful reunification started by our comrade in Pyongyang. He also talked a bit about the fact that he literally ran into Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, on official US diplomatic business when he was working on his documentary.

It is also interesting to note that Palin showed some video clips of some of the funniest Monty Python sketches, including the “fish slapping” and the “dead parrot” routines. His Korean hosts found both to be absolutely funny. There is a real portrayal about the universality of comedy and a celebration of our shared humanity.

Communists should definitely read this book. It is full of quite stunning photography which shows the natural splendor and beauty of Korea. It also affords a rare glimpse of a non-communist who really attempts to get the pulse of everyday Koreans. He clearly shows a refreshing honesty about the beautiful, hard-working, and patriotic people that we almost never get to see!

It is with hope and anticipation that I look forward to the next International Meeting of Communist and Workers parties, scheduled to take place in 2020, which will be hosted by the Workers Party of Korea! Solidarity Forever, people!

North Korea Journal, by Michael Palin, Toronto, 2019, Random House Canada, 170