As far as cities go, Pyongyang is a utilitarian utopia. Everything has a purpose, often more subversive than it superficially seems: the railway stations are hundreds of metres underground and double as bomb shelters; the car-less highways are 10 lanes wide to accommodate tanks in the event of an invasion; the vast squares have lines painted on them so military formations remain in perfect unity during extravagant parades; statues of granddaddy and daddy Kim serve as places of worship.

Then there are the two uberkitsch international hotels, which function as plush prisons for foreigners — they’re strictly off-limits for ordinary North Koreans. The Ryugyong Hotel is an unfinished 105-storey hotel shaped like a rocket ship. When construction begun in 1989 it was meant to be a symbol of North Korea’s greatness. Now, standing high above everything else in the flat (Pyongyang literally means “Flat Land”), concrete landscape, it’s a humiliating reminder of the government’s incompetence. Then there’s the Yanggakdo Hotel, which is quarantined on Yanggak Island in the Taedong River, complete with revolving restaurant on the 47th floor.

It’s here that American student Otto Warmbier is said to have stolen some sort of political propaganda from the “staff-only area of the hotel”. His televised confession made it seem as if it was some grand scheme, orchestrated with his local church back in the States — the Friendship United Methodist Church — and designed to undermine the North Korean state. In reality — or, rather, in the spirit of speculation-as-commentary that is the norm when talking about North Korea — this backstory was probably little more than a face-saving measure for the Kim government, a faux justification for holding him in custody since late January.

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There is a kind of mystique around this so-called “staff area” among many travellers who venture to North Korea; everyone knows where it is, but getting there is like finding your way out of a labyrinth. It’s located on the fifth floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel, but when you step into any of the lifts, the numbers go from one to 43 with level five conspicuously missing.

Touring North Korea is not an altogether standard way to spend one’s scant annual leave; thus, unsurprisingly, it attracts some odd characters. In the bar at Yanggakdo Hotel, one has the chance to mingle with people from other tour groups and one begins to realise that some are driven by something other than mere curiosity. The one’s you really have to watch out for are those who’ve returned multiple times; the tours are so regimented and superficial, everyone sees the same thing and listens to the same spiel. Only those who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid or have ulterior motives would have any desire to put themselves through all that again: there are the religious nut-jobs, aware that proselytising could land them in a concentration camp, but instead scoping the place out just in case the regime collapses and they all of a sudden have access to country of potential converts; the left-wing, anti-American brigade whose politics are so simplistic that they consider any power that opposes US dictate to be some sort of answer to all the world’s ills; and then there are the right-wingers with proto-fascist sympathies who think all the West needs is a little more discipline.

Conspiracy theories run rife among this lot, and the after-dinner chat often turns to how the North Korean regime is not as bad as the rest of the world makes out. “Look how clean the streets are,” one of those proto-fascist types told me, as if it’s something other than an acknowledgement that the people are so terrorised by the state that they’re too scared to litter.

“But the trains, do they run on time?” I asked the Kim apologist.

“How would I know?”

Alas, despondent that my Mussolini allusion had gone unnoticed and, thus, fast realising the group saw me as that guy who asks random questions at strange times and doesn’t really understand how the world works, I retired for the night. But, fuelled perhaps by too many North Korean pints, I thought it’d be a good idea to go in search of the mystery fifth level.  

My search didn’t last long. I tried to go to level four, then six, but the elevator didn’t take me there. So, having expended the grand sum of my persistence, I went to bed. But the next morning I spoke to another guest, a fellow Australian, Ben May, who’d gained access to the-level-that’s-not: he’d noticed that the hotel cleaners never seemed to use the main elevator shaft and, instead, disappeared down a darkened hallway that just looked like a bunch of unoccupied rooms. He decided to investigate and found that, in fact, it led to a staff elevator. When he pressed the “down” button, the lift duly arrived, opened and there on the panel — right between four and six — was the number five. He pressed it and the staff-only lift jerked downward like a decrepit rollercoaster.

When the doors slid open the floor was unrecognisable from the rest of the hotel. Instead of a carpeted corridor, the floors were lino and the lighting dim; the ceiling was noticeably lower, which lent the space a claustrophobic air. The thing that gave the place its unique ambiance, however, was the floor-to-ceiling propaganda posters. Every spare inch of the corridor was filled with posters ranging from pro-North Korean messages reaffirming the strength and purity of the nation, to virulent and vitriolic anti-American images of bombs and bloodied weapons.

He roamed the halls freely, snapping photos and at one point trying to open a door, which was locked. With his mission accomplished, he headed back to the lift, pressed the button and nothing happen. He pressed it again. Nothing. He stood there weighing up what to do; stuck in a place he obviously wasn’t meant to be, in the world’s most dictatorial country, he couldn’t help but think he’d made a series of bad decisions that had got him to this point. Then two men in starched military uniforms emerged from a room the end of the hall. The pointed at his camera, which he obediently handed over. They deleted all the photos he’d taken on the fifth level, handed it back, forced him to sign some sort a contract saying he’d never disclose what he’d seen, unlocked the lift and sent him on his way, warning him not to return.

In the wake of the allegation about Warmbier, I spoke to Ben — who’s since been back to North Korea as a tour leader — about what he made of the allegations. He certainly thinks this is where the “political slogan” would have have been stolen from. “The government likes to sugar-coat the image of North Korea that foreigners are exposed to. In a sense, the hotel’s just another big piece of propaganda, but this one is aimed at foreigners; it says, look, we’re just like every other country — the problem’s not us, it’s the rest of the world,” he said. “There’s no political propaganda to be found anywhere in the hotel — except on the fifth level. And it’s hard to imagine him [Warmbier] taking it from anywhere outside the hotel because the various minders watch everyone like hawks. In the hotel though, you can wander around alone wherever you want. I can’t think of any other place he’d have such an opportunity.”

Indeed, as a haven for foreigners, the Yanggakdo Hotel is conspicuously free from the kind of propaganda that’s omnipresent in North Korea. The rooms aren’t even watched over by portraits of the Dear Leader and the Great Leader, an oversight that could get a North Korean sent away to one of the country’s numerous labour camps.

This whole Warmbier affair is emblematic of perhaps the most fundamental challenge facing the world with regard to North Korea: the lack of transparency and reliable information makes it an unknown quantity. The situation, whether it is the detention of an American student or a nuclear weapons program, is uncomfortably unpredictable. One can speculate, but it’s often no more than that.

While the bellicose rhetoric of North Korean leaders may exaggerate their military capabilities, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as some impotent tin-pot dictatorship incapable of causing any real destruction. After all, Seoul, one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 10 million, lies less than 50 kilometers from the DMZ. If the North were so inclined, from that range it wouldn’t require a particularly high level of military sophistication to inflict enormous damage on its southern neighbour. Amid the forced confessions, tales of golfing brilliance and images of devoted, wailing citizens, it’s important not to forget just how real and serious a threat this dictatorship poses.     

* Tim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. You can follow him on Twitter here.