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Secrets of a Pyongyang hotel

Posted September. 17, 2011 03:42,   


When I visited Pyongyang as a member of the South Korean joint press corps to cover the inter-Korean ministerial talks in March 2007, I had an unexpected experience at Koryo Hotel, the venue for the talks. As reporters were trying to fix instant noodles for a midnight snack, they learned that they ran out of hot water. Just about a minute or so later, two North Korean guides opened the door of the media room, holding a kettle of hot water. Though the guides were smiling, their looks suggested that they knew what the reporters were talking about. I suspected that something was hidden behind the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hung on the wall of the media room.

Behind the curtains of inter-Korean talks held in the North, a fierce war of nerves is being waged between those who try to eavesdrop and those who strive to maintain security. South Korean delegates not only use voice encryption devices brought from Seoul but also install equipment to prevent wiretapping. They also use a prearranged set of secret words in their dialogue. They often resort to the old-fashioned trick of playing music so loud to the point that a normal conversation is difficult. While they use paper shredders, the rule is that they never leave even a piece of Kleenex tissue with which they blew their nose.

A U.S. blogger has leaked a secret of Ryanggak International Hotel on the North`s side of the Daedong River in Pyongyang. The 47-story hotel`s elevators do not have buttons for the fifth floor or stops on that floor. Calvin Sun, a Chinese American who visited Pyongyang last month with five other tourists, blogged about his secret entry into the fifth floor. Large propaganda posters expressing hatred for the U.S. and praising North Korean leader Kim Jong Il were hung on the walls. In one room whose door was open, a desk and what appeared to be a bugging device were seen.

The 1,001-room hotel has more secrets unbeknownst to North Korean residents. On the rotating observatory of the hotel`s top floor, members of the North Korean power elite drink Ballantine`s 17 Years Old blended scotch whiskey, which is priced at more than 100 U.S. dollars a bottle. North Korean State Security Department officials, who get busy praising their country`s superiority when they meet South Koreans visitors, pay 40 dollars for a massage. Yet the average North Korean worker receives about 2 dollars in monthly salary. This has not stopped the North`s ruling Kim dynasty from promoting its country as the "People`s Republic" and a "paradise on earth."

Editorial Writer Ha Tae-won (triplets@donga.com)