It’s been a few days since this American, yours truly, has escaped from North Korea after being caught doing a few questionable things.
That said, there are some things on a trip that are just asking to be done. When we noticed that elevator buttons skipped the 5th floor of our North Korean hotel in Pyongyang, or that if you google “Yanggakdo Hotel” it auto-fills it to “Yanggakdo Hotel Floor 5”, we knew something was up. And we also knew nobody was allowed to go there.
So we went there.
The plan was to wait until the last night of the trip, where we convened in a group of 6 people pretending to be ninjas, and we probably took about 4 separate trips to the 5th floor over the course of 2 nights.
Because all the elevators skip floor #5, we went by way of stairs via both the 4th and 6th floors.
One time we avoided the 4th floor way since we thought we had heard some screaming as we approached the stairs…err…yeahh….so we decided to enter from the 6th floor instead.
Either way you do it, you can count and you’ll get to where ever you’re supposed to go.
Most doors are locked, but only one we supposed had any real significance as it looked like a “communications room.” We saw a pair of shoes outside.
And then there are the weird propaganda posters that adorn the walls. Because the floor is dark and empty, the posters seemed to be screaming at us to listen. Too bad none of us could read Korean.
You can’t get in trouble because even though whomever gets caught is sent back to their rooms like a petulant child, any sort of actual action against you will result in the admission that the 5th floor exists. And nobody wants that, right? So we went back 3-4 times to check out more, hoping that a door would be unlocked and another staircase could be revealed.
Although I didn’t see anything more than what’s above, here is an eyewitness account from other excursions in my group who went a few times more the next day:
First, the 5th floor is unlike any floor of the hotel, it is all concrete, like a bunker, complete with steel doors. There are no decorations of any kind; instead there are propaganda posters. At that time all the strange doors were shut tight, but we were still able to stumble upon the most intriguing of all: in a corner there was a large pile of what appeared to be miniature cameras, as if awaiting repair.
Cameras, lots of them, and well enough for each room of the hotel. I don’t think I need to spell it out for you, word for word anyway. Oh, and another member of our group reported that when he went at a different time one door was open and there appeared to be official-looking men before computers or machines of some kind and listening to something with headphones. – Another Travel Blog
I also received a message from a few friends in our group who attempted another run on the 5th floor a few days later, this time trying to find the hidden “floor within a floor.” Yes, there is now evidence of a second floor within the 5th floor, which explains for the very very low ceilings when we explored the 5th floor 2 weeks ago.
[Friend 1] asked [Friend 2] to show the door that would lead up to the second floor of the fifth floor, so that we could try to go up there eventually. So they both went up and [Friend 2] tried to open it bit it was locked. Suddenly they heard footsteps from behind the door.
They made a run for the normal stairs and decided to split, one going up one going down. The guard followed [Friend 2] upstairs but couldn’t get him in the end. So it’s still a cliffhanger, but the hidden floor on the fifth floor is more or less confirmed.
There was one door that opened up into a concrete wall. You could go left or right, but not ahead. Another door was simply walled off. I then went up a hidden flight of stairs behind a third door to reach another floor.
On that floor, there was a room with a sign above it that read: “The Tailors.” I also peeked inside a giant “Paintings Room” filled from floor to ceiling with propaganda paintings about Kim Il-Sung and North Korea.
One of the theories of what the 5th floor is:
The North Koreans have this contingency plan where if war ever broke out, they would move all their art, posters, paintings, and sculptures into a safe area and lock it away until the end of the war. That way, the ideology of Kim Il-Sung would be preserved in places like the 5th floor.
So the only poster I saw that specifically mentioned America was the last poster with the white haired person in it. That poster refers to Americans as “승냥,” which different Koreans have said describes kind of a man eating wolf or a puma-like creature. Whatever a “seung nyang” (romanized pronunciation) actually is, the word is not your typical insult or cuss word. It’s used to express a deep hatred, fear, and mistrust of whoever it is directed to.
I did a little bit of research on that particular poster, and apparently the white haired figure has been used in other locations as well, and the revenge that the poster wants is apparently for a bombing by Americans of innocent men, women and children of North Korea. I’m not sure what bombing they are talking about, or whether it is a specific attack or just atrocities by American in general, or even if what they are talking about is true or not. But clearly, the poster is informing the viewer that America is evil, not to be trusted, and that a “hundred, thousand times” revenge against Americans is not only justified, but necessary.
As to what the fifth floor might really mean, I read the updated entry and “secret hiding spot” sounds like a good guess. I’m pretty sure without even having been there that it is a “communications” floor aka where they listen to your phone conversations and walls, etc. In all honesty, I’m not surprised that there are propaganda posters on the fifth floor, because if it’s where people “employed” by the North Korean government are working, then it only makes sense that they would be given reminders of what they are working for. What I am a little bit surprised about is how easy it was to get in and see things and how obvious it was.
Secrecy in North Korea seems to mean more “don’t talk about it, pretend its not there” than actually trying to hide it. The idea seems to be more that the government doesn’t care if people know, as long as they are too scared to say anything. If I was running a dictatorship based on lies and fear, I would probably build narrow hallways and offices between the outer walls and the rooms, rather than devote an entire floor to it.
I guess this was our subconscious way at getting back at them for assigning two spies in our group during our trip (they were posing as 2 out of 4 of our guides), who were so bad their jobs that they inadvertently admitted their identities when we watched them get drunk on our last night together. It was also made obvious when they kept asking the Americans very misplaced and inappropriately pointed questions during the whole trip (“Michael Jackson died of AIDS didn’t he? Is everything in America burning to the ground like in the TV Show Cops?”.
We figured we had gotten back at them when my friend and I beat both of them at a game of pool (they had challenged us first: “Let’s play pool! We Koreans vs. the world!”), but this is much much better.
And there you have it: North Korea being so over the top, it reaches another kind of alternate reality on the fifth floor. I can’t imagine a better way to end my trip, let alone do it with a cadre of a great group of friends. But if anybody can read Korean, please tell me what all the posters are saying?
Thanks for the memories, Pyongyang:
So it’s now 3 days later and I’m still alive. Whether it’s because they’ve decided that I wouldn’t be too much of a threat or because they actually might have liked me, I’m still breathing.
Since being back, I’ve been asked by a lot of friends how the North Koreans took to me identifying myself as an American but having Chinese blood. When I think back on it, I feel like my North Korean guides considered me as one of their Chinese allies/brothers who had been “brainwashed by the imperialist Americans.” Therefore, I was given a somewhat higher advantage in establishing a sort of camaraderie with the North Koreans. Whether my life has been spared (for now) has anything to do with this despite the stunts I’ve pulled, I can only wonder.
– At time of posting in Pyongyang, it was 78.8 °F –
Humidity: 65% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy