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.