For a more compelling and professional journalistic write-up of what we had experienced, please read BBC News’ longform article on us and our story:
I promise you, it’s way better and more in-depth than their live on-air segment with me —
The events described in this post and on the 5th floor occurred in 2011, at a time when not a single tourist had ever been detained by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). It was a time when scores of travelers before us had already ventured to this floor and back safely, even when approached by the hotel staff during their excursions. The first tourist detained by the DPRK took place in 2014, 3 years after this post was published, and it was over an unrelated incident. Yet, a lot has changed since then.
The Monsoon Diaries assumes ZERO and NO responsibility for you, your well-being and/or your safety if you attempt any of what we did below when visiting North Korea. The rules and oversight have changed since we visited, so the consequences of your actions may differ from what happened to us.
Therefore, the risks that you choose to take while in North Korea are of your own accord and we thus take no responsibility for whatever consequences that befall you if you are to be caught and persecuted by the government of the Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea.
Welcome To The 5th Floor (shot by Justin Bussies):
The 5th Floor – Our Experience
It’s been a few days since this American, yours truly, escaped from North Korea after partaking in some off-the-traditional-path activities.
That said, 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.
So we went there.
On the last night of the trip with nothing else to do but sit around, drink, or go to sleep, we decided to explore the entirety of the hotel given that we had called it home the past week.
I remember this photo was taken in between our countless trips that night, where we reconvened in my room, had a drink, and debated whether to go for another round.
So whether from the basement casino to the rooftop restaurant, we explored in groups and never alone. On one of those trips we decided to check out each of the hotel’s floor starting from the bottom by way of stairwell.
From the 4th floor one of us thought he had heard some screaming as we approached the stairs to the 5th floor…err…yeahh….so we decided to skip that and head down 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.
For the record, there is NO sign anywhere that even suggests you are trespassing, let alone some kind of lock contraption or mechanism that suggests this was an area where a random person shouldn’t not be allowed to wander. We saw an open door, and we walked in.
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.
We reached the end here.
Nobody got in trouble because whomever gets “caught” is assumed to be lost and shown to the elevators. Not a single person in our group who was approached by local staff was escorted back to their room; they were simply just shown where the elevators were.
Besides, we had been informed that any sort of actual action against you would infer the admission that the 5th floor exists. And nobody wants that, right? So some others in the group returned 5 more times to check out more, hoping that a door would be unlocked and another staircase could be revealed.
And for the record nobody in our group had to write letters of apology to the government, give up their cameras for inspection, or had their photos reviewed/deleted upon leaving North Korea the next morning. In fact they shook our hands and some tried to awkwardly give us a hug goodbye.
Here are eyewitness accounts from other excursions in my group who ventured the next day:
. . . We decided to check out the missing floor by the stairs as there simply had to be something to it. Esshie was somewhat concerned that we might be caught and then permitted by the authorities to make true our dreams of staying permanently in the DPRK. No such luck though—we made it back without incident. Well, that’s to say we weren’t caught. What we did find was very interesting indeed.
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. We saw desks with screens and monitoring equipment, the space was still in the Cold War when tensions were higher.
Another account by another travel blogger:
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. Add it up and its chills down the spine. – Another Travel Blog
Here’s another account by a few friends in my group who went with us and then 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 seemed like 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 decided not to 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 a subconscious response for assigning two spies in our group during our trip (they were posing as 2 out of 4 of our guides), who 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?”).
My friend and I did beat both of them at a game of pool (they had challenged us first: “Let’s play pool! We Koreans vs. the world!”) on our last night together, but this is different.
And there you have it: our trip being so over the top, it reaches another kind of alternate reality on the 5th 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:
Update – 3 Days Later
So 3 days later and I’m still alive back in NYC. 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.
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- At time of posting in Pyongyang, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 65% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy