A travel blogger has recounted his escapades in Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel which resulted in the arrest and eventual death of American student Otto Warmbier.
Doctor Calvin Sun has opened up about his 2011 experience inside the secret floor of the hotel and now he warns others from doing similar.
North Korea was one of the ‘easiest’ visa forms he had to fill out. ‘You didn’t even need to hand in your passport to apply for entry then. I think many people don’t even bother to try because the thought of it is too overwhelming,’ he added.
And now the tale of his visit to Pyongyang which he first wrote about on his travel blog The Monsoon Diaries has been picked up by the BBC. ‘Of all the things we had done in North Korea that week,’ he said. ‘It never occurred to me that our visit to the fifth floor may have been the problem.’
Sun describes the Pyongyang physical furniture ‘as if God had muted the colour. Beijing had been so colourful that it now seemed garish next to Pyongyang.’
The buildings, the posters, the signs, the clothes were white, grey and black with maybe a little bit of red. Communist party colours. It was as if I’d got into a time machine and arrived inside a 1970s Soviet TV show time warp.
Although they seemed a little strict and organised in the beginning, telling us not to cross streets without supervision or take photos of certain buildings, we formed an instant rapport with them. The guides enjoyed drinking. We learned that alcohol is a central part of Korean culture, and they encouraged us to socialise with them every evening.
The guides were fascinated with Michael Jackson and kept asking us if he died of Aids. They also asked us a lot about police brutality in America. The American reality show Cops, which follows police officers on real-life stings is one of the few international shows that was shown on North Korean TV (at least to the officials). They asked a lot of questions about that
As for that notorious and elusive fifth floor, Sun said:
We weren’t the first group to go to the fifth floor – or the last. In 2011 no tourists had ever been detained in DPRK. The weight of what we were doing didn’t occur to us.
We were not briefed to stay away from the fifth floor at any stage by the guides, it just wasn’t mentioned.
Four years later, Otto Warmbier was detained and sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a North Korean camp after being found guilty of trying to steal a North Korean propaganda poster from the very same hotel Calvin had visted.
Subjected to a sham trial and a more-than-feigned confession, Warmbier would go on to suffer injuries while incarcerated, eventually falling into a coma from which he would never regain consciousness. He died in Ohio in June 2017.
The first thing Sun noticed about the fifth floor was the low height of the ceiling.
Most rooms were locked. One was open however. He explained:
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 coated in anti-American and anti-Japanese propaganda paintings, as well as many images glorifying former Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il.
One reads: 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.’
Shortly after, a stranger approached them from the shadows and calmly asked if they were lost. One of the group said they were and the man nodded and directed them to the stairs. ‘He didn’t escort us back to our rooms, or appear angry and agitated,’ Calvin said.
Unthreatened by the encounter, they would venture to the floor again. Eventually, they travelled home.
We were all in our early 20s. We were foolish. We were very naive. The experience seemed exciting and innocent. After everything that has happened since then and taking responsibility, knowing what I know now, I would not have done it.
You can say that again. Not at gun-point would I even think about going to Pyongyang, but that’s just me.
Read Calvin’s full post here at The Monsoon Diaries.
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