Pinki: a modern fairy-tale of self-discovery through memories of old technology

Hyunsuk Kim, “Pinki” (2018)

Initially looking like a Korean mash-up of Neil Blomkamp’s “District 9” and “Chappie” with The Transformers film series and Joonho Bong’s “The Host”, “Pinki” turns out to be a charming urban fairy-tale about the importance of memories in forming our identities and giving us motivation and purpose in structuring our lives. Korean salaryman Taehwan (Sungchun Han) is chased through the narrow streets of a city neighbourhood by a huge scrap-metal monster (Daekwang Lee) and is almost crushed until a mystery pink-haired girl (Serin Kim) comes between them. The girl and Taehwan manage to get away; in those moments where the junkyard horror is far away, the lass puts Taehwan into a trance that transports him back to his childhood and adolescence in which he is playing with his portable cassette player and later a portable CD player. When the monster catches with the pair and threatens to drag Taehwan’s new friend and saviour away, the businessman must try to figure out the girl’s name to save her from the monster’s clutches by delving back into his childhood memories.

The film is based on an old East Asian idea that items improperly disposed of and forgotten have a way of haunting their owners as ghosts. Only when properly acknowledged and respectfully let go – which may mean also honouring the role they played in their owners’ lives in the past – will these old items stop plaguing their owners. There are other themes present in “Pinki”: through rediscovering his precious pink cassette player, affectionately called Pinki, Taehwan rediscovers his youth, and all the feelings, motivations and ambitions he had then. Viewers may see the inklings of a transformation from everyday generic office-worker to an individual more fully in control of his life and his destiny, one who has rediscovered his childhood imagination with the objects of that childhood and the memories they evoke. There may also be a gentle reminder that precious items – and people, animals and plants as well – should be valued and not given up for trash when their immediate utility has passed.

The film is notable for good acting with very minimal dialogue. Characters establish themselves through their actions and the decisions they make. Initially Taehwan is a coward, an empty vessel, in abandoning the girl and running for his life from the monster; he later becomes a hero when he throws himself between the monster and the girl once he understand the girl’s importance to him. The other characters – the girl and the monster – are not so clear-cut and are one-dimensional but their roles turn out to be those of teachers and mentors to Taehwan, urging him to take control of his life by remembering where he came from. As with so many science fiction short films picked up by the DUST channel, there is a twist in the plot but for once it’s a twist with a happy ending.

Loyal Citizens of Pyongyang in South Korea: how South Korea and the US use North Korean defectors as propaganda tools

David Yun, “Loyal Citizens of Pyongyang in South Korea” (2018)

Made by then UCLA undergraduate student David Yun, this short terse documentary challenges the Western narrative on North Korean defectors living in South Korea as reliable first-hand witnesses to the supposed brutality of the North Korean government and reveals the insidious role of South Korean intelligence, known as the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in kidnapping, coercing or tricking North Korean citizens into living in South Korea against their will, and then manipulating, even brainwashing them and paying them to denounce North Korea publicly. Yun also exposes the role of the United States, its agencies and private organisations like the Atlas Network in propping up an elaborate disinformation scheme that demonises North Korea and generates public support around the world to support the overthrow of the North Korean government.

In its first ten minutes Yun’s documentary relies on interviews with South Korean human rights lawyer Jang Kyong-ook who tells him of how North Korean individuals are initially incarcerated in special defector detention centres where they are subjected to solitary confinement for as long as three or even six months, after which time they are desperate to leave and will say or sign anything – even accept South Korean citizenship – to get out. They are then sent to a special school to learn how to live in South Korea and cope with day-to-day life in a capitalist society; during this period of re-education, they are bombarded with propaganda and falsified histories of North Korea. Defectors may also be used as spies by the NIS.

In much of the rest of the documentary Yun meets with two defectors, Mr Choi and Mrs Kim, who arrived in South Korea separately at different times. Mrs Kim’s story is especially tragic: wishing to travel to China as a tourist, she was tricked by human traffickers into going into South Korea and fell into the grip of the NIS who then tricked her into signing an agreement. After discovering the NIS’ deception, Mrs Kim tried various options to return to North Korea, all of which were blocked. This unwilling defector despaired and attempted to take her life twice before becoming a representative for the defector community in South Korea. Mr Choi initially left North Korea due to his rebellious, non-conformist nature which ironically was to stand him in good stead when he ended up in South Korea and was subjected to the heavy psychological manipulation and disinformation that among other things denigrates past Korean resistance against Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century.

Yun provides some necessary background information to explain why starvation was widespread in North Korea during the mid to late 1990s: as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, many of North Korea’s markets dried up. Sanctioned by the US since the 1950s, North Korea could not find new buyers or sellers and the country endured starvation and poverty for many years. (The sanctions also mean North Korea cannot mechanise its agriculture and must rely on a large labour force to grow most of its food. These labourers are also the nation’s army reservists – hence the joint US / South Korean military drills known as Operation Foal Eagle that take place during sowing and harvesting seasons each year.) Many young people born during that time in North Korea who later defected to South Korea have now become eager participants in a reality TV show that screens monthly in South Korea that repeats and reinforces the lies and misinformation about North Korea. Some of these young people have now become celebrity “activists” who go on jaunts around the world decrying the North Korean government and are supported by right-wing thinktanks and organisations and government agencies in the US. Some of these think-tanks and organisations are also active in demonising the Maduro government in Venezuela.

The theme that arises during this powerful if very dry documentary is that North Korean defectors are a tool and a weapon used by South Korea and its puppet masters in Washington DC and elsewhere to destabilise the North Korean government with propaganda and lies. The defectors themselves are valuable only as long as they continue to cooperate with the authorities and any information they have is valuable. One has the impression that the South Korean and US governments do not really care about them. How defectors like Mr Choi and Mrs Kim survive in a society brainwashed with lies about the country they are still loyal to, remains unknown. Perhaps the surprising part of the documentary is Mr Choi’s continuing loyalty to Pyongyang and his admiration for former leader Kim Il Sung as a wartime resistance fighter against Japan even after he admits to being a maverick.

The Secret Armada: North Korean ghost ship phenomenon covered in a superficial way

“The Secret Armada” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 14 July 2020)

Despite the spine-tingling thrill of the episode title, this piece on apparent North Korean fishing vessels washing up on Russian or Japanese shores in derelict condition and with dead crews was hardly informative. It came across very much as an excuse for its reporter to travel to Vladivostok and Dandong (China), presumably with most expenses paid, to sneak a peek at North Koreans across the Russian or Chinese border. The correspondent talks to local people about what they know of these North Korean fishing boats; they don’t appear to know a great deal apart from what they observe of the degraded condition of the vessels and the fact that the crews tend to be very dead. The odd thing about what the Russian interviewees say is that neither the Russian nor the North Korean government seems very interested in repatriating these degraded ships and the corpses they contain back to the DPRK. One would think Pyongyang would be very keen to get these ships and bodies back, at least to save face internationally and to make sure the vessels were not carrying information of a classified nature. Come to think of it, no government officials, whether in Russia, Japan, South Korea or (even) North Korea, feature in the program at all to deliver even just a PR statement on the North Korean ghost ship phenomenon.

There seems to have been no attempt on the Australian reporter’s part to find out just how old the ships are, how long they might have been floating in the Sea of Japan, or even whether they actually are North Korean ships and not South Korean ships. The program doesn’t seem to rely on any mainstream news media sources, let alone alternative news media, for information as to what these ghost ships are or might be. A Russian man tells the reporter he has buried two North Korean bodies found on one stranded ship; tellingly, the report admits no DNA tests had been done on the bodies so the viewer is expected to assume that these bodies are those of North Korean people.

No context is offered as to why North Koreans should be so desperate as to launch rickety fishing boats and sail to other nations’ maritime territories to fish illegally for seafood, some of which is sold to Chinese seafood sellers in Dandong. There is little mention of the crippling sanctions imposed by the US on North Korea since the 1950s, which have had the effect among others of denying North Korea agricultural technology and tools that would be effective in helping the country raise better and bigger crops of rice and other plant foods, and forcing the country to retain a large agricultural workforce that also doubles as a national army reserve. The constant references in the program to the North Korean army claiming first dibs on food produce ignore the fact that the army of the DPRK is a people’s army and that most people who serve in the army are conscripts from the agricultural sector.

At least the scenes of derelict ships rotting on remote beaches, surrounded by green countryside, clear blue waters and distant mountains rising from over the horizon are visually very moving and unforgettable. Apart from these lovely scenes, there really is very little useful information about what the ghost ship phenomenon actually is and what it might say about the state of the North Korean economy and society.

The Mythical North Korean Threat: how the US exploits North-South Korean tensions for its own benefit

Carlton Meyer, “The Mythical North Korean Threat” (Tales of the American Empire, 26 June 2020)

Amazingly in this admittedly short (eight-minute) video there’s no mention of North Korea’s nuclear defence program among the DPRK’s other defence strategies and military capabilities which for the most part are very poor. The video pivots on the US need to keep North and South Korea divided so as to maintain its iron grip on South Korea as a vassal state. To that end, the US built its largest offshore military base, Camp Humphreys, at a location some 40 miles south of Seoul to house up to 30,000 soldiers and their families. The base includes primary schools, a junior high school and a senior high school, and a number of fast food franchises are located there as well, to judge from photographs and film featured in the video.

The video pulls apart the propaganda, constantly repeated in Western mainstream news media, that North Korea poses a major danger to both South Korea and the US, and that current DPRK leader Kim Jong-un is a crazed despot. Far from it, the video tells us that Kim was educated at a private school in Switzerland, speaks English well, loves US basketball and has a physics degree. Kim also knows what his country’s armed forces are capable of, and not capable of. The DPRK’s army is made up of agricultural labourers who spend more time working in the fields than maintaining their weapons and equipment; consequently what weapons and military materiel the North Koreans have are in poor condition. Meyer might have added the reason for this state of affairs: due to economic sanctions imposed on North Korea since the 1950s, not to mention the devastation the Korean War brought to the country (some 20% of the population died during the war and every major city was ruined), North Korea has no agricultural machinery or the tools to make such machinery, and farming is highly labour-intensive.

South Korea turns out to be a far more powerful nation than North Korea, militarily and economically, and North Korea well knows the punishment the ROK could dish out if it dared to invade its neighbour. Indeed, many South Koreans realise that the Americans are not needed and demonstrations against the US presence in South Korea are common. The question is why the US continues to stay in South Korea. The video makes clear that in both the US and South Korea, political and military elites profit from the spending (running into the billions of US dollars) that US military occupation enables in South Korea. What perhaps is not clear in the video (its major failing) is the geopolitical value of South Korea as a threat to China and Russia in its far eastern region.

The real eye-opener in this video is the existence of Camp Humphreys and the huge size of the base: a family could easily live there for an entire lifetime and never set foot outside the base. Its shops and facilities however have a generic and soulless look about them: one would never know that it is located in South Korea as everything about the place – its buildings, their design, the shops there, the people who live and work there – does not acknowledge the culture of the host nation. The impression I have is that the camp exists mainly to provide employment for Americans – indeed, actual military personnel make up a minority of all Americans employed at Camp Humphreys – and for US companies to profit from by providing services and goods that resident military families need.

While this video is very informative, I did have a feeling that some information about North Korea might need updating. In recent years, North Korea has experienced some prosperity, along with some relaxation of restrictions on North Korean citizens and private enterprise being allowed. The video relied mainly on old film and not very recent photographs to portray Kim, the North Korean military and life generally in the DPRK. Perhaps at a future time the video might be updated to include more current information about this reclusive nation.

Thicker Than Water: a touching film about a mother’s love and care

Seung Yeob Lee, “Thicker Than Water” (2015)

Modern South Korean families, in particular the relationship of mothers with their sons and the extremes the mothers will go to, to get the very best for their male offspring who all too often fail to appreciate what sacrifices Mama makes for them, come under the spotlight in this short film about a couple whose son is a vampire. Mum (Ahmi Jeong) wants son Sungyong (Kiha Kwon) to be a normal kid with high academic aspirations in spite of the fact that he’d rather leave high school because school hours take place during the day when he must wear layers of sunblock and thick clothing even in the summer and his restricted diet of the red liquid stuff leaves him with bad breath and alienates other kids who can’t share their lunches with him. Kissing girls carries an extra risk for the young ladies. In spite of all that Mum does for Sungyong – even organising home deliveries from local blood banks and attending blood auctions to get some special fresh stuff – she gets no support from Sungyong’s father (Seongdeok Hong) who all but disowns the boy. One bad day, Mum fails to get anything at the daily auctions, the blood banks are short on blood and Dad comes home grumpy again and demands dinner on the table. Exasperated, Mum stands in the kitchen and a couple of sharp knives standing in the wash-rack catch her attention …

It is actually a very touching film about a mother’s love and care for her special son, told with dark humour. The characters and the dialogue push the hilarious plot at a crisp pace. Jeong is completely absorbed into her character who will do anything and sacrifice anything – even Dad and herself if necessary – for Sungyong. Sungyong for his part is wimpish and spoilt for a teenage vampire.

The relationships within the family may reflect something of the pressures of modern South Korean society on families generally. Mothers may lavish all their love and attention on their children, especially their sons, if fathers are forced to spend so much time at work by employers that they have little time and energy for their families. Estrangement between parents, and between fathers and children, may be the result. Traditional cultural expectations of the roles of men and women within families may clash with modern-day reality in which women also have to go out to work in addition to caring for husbands and children. No wonder at the end of the day Sungyong’s mother is left with little option other than murder if she is to get fresh blood for her son.

The final frames of the film may come as a shock to viewers, suggesting an incestuous aspect to the suffocatingly close relationship between mother and son. The film is very well done though I don’t see that the plot can sustain a feature-length movie or a television series. Still, stranger and sketchier ideas have been made into successful movies and TV shows.

The big surprise for viewers is that for a vampire film, the vampire doesn’t kill anyone – it’s the human familiar who does this for him.

The Time Agent: a time travel story of loneliness and alienation

Jude Chun, “The Time Agent” (2016)

In its own unassuming way, “The Time Agent” is a deconstruction of a once common style of narrative in genres as different as the Western, hard-boiled pulp crime fiction or genteel English crime / mystery thrillers: a lone avenger character, self-sufficient and sure of him/herself, comes along and finds a community in trouble, solves the problem and leaves a grateful community to continue to the next neighbourhood in trouble. The consequences of this avenger character’s actions are never known but have to be assumed to be positive. An unnamed South Korean man (Gwui-oong Choi) known only as the Time Agent travels back in time in his machine to subtly undermine, change and break up the relationships of couples who are parents of future mass murderers. Once the mission is complete, the Time Agent must wait in self-imposed seclusion – any interactions he has with people in the time of his mission must be minimised to the utmost to avoid unduly influencing the future – until the time machine starts revving up again, signalling a new mission to get rid of another relationship. For this Time Agent, the time between his recent successful mission and the next one is rather long – one would think there is a backlog of work for him to do for the next 10 years – and he unwittingly violates his code of employment when he sees a teenage girl, Yeesul (Young-hee Jeon), about to jump off the bridge over the Han River (in Seoul) to her death and stops her. He invites the girl to stay with him for a week to minimise the consequences of his impulsive action while she decides if she still wants to commit suicide; for his part, as time goes by, he starts falling in love with her and becomes conscious of the isolation and alienation his work imposes on him.

The film’s style is minimal with sparse dialogue and an emphasis on strong and restrained acting that brings out the emotional pain of isolated existences in a fragmented society. Viewers become aware of the emotional consequences of time travel and its potential to inflict dramatic long-term changes on people and society through an apparent minor change in one’s actions. Yes, breaking up a couple’s marriage so that they do not bring into the world a future psychopathic killer may be a laudable goal for some but it also means that two people, their families and others around them might suffer unnecessary pain that in itself could also have long-term social consequences.

The film’s bare-bones presentation and its plot revolving around two lost souls (one of them literally – does the Time Agent remember which future he actually comes from?) are sure to have a deep emotional impact on viewers. At times it can be unbearable to watch, especially when the girl finally makes her decision. The Time Agent discovers that for all the choices he makes that affect other people’s lives and the direction of their futures and their societies’ futures, he ultimately has no influence on his own future.

Shadow Thief: a critique of social and cultural pressure on individuals to conform to other standards

Kim Heeyae, “Shadow Thief” (2018)

Done entirely in black and white and shades of grey with no dialogue, this animated short is a brilliant critique of the pressure on individuals to conform to dominant social standards and values even if these turn people into mindless clones tied to (and to be eventually crushed by) the corporate state capitalist machine. An unnamed man observes the shadows of other apparent physical clones of himself as very similar while his own shadow resembles a Henry Moore sculpture. After being rejected by one set of prospective employers after another and another because his shadow just doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s shadows, our man tries to mould his shadow (and thus himself) into what he believes is required of him. The jobs still evade him so in desperation he attempts to steal a perfect shadow to wear. This requires him to murder someone …

With no monologue or dialogue to speak of, the film must rely on its anti-hero’s facial expressions and body language to convey his disappointment, anguish and panic at being rejected for not being a square peg to fit into a round hole, and on the body language of other people and their shadows to show rejection and mocking. The irony in the film comes when our anti-hero, in doing what he does to steal a shadow, expresses his individuality in full (because what other person would do what he does, in that clone society?) and on doing so, runs away from the consequences and the ownership of his action. He becomes a true individual but cannot cope with that reality.

The animation may be simple and the backgrounds a little cartoonish in appearance but its story is powerful. The ambiguous ending is appropriate for the plot: we are left wondering whether the anti-hero will ever own up to his crime willingly or by force.

Parasite: tale of two families is a stinging attack on capitalism and social hierarchy

Bong Joonho, “Parasite / Gisaengchung” (2019)

A stinging attack on capitalism in South Korean society and its effects on people’s thinking and actions, “Parasite” pits two families, both of which have common Korean surnames, from two polar opposite sides of the socioeconomic spectrum in a bleak black comedy full of twists and extreme surprises. The film’s tone is not always even, and slapstick comedy easily and quickly slips into a dark and depressive meditation on the effects of poverty and preying on others’ naivety and gullibility. Kim Kitaek (Song Kangho, a regular in Bong’s films), an ex-driver, heads a family of grifters living like rats in a basement unit at the tail-end of Skid Row in a slum neighbourhood somewhere in Seoul or Busan and trying to make ends meet by folding and recycling pizza boxes for a delivery business. One day, Kitaek’s son Kiwoo (Choi Wooshik) meets up with an old college friend who is currently employed as an English-language tutor by a rich family for their teenage daughter; the friend is about to go overseas and wants to recommend Kiwoo to replace him. Armed with documents forged by his sister Kijeong (Park Sodam), Kiwoo goes to the family’s mansion where he is interviewed by Mrs Park (Yo Yeojeong) and meets the daughter Dahye; he gets the job after giving Dahye a lesson while Mrs Park watches. Noticing that Mrs Park’s son has artwork pinned up on the lounge-room wall, Kiwoo recommends that a “friend” of his, Jessica, might be available to teach the son, Dasong, art. Mrs Park is amenable to the suggestion and soon Jessica – in reality, Kijeong herself – is giving art therapy to Dasong.

Kijeong soon contrives to get dad Kitaek a job as the Parks’ chauffeur. No sooner does Kitaek get the job driving Mr Park (Lee Sunkyun) than he and his adult children manage to throw out the Parks’ housekeeper Moongwang (Lee Jeungeun) to be replaced by Kitaek’s wife Choongsook (Jang Hyejin). Thus the entire Kim family is comfortably ensconced in the Parks’ luxurious Modernist mansion and the four celebrate with a loud drunken party at the Parks’ expense while the Parks go on a weekend camping trip – at least until Moongwang turns up unexpectedly to attend to a secret she has kept hidden in the mansion’s basement for a number of years and discovers the truth about the Kims and their ruse to get rid of her and the chauffeur.

After that surprise twist in the film’s plot, the narrative lurches from comedy to horror, back and forth, as the Kims fight Moongwang and the unexpected house-guest husband Moongwang has kept in the basement who is on the run from loan-shark creditors. The threat that Moongwang and her husband pose to the Kims’ secret culminates spectacularly and bloodily during an extravagant birthday party the Parks throw for Dasong. The body count is high, the lives of three families are torn asunder and the film closes on a sad, wistful and very bleak note.

An otherwise silly story is made grave as well as comic by ambiguous characterisation: the Kim family, though very much needy and in desperate economic straits, is also portrayed as greedy and cruel in its own way (though Kitaek does also have some compassion for Moongwang and her husband, whose lives are not all that different from the Kim family’s own difficulties); and the Park family, while privileged and spoilt, is generous in its own way. The children appear more intelligent than their ditzy mother. Mr Park comes across as an overgrown selfish adolescent, concerned more about Kitaek being able to take corners at speed in a way that doesn’t spill his (Park’s, that is) coffee.

The true villain of the piece is the capitalist society in which the Kims and Moongwang and her husband are forced to scrabble for existence like rats literally living underground while families like the Parks, whose fortunes are made off the backs of people like the Kims, splash their money on expensive (but cold and empty) luxury homes and frivolous pursuits. Who are the real parasites here? As in many of Bong’s films – “Mother” comes to mind here – characters are frequently driven by their situations and the social environment they are born into and grow up in to commit acts that are irreversible and have dramatic life-changing consequences and which they come to regret.

Once again Song Kangho is in a class of his own playing a comic character who is not always too bright but is capable of deep insight into his and his family’s condition; the rest of the cast do capable work but are always in his shadow. The Parks’ mansion is a significant character in its own right and mirrors the two-faced condition of capitalist society: it shows off plenty of beautiful (and superficial) surface gleam and glamour but hides a sinister subterranean secret as any self-respecting house of horror should.

For all its bonkers plotting and characterisation, all working out perfectly and logically plot-wise, the film becomes despairing when Kiwoo capitulates to the demands of South Korean society and Korean tradition in order to save what remains of his family after they have struggled through their storm and stress. Viewers are likely to feel short-changed by this treatment of the Kims. What happens to the Parks after they flee the mansion remains unknown.

The Untold Story – “Korean Empire”: a testament to Korean determination in reclaiming lost history

Park Jeong-woo and Park Hee-joo, “The Untold Story – ‘Korean Empire’ ” (Arirang TV, 2013)

A symbol of the Korean people’s desire for freedom and independence and their first contacts with the West of their own initiative in the late 19th century, the Korea Legation Building at Logan Circle in Washington DC was for a long time lost to Koreans as their embassy in the United States from 1910 to 2012. Built in 1877, the building was purchased by the Joseon kingdom then ruling Korea in 1891 to be used as its embassy in dealing with the United States. At the time, King Gojong had ambitions and plans for modernising Korea along Western lines, against the objections of his Qing Chinese overlords. Unfortunately, geopolitical events beyond the Joseon kingdom / later Korean empire’s control led to the building passing under Japanese control in 1905, after that nation defeated China and then Russia in two wars. Japan later sold the building in 1910 for $10, having bought it from Korea for $5: an insulting gesture to the Koreans if ever there was one. Through the efforts of the Korean-American community in raising the money to purchase the building and keeping the issue alive among their own members, the Legation Building was finally relocated with the help of the US National Archives and bought back by the Koreans in 2012, with the intention of using it as a cultural and educational centre.

Using archived photographs and animation (often in combination) and interviews with Korean-American academics and Korean diplomats, the documentary is a handsome and highly visual presentation of a little known period in Korea’s history when the Joseon kingdom declared itself independent of China in 1897, with King Gojong as its first emperor, and attempted to conduct its own diplomacy with the West free from interference from China, Japan and Russia. However – and the film does not make this very clear – the Koreans may have put too much faith in the United States as a trustworthy ally: while the documentary acknowledges that President Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century saw Japan as much more important and modern than Korea, it is silent on American ambitions to be a dominant power in the affairs of East Asia and how the US co-operated with Japan, looking away when that nation occupied Korea and made it a colony. The film also treats much subsequent Korean history from the early 1900s on in a superficial way. Nothing is said of what happened to King Gojong and his son Prince Sunjong after their empire is gobbled up by Japan, and some viewers may find this omission a major fault of the documentary.

By making a film about the Korea Legation Building and its complicated history, Arirang TV pays tribute to the people who tirelessly sought to locate it and try to buy it back. The film’s narrative demonstrates the determination of the Korean people to remember and reclaim a vital part of their history as an independent nation navigating its way through a treacherous and dark period in its life.

Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2): an attractive visual experience spoilt by repetitive propaganda police-state stereotypes

Neil Ferguson, “Michael Palin in North Korea (Episode 2)” (2018)

In this second and final episode, Michael Palin ventures outside Pyongyang to spend a few days exploring parts of the North Korean countryside. He travels to the Demilitarised Zone where a guard tells him of the history of the Korean War – from the North Korean point of view which conflicts with what Palin knows. Palin muses on the ceasefire that currently exists between North Korea and the West and its consequences, one of which is that North Korea is compelled to maintain a large army made up of farm labour conscripts. Not far from the DMZ is a town, Kaesong, which during the Korean War was part of South Korea and therefore escaped the bombing that razed most North Korean cities and towns. In Kaesong, Palin is treated to some old Korean culinary traditions and stays at a Korean version of a ryokan. The next day, it’s onward to Wonsan on the east coast, a town targeted for development as a holiday resort for locals and foreigners. Still under construction, the holiday resort redevelopment already has an international airport ready and waiting for tourists who will not arrive until later in 2019. Palin is a bit nonplussed wandering around a huge airport terminal where the only other people besides himself are shop assistants with nothing to do except wait for non-existent customers.

Palin’s significant encounters with local people include meeting a farmer and her son. Farming is done by hand – few farmers have tractors or other heavy agricultural machinery that would obviate the need for labourers – and the demand for such labour is great. The farmer invites Palin into her sparsely furnished home for a big lunch feed. Palin thinks the farmer is trying to impress him with so much food to hide what he supposes are food shortages in rural North Korea. Later on, when Palin and one of his guides visit Mount Kumgang, he attempts to engage her in conversation about comparative politics and what she thinks of her country’s leaders: she tells him the North Korean people respect and identify so much with Kim Jong-un and what he brings to his people that to criticise him would be to criticise the people who support him wholeheartedly. In the end, the guide Soyang manages to parry the questions Palin zings at her quite cleverly and he has to admit defeat.

Palin’s visit concludes with a trip to a new district in Pyongyang developed especially as a showcase technology park and futuristic residential area. He marvels that the large district, boasting several incredibly tall skyscrapers built in a very distinctive style, has sprung up in the space of a calendar year. Leaving North Korea, Palin feels not a little regretful at saying goodbye to his guides (who he has become quite close to) and the charming people who have looked after him over the past fortnight.

While Palin is entranced by his hosts’ graciousness, the people’s cheerfulness, the culture and the beautiful countryside, he can’t quite escape his own conditioning and continues to view North Korea through the prism of a paranoid and closed police-state society ruled by a dynasty of rulers who permit no criticism and who demand absolute loyalty and suppression of individuality. He mentions the huge army North Korea maintains but appears not to understand the necessity for it: every year the United States, South Korea and other invited countries stage massive military exercises twice a year close to the North Korean borders, usually timed to coincide with the rice-sowing and rice-harvesting seasons, forcing the country to pull labourers from the farms to be on stand-by in case the exercises turn into actual invasions. The connection linking US sanctions against North Korea over the past 70 years, the lack of agricultural machinery that would make farming easier and bring in bigger harvests, the constant aggression by the US and South Korea, and the consequent need for a huge agricultural labour force and for a large army provide the context against which food shortages leading to apparent starvation and malnutrition occurred in the 1990s. All this unfortunately washes completely over Palin’s head; instead he lapses into quite sanctimonious monologues about how North Korea will have to choose between following its current path of independence, and accepting Western-style capitalism and democracy (which he views as inevitable if North Korea is to survive in the long term, though not without regret that it will destroy part of the country’s charm) to be part of the 21st century.

Aside from the dreary and repetitive propaganda Palin keeps reminding viewers of, the former Monty Python comedian is genuinely interested in seeing how North Koreans survive and thrive in an apparently restrictive society. It is a pity that he does not give them much credit for their resurrection from the nation-wide devastation and destruction brought by the United States in the 1950s that was further compounded by nearly 70 years of economic sanctions.