As I stepped out from the elevator onto the fifth floor, it was indeed an anti-climax.
There was a distinct lack of military officials sitting in propaganda-covered rooms studying how to manufacture atom bombs. It was just a hallway — a much smaller hallway than the other hallways in the hotel. It had a locked door on one side, with a camera nested just above. On the other side was a set of thick, leathery curtains, behind which was a dark room with some concrete slabs and nothing else. I took a few more sips of my beer and had a quick peruse of said concrete blocks. Perhaps a secret door was hidden behind one. It was not. I giggled at the stupidity of the situation, ready to end my mini-adventure and return to the relative sanity of the North Korean bowling alley and karaoke bar downstairs.
I pressed the button for the elevator and waited. I could hear that it had arrived, yet the door did not open. I pressed it again. Still the door did not open. I was nervous, but since I didn’t know what else to do, I sat on the floor and finished my beer. It was a large beer, so I soon found myself needing to use the restroom. There didn’t seem to be one on this eerie North Korean hallway, so, in desperation, I slipped behind the not-so-iron curtain and did my business just out of sight of the camera. I then came back and started to sober up as the realization hit me: I am stuck on my own in a prohibited room in North Korea.
I am an idiot.
I paced, increasingly angry and scared. I tried pulling apart the doors of the elevator, with no luck. I then started banging on the door, thinking for some reason that it would be wise to draw attention to where I was. My actions became more frantic and I started kicking the door in a feeble attempt at moving solid steel. I looked around for a hint of a fire exit, or even a window. There was nothing in sight.
So I did what what any self respecting man would do at this moment: I cried. I cried, and began pleading to the camera that “I didn’t mean to end up on this floor” that you could not possibly find by mistake. I’d been looking for a party and got it wrong, honestly.
Then, at this point, all the lights of the fifth floor turned off.
I sat in darkness in this forbidden hallway in North Korea, with only the blinking red light of the camera and my empty beer bottle as company. In the time before the lights automatically switched back on and the elevator opened its doors to me, I had some time to think.
Here’s what I learned while stuck in a forbidden hallway in North Korea:
1) North Korea is scary, and it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons
As I lay there on the floor sobbing like a big terrified Glaswegian baby, I realised this was the reality for many North Koreans every day — although, unlike me, it would not necessarily be through any fault of their own. The Western world gets so swept up in the hysteria of potential nuclear war, or even just the “amusing” anecdotes about ridiculous laws and rules that the country imposes on its people, that we forget the harsh realities.
I doubt that North Koreans fear having the wrong hairstyle, or not weeping appropriately when prompted for a news report. It’s that they live with the perpetual fear that their government is watching. A fear that many have never known a world without. Citizens who speak out against the sacrosanct regime can face murder, torture and rape as punishment, while many just disappear to forced labour camps, never to be seen again.
North Koreans do not have access to independent media, religious freedom, or even a functioning civil society. The “crazy” laws that we fixate on are a distraction that the regime welcomes.
2) It’s wrong to dismiss the country as “brainwashed”
North Korea is governed by an ideology known as Juche, which at its core is a belief in “self reliance.” The basis for this? The Korean War.
Estimates vary, but likely somewhere between ten to 20 percent of the North’s population was slaughtered in this war. The U.S. dropped 576,000 tonnes of bombs on the Korean Peninsula, including 30,000 tonnes of napalm. For comparison, that’s nearly the same quantity of explosives — 595,000 tonnes — that the U.S. spread throughout the entire Pacific Theatre during the Second World War.
The consistent argument that I heard from North Koreans is that they need to develop nuclear weapons and close off their country to prevent the “imperialist Americans” from invading. This also went some way to justifying their restrictions on freedoms such as the internet, as the regime claims it fears brainwashing from the powerful American media.
While this may sound nuts to outsiders, it doesn’t when you remember that North Koreans were subjected to one of the most brutal conflicts of the last century, at the hands of the United States. The regime capitalises on this intense fear and distrust: when the Americans support more extreme sanctions, the ruling elite presents this as more cruelty directed to the Korean people by the U.S. Life may get tougher for citizens, but it often also reinforces the state’s rhetoric.
3) Some are willing to sacrifice freedom for equality
The Juche ideology runs deep here. My guide would openly debate with me over the political thought process of his country. He had concerns over human rights. He had concerns over the extreme poverty that his country suffers from — although he was keen to point out that people no longer starve to death, and now are merely, as he put it, “malnourished”. To him, the distinction was a symbol of progress.
He seemed genuinely convinced that an equal society was a better outcome than a good standard of living — that poverty was a sacrifice his fellow citizens were willing to make in order to live in a country more equal than the West. This also helps in justifying redirecting money to the military, so the country can defend itself against invasion by the “imperialist Americans.”
4) Tourism is a positive step forward
Although I may not have been thinking this while weeping in the foetal position in a darkened corridor, it’s something I’ve reflected on since.
A lot of people attacked my choice to go to the DPRK. Criticisms ranged from “that’s stupid” to “you’re propping up a murderous regime.” Perhaps there’s truth in both of these, but I’m still convinced that tourism is one of the first steps to understanding, and opening up, a country like North Korea.
There were people on my tour group who had only ever heard sensationalized stories about the Hermit Kingdom, and were part of the tour simply for the bragging rights. By being in the country, they became better informed, had their preconceptions challenged, and took some of that curiosity — and nuance — back home with them.
Tourism has been building in North Korea. It now receives roughly 5,000 Western tourists a year, plus something like half a million tourists from neighboring China. As more people visit, there will be more interactions with North Koreans who can then develop their own opinion on foreigners that aren’t solely based on the government propaganda. How else will a nation deprived of free media stop hating and fearing outsiders?
5) Resist the urge for an anecdote
Finally, I learned that I’m a complete idiot — and, later, that I’m extremely lucky to be alive.
Otto Warmbier visited the DPRK only a few weeks after my visit. His act of “defiance” — trying to steal a propaganda poster as a keepsake — wasn’t any more dramatic than mine, but his ended in tragedy. I wanted to access the fifth floor purely to say I had, and for the comedic value. That wasn’t worth risking my life for, or the limited trust and access that my tour company had negotiated in order for me to be there.
By going to a country like North Korea and playing into the sensationalized rhetoric — aiming to return home only with a unique story about breaking the “crazy” rules — I was doing a great disservice to all of the valuable knowledge I gained there.
North Korea does have bizarre rules, but for a logical reason. It’s not the bonkers state led by unpredictable madmen with their fingers on the nuclear button that much Western media would have you believe. It’s a state with an incredibly powerful propaganda machine, and tight control over its citizens, that knows exactly what it’s doing — and one of those things is expertly diverting attention away from the real issues to obvious, fluffy stories about how nuts it is.
I’m incredibly lucky: I walked away with a funny story. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything funny about the North Korean regime.