When Brian Hershey Met Kim Jong Il

“06880” takes pride in finding the local angle in any story. After all, our tagline is “Where Westport Meets the World.”

That means any story — including, half a world away, the death of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s bizarro leader.

In fact, this one was a piece of kimchi cake.

Last summer, Brian Hershey became one of an infinitesimal number of Americans to ever have visited the “Democratic People’s Republic.” He told his story — of Pyongyang’s “weirdly symmetrical skyline,” a military filled with “boys and old men,” and a fake hospital that was only for show — to “06880.”

(From left) Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Brian Hershey.

Brian — now a Staples High School senior (who just got accepted to Johns Hopkins) — learned of Kim Jong Il’s death from CNN. He immediately thought of his trip.

While gigantic propaganda posters of the leader loomed everywhere, it was clear that his father — Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder — was more revered. “He’s still called ‘The Eternal President,'” Brian says.

But last summer too, it seemed the country was beginning to look ahead to a new leader. Huge posters of Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, started to be seen.

The government, Brian says, was already preparing the country for succession. And there will be no problem, he believes. “Whatever the Korean people are told, they’ll believe.”

The sobbing and prostration shown on television at Kim Jong Il’s death is genuine, Brian says. He saw it first hand, at the palace housing Kim Il Sung’s remains.

First, Brian’s group traveled on an excruciatingly slow-moving walkway — at half a mile, the longest one in the world, they were told. A similar walkway, running the opposite direction, brought mourners out. All — including soldiers — were “crying hysterically.”

One of many posters of Kim Jong Il, on one of Pyongyang's many government buildings.

Finally — after intense security, and moving through air canyons that blew all the dust off everyone — they reached the plain, very cold and windowless room where the Eternal President lay. He was propped up at a 45-degree angle, lit by red lights, in a glass box similar to the one his son now lies in.

Opera music played in the background. As each visitor — including Brian — walked around the body, they bowed 3 times. The Koreans sobbed, inconsolably.

“This was 17 years after he died,” Brian notes. “But he looks like he died yesterday.”

Kim Jong Il will get the same treatment, Brian predicts.

When his group left North Korea, Brian says, they all tried to predict how long the country would exist in its present state. The guesses ranged from a few years, to hundreds. As with most things North Korean — including the succession of Kim Jong Un — no Westerner has enough real information to know what will happen.

“I’m so glad I was there — especially before Kim Jong Il died,” Brian says. “I feel like I got to see into a window of history.”

4 responses to “When Brian Hershey Met Kim Jong Il

  1. Kim Jong Il? No, Kim Jong Dead! Sorry.

  2. Fascinating story and what a great experience for this young man. I’d love to hear more.

  3. Francoeur Luisa

    Brian’s comments about visiting the tomb are interesting. When we were in Hanoi in January 2010, we visited the tomb of Ho Chi Minh which was very regulated but not to the same extent. We had to wait in line outside on the sidewalk – the line was in a formation of two by two and visitors had to be quiet while waiting. Then we went through security similar to an airport. Finally, we made our way around 3 sides of an embalmed Ho resting inside a glass box. Visitors were expected to pass by quietly and it was at a stately pace. He looked very lifelike – like the wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.