When you read the papers or watch TV soundbites of North Korean military parades, or even of President Trump shaking Kim Jong Un’s hand at the DMZ, you get little actual sense of the country. Even what we know historically about North Korea as a battleground for beleaguered U.S. Marines fighting in whirling snow against invading Chinese during the winter of 1950-51 doesn’t really do the trick. (Except for veterans of that conflict.)
But then comes Sir Michael Palin of Monty Python fame to clear things up somewhat, one of those types who unlike many Hollywood cut-ups, has actually grown into a mature intellect and person. His impressive travel documentary on North Korea, aired recently on the National Geographic channel, made me see and feel this enigmatic place more effectively than anything had previously done.
Of course there have been carpers, asking, in essence: What could Palin really “get” of the massive unfairness and cruelty operant in such a totalitarian dictatorship? Or of its cybertheft (aimed at the West), a government-backed specialty? They do have a point, but I’m going to shunt these naysayers aside, and first salute Palin’s British guts for just getting around in such a country – something I and many of you would never do, preferring vacations in Florida or the Big Apple!
Two things Palin did in such urbane, non-boring fashion were in my view, of real importance. The first was showing North Korea’s great physical beauty, especially its regal mountain chains, plus beachside venues, all made more august by the eerie lack of traffic on roads and highways. Bicycles? Yes, many of those about, and even there, I almost felt envious, wanting to pedal around myself and really touch such splendid surroundings, so to speak, rather than see stuff fly by from within heated or air-conditioned vehicles, as occurs here.
And then came the people Palin encountered. Paradoxically, North Korean men, women, and children in this documentary had a more unfeigned, natural quality than many of our more skittish and “cynicized” do here. Sure, only a certain chosen swath talked to the visiting Brit (through interpreters). And yes, a good million did starve to death during the ‘90s, and there must still be ghastly food shortages in the country. (With prolonged hunger apparently among the worst things humans can endure.)
In addition, there are still those dangerous nukes and missiles in the hands of a capricious despot, one who requires total fealty and worship from his subjects. For certain the military comes out asymmetrically tops in this country, as it doesn’t in the thriving capitalist nation to the south, so different from its rigid Communist neighbor.
You really feel this “asymmetricality” – thanks to Palin’s fine documentary – by seeing him at a spanking new airport in North Korea, but with virtually no one in it! A dearth of line-ups here and really, nothing much going on, yet personnel in spanking fine uniforms snap right into action when Palin comes their way.
He then reveals his plucky English courage by taking a flight up to a North Korean “tourist” destination, traveling on a Soviet-era aircraft of 1967! Would you do this? I sure wouldn’t. Though the plane did look comfortable inside...
And then there are the different foods Palin was offered, again, humanizing people preparing it, plus collective farmers we see growing crops in the fields, etc.
All akin to the Nazis’ Theresienstadt concentration camp, ersatz and dolled up during WW II for a Red Cross visit? Maybe, yet Palin did diplomatically pose some relatively tough questions for his Korean interlocutors.
In sum, was all this better than nothing? No question. As a perhaps frivolous analogy, if, for instance, you want to quit smoking and only manage to do so for five weeks, shouldn’t you pat yourself on the back? At least you did something, right? Again, better than nothing…
And if you want to get a more palpable sense of contemporary North Korea than what one generally obtains from our news, what a start can be made via Palin’s tasteful documentary. My hat is off to him and to his entire production crew; they really gave us some distinguished TV here, and on a very important subject.
B.B. Singer has taught at several area colleges including Niagara University.