What kind of nation tells its citizens how they can wear their hair? As it turns out, the same kind that erects an enormous glass pyramid of a hotel in 1987 only to leave it wholly unoccupied to this day. Welcome to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a nation of state-sanctioned hairdos and the subject of Michael Palin's new travelogue, North Korea Journal.
In 2018, 10 years after Shane Smith whispered and skulked his way through "crazy land" for The VICE Guide to North Korea, the Monty Python alum fronted his own documentary, the ITN-produced Michael Palin in North Korea. North Korea Journal is the diary-like spin-off, its 15 entries expanding on what was revealed in the documentary, but not by much.
In his introduction, Palin assures us that "the bulk" of his account was scribbled down in the notebook he took with him on the trip, and that he merely tidied it up and "augmented the entries with memories I never had time to write down" once safely home in London. Judging by the book's content, it's hard to argue with that. Over 170 artfully-designed pages we're treated to very little of consequence about life in the so-called Hermit Kingdom, which is disappointing if hardly surprising.
Unlike Christopher Hitchens' 2001 trip for Vanity Fair, which required the late writer to travel under an assumed identity and pay what he later described as a "huge bribe", Palin's trip was all above board. The North Koreans knew he was coming, and it shows. Every conversation, excursion and interaction detailed in the book was carefully planned well in advance, and overseen by Palin's two smiling guides, Li So Hyang and Li Hyon Chol. We're told a gaggle of less personable officials hover constantly in the background, their presence felt by Palin and his crew throughout the course of the trip. The net effect of all this planning, not to mention the ceaseless surveillance, is a book that reveals the build-it-and-they-will-come weirdness of the place, but nothing whatsoever of the menace, brutality and Orwellian oppression that Hitchens and various defectors have described. This is a problem.
Consider the book's treatment of food. In one entry, Palin recounts being taken to meet a co-op farmer outside Wonsan, a coastal town the North Koreans are working day and night to turn into a cosmopolitan beachside resort. Regrettably, the entry is notable for what it leaves out rather than what it says. Sure, there's a darkly humourous anecdote about the North Koreans procuring an ancient tractor to sit in the background of a shot after they conclude that images of Palin tending the dry, clay-like soil by hand with the 40-something Mrs Kim Hyang Li would send all the wrong signals about the state of North Korean agriculture. But there's absolutely nothing here that conveys the truly grim reality faced by North Koreans day in, day out.
There's no mention of the fact that North Korea is a bona fide famine state, one that routinely records a food deficit in the millions of tonnes once the harvest numbers are in. The 10 million North Koreans currently facing severe food shortages? You won't find their stories or skeletal portraits here. And while there's a parenthetical acknowledgement that the 2018 harvest showed a 10 per cent drop in production, Palin neglects to inform his readers that things are as bad as they've been in 10 years. As for malnutrition, and its ruinous effects on generations of North Koreans, forget it. You won't learn that the average pre-school boy in North Korea is 4-cm shorter than his South Korean counterpart in these pages. All of which begs the question: What is the point of this book?
When he sets out from Dandong, the Chinese frontier town separated from North Korea by the river 'known as the Yalu to the Chinese and the Amnok to the Koreans,' Palin seems determined to make the most of things, to give credit where credit is due, and to get a sense of the real North Korea, whatever that may be. His description of the dining car on the train to Pyongyang sets the tone for what follows. "It reminds me of what dining cars used to be like in England, and can no longer be bothered to be," he says. It's all very magnanimous and optimistic, inspired no doubt by the "warm breeze of rapprochement" he senses in the air, but this even handedness is thoroughly undeserved.
Palin was never going to get a sense of the "real" North Korea because, white-on-rice-style supervision aside, real North Koreans simply aren't programmed for independent thought. This is a nation that has been living under a brutal, cultish dictatorship for 70 years. (Side note: The DPRK was established at precisely the same time that George Orwell was putting the finishing touches on 1984.) It's also a place where every movie, every concert and every billboard is dedicated to the Dear Leaders. Even the eloquent poem recited for Palin's benefit on a visit to a local school turned out to be yet another example of hero-worship, much to the author's disappointment. It's no exaggeration to say that every single person we encounter in this book is a line-toeing, Dear Leader lapel-pin wearing disciple of the deified heads of state. So much for there being no religion in North Korea. Yet if you look hard enough, in the gaps between Palin's words, you might just get a sense of what North Korea is like, and it certainly isn't somewhere you want to spend your next beach holiday.
Through Palin's observations of smiling propaganda artists, obedient workers manning concession stands in an empty airport, and women performing highly choreographed routines on the street during the morning peak hour to inspire workers to greater efforts, a sad truth slowly reveals itself to those who care to look. To put it in the clearest possible terms, there is no point to these people's lives apart from celebrating the Dear Leaders and building things in their honour, whether they're empty resort towns, an unnecessarily large army, hotels that stand unoccupied, or gargantuan monuments to the reunification of Korea, a truly terrifying prospect if ever the South Koreans heard one. And if these people seem happy enough, it's only because what we're looking at here is an entire nation suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
In much the same way that Palin's documentary made for awkward viewing, North Korea Journal left me with the impression that I'd just voluntarily consumed "content" that has been bought and paid for by someone with an agenda. There's something seriously amiss here and I couldn't help but wonder if Palin and ITN have been co-opted by Kim Jong-un, the pudgy basketball fan who is wont to have members of his own family tracked down and murdered. In the end, Palin concedes it's a distinct possibility. He writes that, "for all the access we've had here, for the increasingly warm relations between us and our minders, they've been playing a game with us. We have been indulged, but never fully informed. We have been allowed more sustained access to this cagey country than most broadcasters, but I still feel that we have been subtly manipulated for some greater end". Well, yes. Read with an uncritical eye, Palin's book would probably lead you to think that North Korea is a pretty weird place, but not that bad. Of course, the truth is far more sinister than that, which is why the North Koreans go to such extraordinary lengths to distort and obscure it.
- T.J. Collins is a Sydney writer and critic.
- North Korea Journal, by Michael Palin. Penguin, $29.99.