Truly, this is the stuff of nightmares.
At this point, we all know North Korea isn’t the nicest place to visit. Given who is in charge, that pretty much sums up how hellish it can be.
However, one man’s account proves that it’s not a country that takes any slight against them very well.
In a lengthy account he shared with the BBC, US doctor Calvin Sun recalled the night he spent inside the forbidden fifth floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel back in 2011.
A medical student at the time, he decided to spend his summer break embarking on a world trip that ultimately led him to Pyongyang, North Korea:
Sun, along with a group of 20 American, European and Chinese travellers, mostly in their 20s, met their tour organisers in Beijing. During an orientation session, the group were told to listen to their guides and to always show respect for North Korean culture.
They would be staying at the Yanggakdo Hotel in the capital. The fifth floor, however, was never mentioned.
While the trip played out somewhat normally – from visiting national landmarks to socialising with locals – it all started going pear-shaped when on their last night, someone in the group suggested that they explore the rest of the hotel:
At 47 storeys, the Yanggakdo International Hotel is one of North Korea’s tallest buildings. It’s located on an island in the middle of the Taedong river, and boasts four restaurants, a bowling alley and massage parlours. TVs in bedrooms play dated BBC World News reports on a loop …
For their five-night stay at the hotel, Sun and the group had been supervised by their guides. Now was their last opportunity to explore the building alone. After all, there had been no rules against exploring the hotel.
The group made their way to the open rooftop and then to the revolving restaurant on the top floor, before making their way down in the lift.
Someone then noticed that the button for the fifth floor was missing. The numbers on the panel jumped from four to six.
This mystery was too spooktacular to pass up, so Sun and the group “disembarked on the fourth floor and made their way to the stairwell round the back of the hotel”. Despite trying to keep up a cheery atmosphere, they were on edge the whole time:
“One of the guys who was walking ahead in the corridor ran back and said ‘No, not this way, I heard screaming.'” Sun adds that he didn’t hear the screaming, but was unnerved enough to pay attention. “We all decided to change direction and head to the sixth floor, and walk down to the fifth floor from there.”
The group were surprised to find that the door to enter the fifth floor from the stairwell was unmanned. It was also open. Pulling out their cameras, they stepped inside.
“This room had lights coming from inside and we saw security cameras, TV screens that seemed to show the inside of bedrooms and what looked like surveillance equipment. I now began to think that this floor was where the hotel staff reportedly kept equipment to surveil guests.”
The walls were covered with brightly coloured anti-American and anti-Japanese propaganda paintings and framed hangings. Several images glorified the former Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il.
One caption [found on the above poster] read: “This bomb is the product of the Americans. Every product of the Americans is our enemy. Get revenge a thousand hundred times against the Americans.”
Brrr, that must have been unnerving to read, even if America is in deep shite at the moment, no thanks to its president.
After spending several minutes inside the office, an unfamiliar man – a hotel official, Sun later clarified – popped out of the shadows and approached the group. Asking if they were lost, he pointed them towards the stairs:
He didn’t escort us back to our rooms, or appear angry or agitated.
That didn’t stop the group from going to the fifth floor two more times, where they found more locked rooms and propaganda posters, only to be kicked out twice by different officials for their efforts.
Sun and the group left North Korea the next day without much thought about their investigation, but it was in 2015 when another US university student visited the same hotel, that Sun’s thoughts returned to the mysterious fifth floor:
In 2015, US university student Otto Warmbier [pictured above] would follow the same programme in North Korea as Calvin Sun, with the same operators, Young Pioneer Tours. Warmbier would also stay at Yanggakdo Hotel. And it was at the hotel that North Korean officials would say that Warmbier attempted to steal a North Korean poster.
Warmbier was subjected to a sham trial and then a forced TV confession. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years hard labour for the offence. Warmbier sustained injuries while incarcerated and he fell into a coma from which he would not regain consciousness. Otto Warmbier’s death in June 2017 made international headlines …
As a result of this situation, Western tourism is being tightened by policy upon policy. As for the Yanggakdo Hotel’s fifth floor, websites now state it’s merely a service floor that’s strictly off-limits.
Sun’s story is a warning to those to be careful of what they do when they’re in another country, so as to prevent a grisly result like Warmbier’s death:
While we were there there were no posters that you could take down. The pictures were either all painted or nailed to the wall. Not that we ever had considered taking, let alone touching anything on the floor – there was nothing that we could have stolen from there anyway …
I feel terrible about what happened to Otto. And knowing what we now know, I would certainly advise all travellers to respect the customs of the country they are visiting. But back then, there was no way I could have known that we were being reckless or what we did could have resulted in such a tragic and serious outcome as Otto’s.
They’re damn lucky to have gotten out alive with a mere finger-wagging. Had they even touched one of those posters, they might never have returned from the fifth floor at all.
Read the full story here.
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