Michael Palin in the DPRK: a western exceptionalism showcase

Workers in Britain could learn much from our Korean comrades, but they are unlikely to realise that from listening to Palin’s arrogant commentary.

Proletarian writers

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Mr Palin’s comedic talents at one time were employed satirising old colonial attitudes, now he personifies them.

Proletarian writers

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This article is reproduced from the Class Consciousness Project, with thanks.


This article was prompted by an awful piece of BBC propaganda, entitled Michael Palin in North Korea. If you want to understand western exceptionalism, watch this programme, first with and then without sound, because the only part of this presentation that makes the DPRK look bad is Palin’s narration.

The programme’s narration leads the viewer away from the actual truth of what they are seeing with their own eyes, carrying hints of a threatening presence behind the camera, even though it appears that everyone is very welcoming to Mr Palin, even if they are a little bit dubious about his true intentions. This dubiousness is largely justified by the condescending manner in which Palin acts towards his hospitable guides.

Western exceptionalism is extremely insidious. It has infested our culture and lives very deeply, strongly affecting those who either haven’t understood, or don’t care, that western culture isn’t as prevalent in the world as the television would have us believe. Globalisation may have put a McDonald’s on every corner and Hollywood on everyone’s screens, but it has not (yet) been successful in wiping out every other culture.

This author can recall hearing two young work colleagues discussing something they had heard on the news about Iran, and how they believed Britain would be at war with Iran soon. This wasn’t far from the truth, as it had been leaked by a US military officer that plans were afoot to wage war on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and then Iran.

The discussion continued, with the same colleagues laughing over “fighting Arabs with sticks”. This stereotype has been peddled by Hollywood modelled on the Bedouin people of centuries past – but it is as dangerous as it is lazy. Iran was a signatory to the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – an agreement between the USA and Iran on disarmament) and had the capability to be a nuclear power – even having signed this agreement, they were still a formidable force.

From Iran’s point of view, strong military power is necessary to protect itself from falling a victim to the same acts of aggression which have been perpetrated against its neighbours: the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and the complete collapse of, or in Syria’s case an attempt to collapse, their governments. The JCPOA and the myth of capitulation emanating from its signing explains, at least partially, why my work colleagues believed that the lions of Iran were really just paper tigers.

This same attitude persists when evaluating any country outside of the west’s sphere of influence, and particularly when talking about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or north Korea, as it is referred to by western media). This is a country that has become insular and cut off from much of the world, not only because of US-imposed sanctions, but for its own protection.

The Korean war and previous history have seen terrible atrocities committed against the Korean people. The southern part of the Korean peninsula is still militarily occupied by the USA; there are 174 military bases in south Korea. It is little wonder that the DPRK has been forced to develop a siege mentality: it really does live under siege.

Returning to Michael Palin and his programme, he has a discussion with a DPRK military officer about his country, its ‘place in the world’ and its history.

Palin begins this conversation by referring to the size of the DPRK’s army and the country’s level of military spending. Palin present high military spending as something strange, even though the USA and Britain spent over £900bn on their militaries over the past year. The DPRK officer points out that, since 1950, his country has been constantly threatened by the USA, and so deems it necessary to have a strong military and nuclear defence capability.

Palin replies in the condescending manner of someone who feels he has the correct information and needs to explain it to the other person. The other person being a military professional and Palin being, well, a comedian.

Mr Palin at one point tells his viewers that his “minders” are “not particularly happy with our questioning”, demonstrating a complete lack of self-awareness about how his insulting behaviour might be perceived. In an earlier conversation about the Korean war, Palin had been utterly dismissive of the officer and his explanation of Korea’s point of view regarding that horrific conflict (in which four million Koreans were killed), parroting back to the officer the usual lies we are accustomed to in the west.

Throughout the programme, his whole manner was reminiscent of an old British colonialist entering a foreign land and teaching the local savages how to behave themselves. Mr Palin’s comedic talents at one time were employed satirising old colonial attitudes, now he personifies them.

Meanwhile, aside from Michael Palin’s egregious narration, the programme showcases some of the beauty of the DPRK and its impressive construction developments. Palin wastes no opportunity to further push his chosen narrative, however. When he enters a lovely looking newly-built airport, he uses the occasion to remark that if the DPRK wants to attract more tourists, it must first stop looking like a “bully boy”.

This is said without a hint of irony, proving Palin’s willing ignorance or complete lack of self-awareness regarding the country of his birth and its Nato partners’ actions around the world.

We could pull apart this programme from start to finish, but one scene in particular really sums up western exceptionalism, which is when Palin is taken to Mount Kumgang to see some of the natural splendour of the country. His guide, a charming lady who has been with him through his journey, strikes up a very friendly relationship with her charge, even celebrating his 75th birthday with him.

They take a hike up the Kuryong waterfall, and once again Palin wastes no opportunity to insult, announcing: “For the first time since my arrival in the DPRK I feel a great sense of freedom.” Throughout this whole episode, no evidence is presented of any impediment beyond his own prejudices. Ironically, at the start of the programme he is warned by a man who runs a travel agency to shed his preconceptions of the country lest he should “sort of fit everything into that box”.

It’s glaringly obvious Palin never follows that wise advice.

Michael Palin and his guide decide to stop for a rest on their hike and apparently use the seclusion for a more ‘open’ conversation about their respective countries. Palin starts by asking how north Koreans get news, insinuating a lack of coverage. She replies by saying that they receive it in just the same as anyone else: by mass media, radio, newspapers and so on.

Palin continues by declaring that our way of life (in Britain) is based on freedom of speech and thought (obviously not including journalists like Julian Assange). He also proclaims our ability to criticise our leaders, implying that in the DPRK, freedom of self-expression is unknown. The young lady tells him: “You have your own style in your country, but in my country, we believe in the leaders and they represent the masses, not the ruling class.”

Palin once again shows a very limited understanding, returning an answer of no relevance, asserting that leaders are sometimes good and sometimes bad. His mindset of European-style bourgeois democracy and capitalism blinds him to comprehending the worker-led culture and democracy of the DPRK.

The young lady shows a class-consciousness that passes Michael Palin by. Throughout the programme, he is the embodiment of western exceptionalism, only seeing the good in the DPRK when it reminds him of home and never accepting the glaring truths that you don’t even need to visit the country to understand.

It is an important part of gaining class awareness to understand how we are propagandised against any society that has successfully shed its ruling class and seeks to emancipate its workers. Western exceptionalism wants us to believe that westerners rightly rule the waves, because our version of society is the only way. It never tells the truth that the east had ancient civilisations way before west Europeans did, or that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a better, more advanced example of democracy than we have yet known.

The people of the DPRK have a highly developed national and class-consciousness, formed by their long struggle against US and Japanese imperialism.

Workers in Britain could learn much from our Korean comrades, as far too many of us are unaware of the true history of both our class and our nation. Only this explains how it is that so many in our ranks still see the wars of Britain’s ruling class as being ‘our wars’ when in reality we have more in common with those workers under attack than we have with the British imperialists doing the attacking.