Michael Palin's North Korea Journal is a real page turner


In the new normal we find ourselves in, it's natural to procrastinate. Which usually leads to binging Netflix. In an effort to correct this, I stumbled upon a book I had been meaning to read since Christmas- North Korea Journal by Michael Palin- and ended up finishing it that very afternoon. Palin wrote the journal whilst filming a documentary and visits a surprising array of places in this notoriously guarded country.

In the uniformly Stalinist capital of Pyongyang, he visits the ‘typical’ tourist haunts (by North Korean standards) such as the Juche Tower and the monument to the former and current leaders of the country, Kim-Il-Sung and Kim-Jong-Un. He then moves to the infamous DMZ, the border with South Korea; and the nearby city of Kaesong- surprisingly one of the few places in all of Korea that has a preserved historic village. Palin then checks into the potential future international seaside resort of Wonsan; and Mount Paektu- a mountain shrouded in folklore (including that upon Kim-Jong-un's birth here, the weather miraculously became sunny in the middle of the winter).

But why I found this book fascinating was Palins’ ability to connect with the locals he spoke too; thus being able to paint a picture of how North Koreans view their country, and themselves. Perhaps the most insightful comment was from tour guide So Hyang. In response to Palin’s probing on her beliefs of the country's leadership, she nonchalantly replies ‘Our leaders are very great. They are not individuals. They represent the masses, so we cannot criticise ourselves, can we?’. Ending my day with a brim of new questions about this immensely enthralling topic, perhaps this book then can be understood best by how it exposes the fundamental North Korean psyche-providing much needed intellectual stimulation for anyone dreading no lectures until September.

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