Monty Python’s North Korea? Comedian’s book is surprisingly objective look at DPRK
Michael Palin with a North Korean soldier in the DPRK. Screenshot from the documentary "Michael Palin in North Korea: Special Edition." | Channel 5 | Fair Use

Many readers might know Michael Palin. He was a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. His antics were quite hilarious, and his work has been shown around the world. In later years, he also became a well-known BBC personality. In 2018, he took a camera crew to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea) for a 12-day trip around the country. Last month, he published a travelogue about this trip.

It is very unusual for those on the left to be able to read about the travels of Westerners to socialist countries. Some work has been written about travels to Cuba, but very little has been written about the DPRK. It was therefore surprising to read of this book documenting such a trip.

To start off, it’s clear that Michael Palin is not a communist, a socialist, or in any way a DPRK booster. He begins his discussion in ways you might expect from a mainstream Western personality. Throughout the book, he often disparages the system and leadership of the DPRK. As his journey continues, however, he clearly became quite fond of the Korean people, including his guides and even his “minders.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Palin eventually comes to offer critical commentary regarding how Korea is portrayed in Western media through its anti-communist propaganda machine. He successfully deconstructs dominant Western narratives that minimize the achievements of the DPRK while also documenting the relatively open access that his camera crew was afforded on their trip.

In the book, Palin recounted one particularly interesting interaction between himself and his Korean guide that succinctly summarized a fundamental difference between capitalist and socialist thought. Palin expressed that, in the UK, there was a priority on political freedoms such as freedom of speech. His guide responded that she understood, but that in her country, there was more of an emphasis on freedom from poverty and war.

Palin talks about the rapprochement between the two Korean republics which led to the recent summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. His journey found that even Korean “propaganda” and discourse is changing, reflecting the move toward peaceful re-unification. He also talked a bit about the fact that he literally ran into U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then on official U.S. diplomatic business, when he was working on his documentary.

It is also interesting to note that Palin showed some video clips of some of the funniest Monty Python sketches, including the “fish slapping” and the “dead parrot” routines. His Korean hosts found both to be absolutely funny. The encounter ended up being a real portrayal of the universality of comedy and a celebration of our shared humanity.

Communists and anti-imperialists should definitely read this book. It is full of quite stunning photography showing the natural splendor and beauty of Korea. It also affords a rare glimpse of a non-communist who really attempts to get the pulse of everyday Koreans. Palin clearly shows a refreshing honesty about a beautiful, hard-working, and patriotic people that we almost never get to see.

North Korea Journal

by Michael Palin

Random House Canada, 170 pp.


Brian W. Major
Brian W. Major

Brian Major has worked in the field of community mental health and addictions for 15 years, being clean and sober himself for over 23 years. Brian is a member of the Communist Party of Canada in Barrie, Ontario.