REVIEW: North Korea Journal by Michael Palin

In brief: Michael Palin and crew go somewhere he’s never been before – North Korea.

The good: Very interesting with great photographs.

The not-so-good: Quite a quick read.

Why I chose it: Michael Palin writes the best travelogues.

Year: 2019

Pages: 170

Publisher: Hutchinson (Penguin)

Setting: North Korea

Rating: 9 out of 10

A new Michael Palin travel narrative is always something to rejoice about. I must admit that I didn’t even know that he had been to North Korea (as far as I know, the documentary hasn’t aired in Australia on free to air television). So it was a lovely surprise overall to be able to read about his travels without a huge waiting time.

Generally Michael’s travels are long journeys with a crew, professional photographs etc etc. Unfortunately he’s not getting any younger (celebrating his 75th birthday in North Korea) and with North Korea being a country with quite a few restrictions, the journey was limited to two weeks. As you might expect, getting the clearance to both travel and film in North Korea was quite convoluted with the trip being on, then off, then on again. The group also had a number of ‘minders’ from the tourism association reviewing what was said, filmed and photographed. Michael was limited to one notebook and an iPhone camera, but his journal is just as detailed as we have come to expect from his travels.

To the average person, North Korea is a country that nobody knows much about except the occasional news report which usually is more about America. Michael does an excellent job of explaining the country from that average person’s point of view and how the average person might live. He is also very open in the mistakes he makes when interviewing – pushing for individual responses on the leadership and negative parts of living in a closed country doesn’t get him anywhere (and tends to cause great embarrassment). There are also the cultural differences that people might not expect, such as taking photographs of the backs/parts of statues of the leaders is just not done. He makes mistakes and sticks his foot in it but this is part of what makes North Korea Journal a great read. We would make the same mistakes if we were there!

The photographs are also fantastic, ranging from the stunning natural beauty of the country to the magnificent murals that are painted in train stations and on public buildings. The cities have apartment buildings painted bright colours and there are magnificent public squares that are huge. Some hotels and airports are new but eerily empty. A visit to a farm has a tractor (old by Western standards) added to look more professional. It’s a country of contrasts and although Michael does his best to find the real people and their day to day life, it rarely happens. The team are taken to fancy but quiet bars and conversations are monitored. It’s quite different to some of Michael’s other journeys, where the unknown is readily found out and people are willing to show the crew anything and discuss everything.

Overall, this is an engaging read about a country I don’t know much about with a sense of trepidation through the narrative. Michael Palin tries to make it as accessible as possible, but is frank about the limits in doing so.

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