‘No place should be fenced off by ideology’ – how Michel Palin and Channel 5 finally secured permission to film in North Korea

The former Python and veteran globetrotter had given up hope of ever travelling to Kim Jong-un’s pariah state – until his telephone rang...

Michael Palin in North Korea (Channel 5)

For a start, I never really expected to get there. I’ve filmed in many countries, but few of them have gone on record as calling the USA a “cesspool” and threatened to start a nuclear war, and in return been branded as part of an “axis of evil”.

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The atmosphere between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the rest of the world has been so soured over the years by threat and self-imposed isolation that there can be few destinations further from anyone’s bucket list.

I like a challenge and hate to think that there should be anywhere on the planet fenced off by ideology, so when I was approached by Channel 5 to visit North Korea, my ears pricked up.

For 12 months or more, nothing happened. I put North Korea into the Highly Unlikely tray, and began work on a pet project, a book about an adventurous 1840s sailing ship, HMS Erebus. I had an increasing number of grandchildren to entertain me and a bit of acting here and there.

Then, at the start of 2018, the phones started buzzing. Something was happening in North Korea. In a New Year’s speech Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader since 2011, made conciliatory remarks about reunification with South Korea. Weeks later, he sent not only a team but his sister Kim Yo-jong to the Winter Olympics in Seoul; and in March he made his first international trip, to meet the Chinese president.

The way the wind was blowing, my chance to film a documentary in North Korea was suddenly on the cards again. Progress on permissions accelerated, guided by Nick Bonner, an experienced DPRK watcher and one of the very few operators organising tours into what had been known for so long as the Hermit Kingdom. But the political situation remained tense and highly volatile. Secrecy was vital. In any discussions between myself and other members of the production team, North Korea was always known as North Croydon.

As the team worked on schedules, we kept a nervous eye on developments on the other side of the world. The détente between North Korea and the rest of the world appeared to be gaining momentum and, quite suddenly, my visit to North Croydon became a reality.

My wife, who is usually, and rather suspiciously, keen for me to travel the world, was uncharacteristically wary of my taking this trip, and as I and the crew boarded the night sleeper from Beijing to the North Korean border, I was nervous too. For all the reassuring words that had flowed since Kim Jong-un’s New Year speech, we were heading to a country that had, for most of its 70-year existence, been belligerent and unwelcoming towards westerners. It possessed nuclear weapons that most people agreed it could now deliver. So much could go wrong and, once in the country, there would be precious little we could do about it. The word “hostage”, though never mentioned, was I’m sure in the back of many of our minds, and I didn’t sleep a wink on the overnight train.

Once we’d changed trains and crossed the bridge over the Yalu River that marks the border with the DPRK, we were carefully searched and many questions were asked by men in wide-brimmed, peaked caps and military uniforms. Did we have any videos, books, guide books or maps? Anything American? Any Bibles? We’d been well briefed and they found nothing. I looked out of the window at Sinuiju station and saw a line of elegant women in tight-fitting suits smilingly dispensing beers, spirits and snacks from trolleys on the platform. It was encouraging that as they searched foreigners with one hand, they welcomed them with the other.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Channel 5)
Michael Palin in North Korea (Channel 5)

What happened on that train station was to set the pattern for the next 13 days. A mixture of welcome and wariness. Of conviviality and control. It was never easy to predict where one began and the other ended. My guide, Li So Yang, a 28-year-old with excellent English, was inclined to be warm and welcoming. Such is the respect for the elderly in North Korea that every time I stepped down from a vehicle, she would take my arm and help me out. “I will be like a daughter to you,” she assured me, and kept asking with great concern if I was tired. This at 9.15 in the morning with another ten hours’ filming ahead.

I also had to be aware that her warmth and willingness to look after me weren’t unconditional. Though we got on well, this was North Korea and there was much that she wouldn’t talk about. The Great Leaders, though smiling down from posters all over the place, were not a subject for discussion, nor was any discussion of the regime.

These were not normal times. On our first day in the capital Pyongyang all the hotel staff were glued to every minute of coverage of the meeting of Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jai-in of South Korea. A few days later I came out of the hotel lift to be confronted by the burly figure of Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, in town to negotiate the release of American hostages.

My 75th birthday fell on one of the busiest of our filming days, when we were to leave the hotel at 6.30. At six o’clock So Yang rang in some concern. As a result of the talks with President Moon, the half-hour time difference between North and South Korea had been abolished and I was now half an hour late.

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The two films tell their own story of what we saw over two weeks in North Korea, both in Pyongyang and in the countryside. Every day we were confronted by the odd and unfamiliar. Wide roads empty of traffic, fields full of people working with the simplest of tools, ant-like armies of workers building cities in the forest by floodlight, graceful dancing demonstrations, mass picnicking on May Day, housewives with red flags urging on the workforce with patriotic routines outside metro stations. It was quite unlike anywhere else I’d ever been to. But perhaps the most unexpected thing about the visit was that when the time came to leave I experienced more regret than relief.

Dreadful stories still come out about prison camps and forced labour, and on the basis of this visit I’ve no evidence to prove or disprove them. At the same time, if one is looking for signs of change, for hope, in what has been portrayed throughout my lifetime as a very dark place, then I’d say that my visit was encouraging.

And that’s what travel is all about. Testing expectations and challenging clichés to find out something for yourself.

We shouldn’t let ideology blind us to the uncomfortable fact that there are good and decent people in North Korea. If the present policy of the regime is to reach out to the rest of the world, then we should at least listen.

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Michael Palin in North Korea airs Thursday 20th at 9pm on Channel 5