“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.”
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.
This statue -- and hundreds like it -- commemorate the fighting during the anti-Japanese period, and the Korean War.
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.”
A typical government building, with the ubiquitous poster. "Then again," Brian says, "every building was a government building."
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 Hershey, in a conference room that straddles the North/South border at the Demilitarized Zone.
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 Arirang Mass Games, a propaganda extravaganza featuring 100,000 performers.
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.
Brian with some young soccer players at the "Pyongyang Fun Fair." It was similar to the Yankee Doodle Fair, he says -- except most of the people on rides were soldiers.
“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.
Last October, “06880” published the uplifting story of Brian Hershey. The Staples junior won an international contest sponsored by Polar Bears International, aimed at educating teenagers about climate change.
Brian Hershey, proudly wearing his Polar Bears International fleece. Hong Kong this summer will be much warmer.
After writing an essay and undergoing interviews, Brian traveled to the Arctic Circle. He and 17 other bright, committed students from around the globe met with scientists, studied polar bears, and tried to figure out how to stop our planet from falling apart.
Brian returned to Westport excited and inspired to do what he can to help change the world.
The post drew 98 comments. This being “06880,” not all were positive. Several readers hammered Brian for — among other things — his love of travel, and his belief that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between manmade gases and global warming.
A reader who nicknamed himself “Jeffxs” was particularly vocal. He said that Brian was “pitching his ideas,” and — as an aside — decried the Board of Education’s elimination of science courses in favor of “mural painting.”
Brian responded to his critics with grace and poise. He countered their blasts with reasoned arguments, facts, logic — and far more restraint than adults 2 and 3 times his age showed.
So it was with particular joy that I read an email the other day from Brian. He wrote:
When that blog post was published on Facebook, a friend of my family’s from when we used to live in Hong Kong read it. He is an executive at a PR firm based in East Asia whose specialty is “crisis management.”
Apparently he liked what he saw! He sent me a friendly email saying he saw a great PR agent in me, and that he liked the way I “managed the crisis.” He ended his email with, “I’d love to have you as an intern! Your choice of Hong Kong, Syndney, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore,or Kuala Lumpur!”
When I read this I was shaking in my seat at the idea of being able to go back to that part of the world. I have been dying to go back to Asia ever since I lived in Tokyo this past summer as an exchange student. I couldn’t believe the offer was real.
It was confirmed today. For the month of July I will live in an apartment in Hong Kong, and work as an intern for this guy at his office.
It’s the experience of a lifetime! And none of it would have been possible without your blog post, and Jeffsx and others’ criticisms! That’s fate!
Actually, it’s a great credit to Brian, and his maturity and wisdom.
As for Jeffxs: Please send me your address (email or snail). I’ll pass it along to Brian.
I’m sure he’d like to thank you himself, just as soon as he gets settled in Hong Kong.
A typical Staples absence note says, “He was at the doctor’s.”
Brian Hershey’s says, “He was at the Arctic Circle.”
If anything merits an excused absence, his does.
Brian Hershey, proudly wearing his Polar Bears International/Gault fleece.
Brian is a go-getter. He’s president of the Geography Club for good reason: Still a high school junior, he’s already visited 50 countries.
He plays alto sax in the jazz band and pit orchestra.
He spent last summer in Japan, as an exchange student.
He loves science. So it was no surprise that last spring he entered an international contest run by Polar Bears International aimed at educating teenagers about climate change.
Nor was it surprise that — after writing an essay, and undergoing interviews — Brian was one of 18 winners.
Which is how, earlier this month, he traveled to Churchill, Manitoba — a small town on Hudson Bay — to meet with scientists, study polar bears, and figure out how to stop the world from falling apart.
Brian met incredible people. Meeting other teenagers was as intriguing as interacting with climate change experts and park rangers. Most of the teenagers won contests co-sponsored by zoos (Brian’s was the only one sponsored by an energy company — Gault). Their perspectives broadened his own.
He spent time with Inuit trappers. One woman had been hired at age 7 to guide white hunters. At 9 she traveled 50 kilometers, spending 20 days trapping, then hauling furs back to Churchill.
“I figured these trappers would just kill animals,” Brian says. “But their lives depend on animals. They really understand the importance of conservation.”
But his encounters with a few dozen polar bears — some as close as 2 feet away — were truly amazing.
Brian Hershey took this photo. The polar bears are having fun -- but there should be snow and ice on the ground.
A buggy brought the group to a research station in the middle of the tundra.
“We were at the mouth of the Churchill River, where fresh and saltwater mix,” Brian explains.
“The bears hadn’t eaten in 4 months. They were starving, waiting for the ice to form, so they could hunt and eat seals.
“The water wasn’t frozen — but it should have been. Looking in the eyes of those awesome predators was an incredible experience.”
Brian returned to Westport — via prop plane to Winnipeg — motivated to find solutions to climate change. He and his new friends had agreed to try to get major businesses or organizations wherever they lived — Australia, the UK, wherever — to reduce their carbon footprint by 5% in 1 year.
Brian immediately approached Staples principal John Dodig to discuss “realistic, applicable ideas.”
One was to start using thin, recyclable paper — like the type Brian saw in Japan — for the many handouts teachers distribute.
Another suggestion: designate some junior parking spots (a coveted commodity) for students who recycle the most.
Brian Hershey, at the Arctic Circle.
Brian is determined to educate as many people as possible — of all ages — about the importance of environmental awareness.
“Climate change,” he notes, is a “misnomer. Climate is dynamic — it’s always changing. The question is whether people believe human beings are now contributing to the change.
“I think we are. And I want to talk about it.”
His message — to his friends, teachers, and hopefully the nation — is both personal and universal.
“Why should people in the slums of India, or Brazilian favelas, care about polar bears?
“You have to look at the global picture — at weather, ocean salinity, fishing, trade, everything.
“I have friends all around the world. And I’m going to use all my contacts, everyone I know and everything I learned, to try to spread awareness as much and as far as I can.”
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