Sacramento teacher traveled to every nation in the world. Here’s how he got to visit North Korea
Rio Americano High School Spanish teacher Brian Asher, 37, barely stepped foot in North Korea on Tuesday, but it was enough to complete his goal of traveling to every nation in the world — all 193.
The joint security area he visited in North Korea, he said, is part of the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone, created along the 38th parallel after the armistice that ended the Korean War The joint security area closed in 2018 due to the swine flu and has been closed since because of COVID-19, according to Asher.
“I was in the first group let back in last Tuesday, and we got to go to the Blue House conference room, which had been closed for five years,” Asher said. “When you step foot across the latter half of that room, you’re technically in North Korea. I spent all of five to eight minutes in North Korea in the back half of the Blue House conference room.
“That counts. I have it on GPS.”
In addition to recognized nations, Asher says he has traveled to Taiwan, Kosovo, Palestine and the Vatican.
Asher said he began traveling the world at age 20. The first country he visited was Costa Rica when he was a junior in college.
“When I went to Costa Rica, it came alive,” he said. “When I moved down to Mexico after college, I went from very basic, intermediate three years of Spanish (in) high school to becoming really motivated. I don’t know what fluent is. We’re all improving all the time. But, I think I went from pretty basic to like getting closer to fluent in six months living in Guadalajara.”
He said he is now fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, the latter picked up after living in Brazil. He said he also understands a decent amount of Italian and French.
Asher motivated himself to go to Costa Rica after his brother went to Peru as a freshman in college that same year. Mark Asher, almost two years younger, attended Principia in Elsah, Illinois, a school that included studying abroad into its tuition.
“We went to Rio together,” Asher said. “He was in charge of the Spanish club, sold churros, took AP Spanish, talked to me in Spanish, which I kind of hated because I didn’t know what he was saying. He said, ‘Someday you’re going to want to learn Spanish, and then you’re going to have to travel.’”
Mark Asher died in 2013 at the age of 25 after a sudden heart illness.
Within a year and a half, Asher said he also suffered the loss of his father and two best friends.
“I was depressed for two or three months that spring,” he said. “I had no job, no sense of community, no sports, kind of no outside life but just living at home. What can I do? I love traveling. I love hiking. I love running. I’m going to go out and do those in honor of my brother. So, I finished visiting all 50 states. That was our dream.”
With help from his mom, and a sabbatical from his teaching job, he went from visiting just 91 countries to 191 countries in 14 months. He said he used time during school breaks to travel after returning to work.
“When I got to North Korea, the first thing I did was take out a picture of (Mark) and just remember how he got me into everything that I do,” he said. “Spanish, running, hiking, traveling. These are all things he introduced me to, so that’s been a huge driving factor for me.”
Asher documents his travels on his blog “The World Hiker” and posts on a YouTube channel of the same name.
Traveling to Costa Rica by himself, barely speaking any Spanish as a junior in college, he said, helped achieve a rush of adrenaline he only felt before playing sports as a kid.
“I still feel that,” Asher said. “Last week, trying to figure out transportation from Taiwan to South Korea and get on the tour to North Korea, it’s still an excitement to do things that are brand new, just like it was 17 years ago when I first left the country.”
Asher said he now looks forward to revisiting his favorite countries and spending a longer amount of time in each one without rapidly checking off a list.