When Staples students returned this month from summer vacation, they compared stories of their adventures.
This guy went whitewater rafting in Maine. That girl toured Europe.
Brian Hershey went to North Korea.
The senior is founder and president of Staples’ Geography Club for good reason. He’s been to 54 countries — and not just in the touch-down-at-the-airport-then-fly-away mode. He’s studied polar bears in the Arctic, and interned in Hong Kong.
But North Korea is like no place on earth. It’s so secretive and paranoid, in fact, although its borders were opened to Americans a year and a half ago, only a few hundred have made the trip.
Which made it even more alluring to Brian.
He and his father found Koryo Tours, a group that brings small groups to the “Democratic People’s Republic.” In early August Brian, his father, and his father’s former college roommate and daughter boarded a Soviet-era Tupolev for a “scary” ride from Beijing to Pyongyang.
Brian had no idea what to expect. He’d done lots of research — but even Google Earth showed very little. “North Korea does a great job of isolating itself,” he notes.
The runway was “almost dirt.” The terminal was dominated by an enormous portrait of Kim Il Sung, who led the country from its founding in 1948 until his death in 1994. Nearly 2 decades later, he is still revered as the “Eternal President.”
Security was intense. Many of the machines were “props,” Brian says, so everyone was patted down thoroughly. His camcorder and digital camera were okay — but guards were mystified by his disposable cameras. They’d never seen anything similar, Brian says — and nearly confiscated them.
The small group was herded onto a tour bus, which they rarely left. Skies were always gray; the architecture big and massive. All the buildings, Brian says, looked “straight out of a faded-glory era.”
But the North Koreans are proud. The “Arch of Triumph” — commemorating victory over Japanese imperialists (the Koreans hate Japan “even more than America,” Brian says) — is “6 meters taller than the French Arc de Triomphe,” the group was grandly told.
The Pyongyang skyline is “weirdly symmetrical,” Brian notes. Though traffic is light, pretty young women in high boots serve as “crossing girls.” Most vehicles are Russian-made — except for a few shiny Audis and Mercedeses, belonging to government officials.
“Everything looks good from far away,” Brian says. “Up close, it’s gray and nasty.” The only color comes from propaganda posters. Portraits of Kim Il Sung and current leader Kim Jong Il hang everywhere. Each is cleaned daily.
Brian has stayed in “some really bad hotels.” But the one in Pyongyang was easily the worst. The carpet was stained and balled up. The rooms smelled “like death.” The shower had a hole in the tile for water to drip through. There was no soap, and the sheets were unclean.
Brian’s group went to the DMZ. North Korean soldiers patrol it unblinkingly. South Korean soldiers seem much more relaxed.
North Korea’s military size is enormous. But, Brian says, many of the soldiers are “boys and old men. They’re not very impressive.”
Amid all the talk of achievements and numbers, Brian was surprised to hear the guards admit the country had a food shortage. However, they said, that was in the past. The agricultural system has been revised, they told the group. Brian did see plenty of crops — mostly rice and corn — growing everywhere.
The visitors were fed “extraordinarily well,” Brian says. But the food was “dreadful” — and it was the same meal every day. They ate white rice, fermented vegetables and scraps of meat. “There were different size bowls and presentations, but it was all the same,” he says.
Two exceptions: a barbecue, and the day they ate dog. Brian pronounced man’s best friend “okay, but bland. Kind of like corned beef without salt.”
Nearly every sight they saw was “perfectly planned and executed” — and staged. Sometimes the group didn’t really notice. Other times it was “painfully obvious,” Brian says.
The most bizarre show came at the Kim Jung Il Maternity Hospital. “They gave us surgeons’ gowns and took us around to 4 of the 16 floors, pretending they were showing us the hospital as it operated,” he reports.
“But whether we were in a dentists’ room or saw mothers holding ‘newborn babies,’ everything was fake. The doctors, the machines — there were even ‘pregnant women’ with pillows stuffed under their shirts.”
Much more impressive were the “Mass Games.” 100,000 gymnasts, musicians, taekwando artists and soldiers in a gigantic stadium depicted Korean history from 1945 to today.
Twenty thousand children held up series of cards to create moving images: horses galloping, flags waving, farmers harvesting. It was “incredible,” Brian says. The capstone of it all: a re-enactment of the birth of Kim Il Sung.
The Eternal President figured in another only-in-North-Korea moment. Brian’s group visited Kim’s mausoleum — another mammoth building — and, as their guides requested, dressed up for the occasion.
Koreans sobbed after viewing the body. “They were incredibly devastated,” Brian says.
Another trip was to the USS Pueblo — the US Navy intelligence ship seized by North Korea in 1968.
“It’s their prize trophy,” says Brian. “They guard it constantly. The amazing thing is, the technology on the ship is better than what the North Koreans have 40 years later.”
Through it all, Brian was impressed by the humanity of the Koreans.
“They’re so nice and kind,” he says, referring to the few encounters he had with citizens in places like the subway, as well as informal talks with the guides.
“I expected 1984 zombies. Even though they hate Americans, they treated me well. They’re friendly and talkative.”
However, he was surprised by their passivity. “They don’t know the outside world, and they’re not curious about it. They think they’re in paradise.”
Brian was “freaked out” by one encounter with young Koreans at the enormous Children’s Palace. Talented kids as young as 3 are trained for hours a day in their craft: music, calligraphy, tapestries, whatever.
Brian was very impressed by the music he heard. But, he says, “they were like machines. Every note was perfect” — and lacking in soul.
Brian left North Korea with a mixture of emotions. He spent 3 days in Mongolia — a country he’d love to see more of — and soon was back in the US.
His jet lag faded, but his excitement over his trip lingers.
“I was sitting in Shake Shack, looking at everyone enjoying the summer day,” he says. “Just a plane ride away, there’s North Korea. The differences are incredible.”
As overwhelming as Korean propaganda is, though, Brian recognizes that we fall victim to our own version of it. Whatever he’d known of North Korea before he went came from what he’d been told of it here. The reality of life there — and of the humans who live it — is far more complex, he now knows.
North Korea is, he says, “an amazing place. It’s important to see. I recommend it to everyone.”
Or, at least, to the tiny number of us with the same astonishing spirit, curiosity and adventurousness of a Brian Hershey to make such a trip.
Sure, North Korea seems an interesting place to visit–one like no other country in the world. But the tours are not cheap, I think something like 7,000-10,000 USD. Anyways, isn’t there a little guilt in supporting a government that controls their people so much–and yes starvation is a huge part of North Korea today, despite what some guide there says. I suppose I can’t really speak from the point of view of North Korean citizens, and maybe I’m being too quick to judge, but giving my money to their government (of course none is going to regular people) somehow seems a little bit weird
I wouldn’t waste my money. If history is any guide before too long there will be many American boys touring the North Korean countryside as guests of the Pentagon.
As Stalin was killing 10,000,000 kulaks, some thought the Soviet Union was an interesting place to visit.
Oh, come on. Why do the comments have to deteriorate into name calling? Brian made many good observations.
Fantastic piece. What a trip! Fascinating… Looking-at-articles-about-North-Korea-on-Wikipedia-for-five-hours, here I come!
This kid takes more flak from the commentators here, time and time again. Any time you travel, it is a great experience. Carpe diem.
I didn’t mean to demean Brian in any way. I just wanted to raise a question/issue with North Korea specifically.
In my opinion, Brian is adventurous and intrigued to learn a lot about the world we live in, and honestly U.S. citizens need to understand different people and cultures better, especially considering how diverse our own country is. I dream of traveling to the places Brian has been to and I don’t care if he has money or not. He’s doing things that not many people his age (or any age) would do, whether they were poor or rich.
All in all, I think Brian should keep up the traveling and to continue to see, experience and learn about the world’s people—a global world he will likely be working in when he gets out of college.
Brian is an adventurer par exellence. Get to know the peoples of the world. They are generally always as human and natural as we are, in spite of the current governments they are living (struggling?)under. Eventually the extreme communism of North Korea will collapse, and the North and South Koreans will blend into the wonderful people they actually all are.
Keep going, Brian, the whole world is your oyster!
I was there also, and saw the same. Thanks Brian for your effort to tell the world about DPRK: very proud of you! I try to do the same in Holland and my travel story was publiced in a Newspaper. Good to tell the world and not have the attitude of: “we never knew”. I hope changes will come soon for the poor Koreans, there live is more then sad and awful. Btw: I used a picture in my blog of Brians’ Tshirt, showing: ‘Loads of Hope”, wearing in Pyongyang. And so it is!
Thanks, Brian, for sharing your experiences. As a fellow Westporter who has also visited DPRK and witnessed how surreal – and very sad – the conditions there are, I think it’s important to shed light on the situation. It’s been almost 9 years since my visit, but much of what Dan conveys about your trip is exactly as I remember it; from the “scary” flight in, to the bizarrely out of place and impossible to understand “crossing girls.” …and the depressing grayness of everything. I was there in late November when the first snowflakes were starting to fall and ice was forming on the wet indoor hallway floor of a hospital I visited. Sad to hear that summer doesn’t really bring much “warmth” to things.
Once again, traveling on his parents’ dime.
How else are you supposed travel when you’re 18 years old? Every kid in Fairfield County travels on their parents’ dime. The difference with Brian is he didn’t use that privilege to thoughtlessly bounce around the caribbean on a cruise ship. Instead he and his father chose to explore the world and educate themselves. That’s a parent’s dime well spent if you ask me!
GW: Jealous?? Who cares who pays for it. Would you rather see him sitting on a chair at the beach checking stickers? Experience of a lifetime.
Yes, Brian made a choice to, yes, spend some of his parents’ money (and maybe some of his own) to travel to an unusual place. GW’s comment sure sounds jealous and mean-spirited to me. I love all the other comments.
it sounds very ‘soviet’ so he should be careful about publishing his comments about ‘props’ etc., under his own name because he will find in the future that his tourist visa is denied.