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Michael Palin in North Korea: 'I realise almost immediately that I have gone too far. Quite a long way too far'

Michael Palin writes about what it’s like to journey to the tightly-controlled North Korea – and the mistakes he makes while filming two huge statues of the Great Leaders in Pyongyang.

Michael Palin

THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, Michael Palin has travelled across the world – from Russia to Brazil, he’s brought us his experiences in books about his journeys. For his latest trip, he went somewhere that is notoriously difficult to travel in: North Korea. The ex-Monty Python star filmed his trip for a three-part series, and has now brought out a book based on the trip: North Korea Journal. The book captures every aspect of what it was like to visit such a tightly-controlled country, something which Palin isn’t used to.

In this extract from the book, he writes about what happened when he went to visit the statue of the Great Leaders – the grand monument on Mansu Hill – in Pyongyang, The huge bronze statues show the deceased supreme leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. But as Palin found out, you don’t mention that they’re dead.

7 train guards Train guards on the way to Pyongyang.

I learn a number of lessons in the next couple of hours. One is that the Great Leaders must only be photographed in their entirety. It is forbidden to show them in part or in close-up. Another is the importance of getting their titles right, either referring to them as Great Leaders of Great Generals or specifically Generalissimo or President for Kim Il-sung and General for Kim Jong II.

It’s also essential, at all times, to maintain respectful behaviour in their presence. When I sat on one of the steps I was told to get up again and there were palpable cries of horror when our director was seen running to fetch a piece of camera equipment. After my first, quite complicated piece to camera, there was much head-shaking amongst the minders and I was asked to do it again. Not for any political or ideological reasons, but because I had a hand in my pocket.

It’s in this far-from-relaxed atmosphere that I embark on my first interview with So Hyang [my guide]. She speaks English well, and is clearly trying to be as obliging as possible, but from the start she is defensive. Not surprisingly, as our five minders are lined up behind the camera, watching every move. I begin by asking So Hyang about the badges with the faces of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that everybody has pinned on their left breast. Are they compulsory? She shakes her head, dismissing my question. Why should they be?

21a Michael and So Hyang statues Michael Palin and So Hyang at the statues of the Great Leaders. Source: Jaimie Gramston

Any of the masses (and she uses the word ‘masses’ quite unselfconsciously) would want to wear the badges because the Great Leaders are always alive in their hearts.

As I press her to enlarge on her feelings towards the Leaders, I sense increasing discomfort. There can be no speculation or elaboration of the role of the Leaders. That would be to question the ‘single-hearted unity’ of the country. I try another tack. The

Leaders are dressed very ordinarily. Is this deliberate?

She shrugs off the implication.

‘They don’t want to look special. They are humble and simple.’

And seventy-two feet tall.

The Great Leaders are the heads of the family, she explains. All the love of the people and the love of the country are embodied in them.

I suggest that even the best families have their disagreements. Might there not be things which the leaders do which other members of the family disagree with? I realise almost immediately that I have gone too far. Quite a long way too far. So Hyang shakes her head and looks away in embarrassment. The interview is terminated. There is no direct confrontation over my impertinent question. No one must lose face. Instead our tour company minders call the director across and they go into a finger-wagging huddle.

The interview is not resumed. So Hyang looks shy and apologetic and I’m apologetic too.

I just didn’t expect the curtain to come down so definitively and so early in the process.

This extract is taken from North Korea Journal by Michael Palin, published by Hutchinson, out now.

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