Confronting Insanity

When dialog fails. Utterly.

Large statues of two men, both smiling and one is gesturing to the horizon. A long row of people bow before them.

The Mansu Hill Grand Monument; photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen CC BY-SA 3.0 (Mods)

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November 30th at 2:23pm

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My knowledge of North Korea is thin.

Even I know that as insane as the regime can be, no one within its borders will openly criticize it. Unfortunately, the host of Michael Palin in North Korea tests whether or not that's true on multiple occasions - to the detriment of the entire show.

After a short pause, the woman replies, in a dead voice, "Yes, it is much better now."

So close

I've seen many of Palin's travel specials. I have enjoyed them all, particularly Full Circle and New Europe.

He's not an intellectual, and his shows don't inspire me to dig in with locals about food, history, and culture. Rather, Palin is a brilliant communicator of the wonder of travel. He's at his best when he stumbles upon something odd or interesting that he really wants to show you.

Like when he stands at his window to listen to the citywide broadcast of the song Where Are You, Dear General? which he calls the "sound of Pyongyang." We understand how strange it is, and we smile with him at the spectacle.

He comes off as a mildly goofy, intrigued bystander watching Pyongyang's famous "traffic ladies," nodding toward the street to say, "Get a load of this!"

In the segment about Wonsan-Kalma Airport, Palin sees the empty facility as something amazing and ludicrous - which it is - but he doesn't jump to a condemnation of juche (the country's official ideology) or make a comparison to the superior West. He sees the gleaming building as a "statement of intent that [North Korea] is going out to the world."

The segments above are classic Travel Palin: amused, light-hearted, non-judgmental, optimistic, observant without getting too far into it. Above all, they show him open to both the absurdity and the beauty of travel - which is the absurdity and beauty of life.

If the entire show had unfurled in such a manner, I would have loved it.

Unfortunately, Palin tries to have conversations with crazy on multiple occasions.

Slow motion car crashes

Our host repeatedly broaches the subject of politics with locals.

He's not a particularly good interviewer and he doesn't seem prepared. He just starts talking about stuff, with cameras rolling, unconcerned that every second which airs on television will be scrutinized by internal security teams after the fact.

The process is painful to watch.

Three soldiers with their backs to us, staring at a three-story concrete building a couple hundred feet away

South Korean soldiers at the JSA, looking at Panmungak Hall in North Korea; photo by Henrik Ishihara CC BY-SA 3.0 (Mods)

At the JSA

After hearing a brief lecture about the Korean War, he tells a Senior Lieutenant at the Joint Security Area, "It's interesting to hear your side of it. I was ten years old when the armistice ended the conflict in 1953, and we were told we had won. And you believe you had won. So there we are."

"If a rabbit is attacked by a group of wolves," the officer asks, "and the rabbit defends its own house, who do you think wins?"

Palin chuckles before copping out. "Well, I would say there are wolves on both sides. So neither side won."

[Michael Palin's] strength is that he's a brilliant communicator of the wonder of travel.

I don't understand what kind of reaction he expects from an officer at the Korean DMZ. Palin doesn't have a single fact or historical event to support whatever argument he's trying to make, either. The scene is a gratutitous acknowledgment of the concept of indoctrination. It teaches us nothing.

It continues on a farm

Standing in a field at the Cheongsam Cooperative Farm, Palin asks a farmer to recall life in the DPRK twenty-five years ago. "We remember hearing in the West that you had a very bad shortage of food in the 1990s. Are things much better now?"

After a short pause, the woman replies, in a dead voice, "Yes, it is much better now."


Huge white congressional building in the distance with a line of empty flagpoles to one side and one woman walking by with an umbrella to protect her from the sun

Mansudae Assembly Hall, the seat of the Supreme People's Assembly; photo by Nicor CC BY-SA 3.0 (Mods)

Again, I have no idea what Palin anticipates the woman will say. Official tour guides and minders stand behind the camera. The famine continues to embarrass the regime, and they had warned Palin not to discuss the subject.

He forges ahead anyway, potentially endangering a farmer's life for footage of a citizen "shutting down" when confronted with politics.

Bollocks on the rocks

The worst encounter takes place on boulders in a dry riverbed with the Kumgang Mountains as a backdrop. Palin thinks the setting will be "a good place to have a more open conversation."

Narrow riverbed of rocks snaking between mountains covered by trees

The Kumgang Mountains, where a most uncomfortable conversation took place; photo by Clay Gilliland CC BY-SA 2.0 (Mods)

His first serious question, on how North Koreans view Britain, demonstrates that his guide is incapable of speaking intelligently in English - or doesn't want to. Her halting response is, "By appearance, you look so different."

Palin then turns the conversation to "our way of life," where, thanks to "freedom of speech" and "freedom of thought," Britons can be "as rude as they want about their leaders."

The guide could not be less interested in the ham-fisted conversation. Her arms wrap around her body in a tight ball, and her expression says, Nope.

The guide begins spouting nonsense. "[Our leaders] represent us, the masses, so we cannot criticize ourselves. [It's] like offending... ourselves." She either believes that, or she's thinking on her feet, in a foreign language, with the threat of labor camps racing through her mind.

Palin tries coaxing her to step toward the middle ground. "I absolutely respect the respect you have for your leaders," he reassures her, chuckling at his botched sentence. "I wouldn't want to change your feelings at all, but it would just be nice to talk about them."

The guide could not be less interested in the ham-fisted conversation. Her arms wrap around her body in a tight ball, and her expression says, Nope.

Her words provide even more clarity: "That's why we are so different from you."

Bright, colorful metro station with well-maintained trains and chandeliers

North Korea has a beautiful metro system in the capital, Pyongyang. This is similar to other communist regimes. Photo by Roman Bansen CC BY-SA 3.0 (Mods)

Later, back at the hotel, Palin speaks to the camera: "It's so difficult whenever you get onto any subject concerning the leadership. They just stop."

Exactly. They just stop.

That's what I wanted, too.

Michael Palin in North Korea shows a side of the country many Westerners don't know, but the show also delves into awkward, aimless dialogues about politics with little point and even less benefit - conversations which ultimately taint the noble effort of nudging the Hermit Kingdom and its people into the sunlight of the global community.

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