A degree of deception seems to have been required to get travel documentary maker Palin into probably the world's most repressive, evil, backward and publicity-shy state, plus his four-man film crew. After all, the belligerent, apparently nuclear-armed country isn't the sort of place about which you can wake up one morning and suddenly say, "I've got a damn good idea. Let's pop over to North Korea and film a travelogue that will show how it really is".

In 2016 Palin had received an email from ITN Productions (Independent Television Network) in the UK asking him to present a series for ITN and Channel 5 on North Korea, although, as we learn from him in the book, neither of these two companies, particularly ITN with its record of investigative journalism, must be mentioned to the North Koreans in connection with his visit. Both are seen as tools of the British government, and therefore lackeys of the Americans.

In fact, ITN and Channel 5's chief contact was an English tour operator called Nick Bonner, a man who has been organising tours to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea – as the country calls itself – for 25 years, and knows the secretive place intimately. Presumably he smoothed the way for the visit, as it is his company Koryo tours that will assemble Palin's itinerary. But we wonder what will be the price to pay for Bonner and Koryo once the deception is revealed in Palin's ensuing two-part documentary and this tie-in book?

It's all a bit of a mystery, then, and it would have been satisfying to find it more clearly explained. Palin, of course, does have a good reputation, having forged an impressive career as a world traveller following his initial fame as one of "Monty Python's Flying Circus". He has subsequently produced travelogues and accompanying books on the Sahara Desert, the Himalayas, the North and South Poles, Brazil and a few other places.

Perhaps the North Koreans simply like him because he's a lumberjack and he's OK, or they're closet admirers of the Dead Parrot, the Piranha Brothers, Mr Gumby and "Ripping Yarns". Or possibly in the impoverished, sanction-hit country their daily menu also includes Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam.

But we shouldn't joke about a country that experienced serious famine causing hundreds of thousands of deaths in the 1990s and apparently still can't feed its people properly, preferring to spend a great part of its budget on inter-continental missiles. Palin isn't going to joke about it much either, and mostly keeps his trademark wit buttoned up both in deference to his hosts and because it is a serious situation when a totalitarian country crushes any dissent and it's easy for the locals to end up in prison camps, or worse. Remember Otto Frederick Warmbier.

As expected, Palin will see a carefully controlled image, though perhaps a more extensive one than many visitors. And the people he meets are generally nice human beings, your normal everyday North Korean being friendly enough and with a few vegetables growing in the backyard rather than a missile silo.

The background machinations to his visit are a little unclear, then, but on Thursday, April 26, 2018 Palin and companions Neil the director, Jaimie on camera, Jake his assistant and Doug the sound recordist flew into Beijing and spent a night. Next day, rather than fly to Pyongyang they took the overnight train to the Chinese border city of Dandong and crossed the girder bridge over the River Yalu/Amnok (as it is known to the Chinese and North Koreans respectively) to Sinuiju in North Korea.

They went on to the capital also by train, and awaiting them at Pyongyang station were Palin's two unavoidable minders, a neatly dressed young lady named Li So Hyang and a slightly older man, Li Hyon Chol. They would be ever-present for the next two weeks, showing him what the totalitarian regime thought he should be shown.

Hovering discreetly in the background behind Li So Hyang and Li Hyon Chol was a small gaggle of officials in identical suits and ties – resembling "Reservoir Dogs", remarks Palin – and some of them would continue to hover as the team made a trip out of the capital and into the countryside.

Palin had a small ring-backed blue notebook that he had chosen because it was as inconspicuous as possible. The authorities were tolerant of his iPhone camera, though, and he could add supplementary material on his voice recorder. "Maps, guide books and internet access were all denied to me as I travelled in North Korea," Palin recounts. "The daily journal which I wrote up every evening was the only way I could record my personal impressions of this eccentric land. And I lived with the daily fear that I might lose that as well. Fortunately we left the country together, my journals and me. And they have quite a story to tell."

Neither would Palin have been allowed to take American films or a Bible into the aetheist country where only its leaders can be worshipped, though this latter hefty item is probably not a regular piece of his travel kit anyway.

Anyone who keeps up with the world and watches the TV and reads the news websites would be familiar with many of Palin's observations: the massive monuments and portraits of the Great Leaders, the omnipresent propaganda and the Pink Lady television newsreader, the opulent underground stations, the rocket ship-like Ryugyong Hotel built in 1987 and still mysteriously unoccupied, the lack of cars, the bicycles, the glimpses of farmers toiling by hand in the fields, the absence of commercial advertising, the Demilitarised Zone, etc. A novelty is the strange early morning music, heard from the hotel window, resounding from speakers all around Pyongyang to get people to work.

Palin must be careful not to offend or cross any ideological red lines. At the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill, with its two huge bronze statues of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and his son, the Dear Leader, General Kim Jong Il, he slips up on the respectful behaviour required in their presence, and is admonished for 1) sitting on the steps to rest and 2) having his hand in his pocket on camera, requiring a reshoot.

And there is increasing discomfort if he presses Li So Hyang or anyone else he is allowed to meet about touchy subjects. On a visit to the countryside, the minders tell him off for taking an innocent stroll to relax.

Palin is taken to a school, up the Juche Tower landmark to look out over the city and its pastel coloured apartment blocks, to see table tennis and martial arts, to the Mansudae Art Studio where all the paintings, carvings, prints, propaganda posters and statues are made, and to a health complex where, like the rest of the country, everything is controlled: in the barber's shop a wall chart shows the 15 approved hairstyles for Korean men.

Out in the country he takes the bumpy and mostly empty roads to Mount Kumgang with its beautiful mountain landscape, to Wonsan where a major tourist development is under way and to the nearby virtually unused brand-new Kalma Airport, splendid in its emptiness. There is also an obligatory call on a doing-very-nicely-thank-you farmer, where Palin gets on his knees in the dirt for a while to "assist" after the minders have located a tractor and strategically placed it in the background for the benefit of the filming.

Palin – Sir Michael since this year – does give a slightly alternative and broader view of North Korea than the standard account, with anecdotes showing that it's not as austere or hostile as it's usually portrayed, and him and the two main minders gradually warm to each other. His is a cheery and sometimes insightful account, but don't expect a critique on communism, dictatorship, poverty or indoctrination.

There is no mention of the brutal execution by the current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, of his uncle, General Jang Song-thaek, reportedly eaten alive by starved dogs in 2013, or the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in the middle of Kuala Lumpur Airport in 2017.

The journal is a bit on the short side and the photo quality is only average but otherwise it is pure Palin, easily readable and engaging.


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