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How I learned to stop worrying and love North Korean elevators

Inside Yanggakdo Hotel in September 2018 Korea Times photos by Jon Dunbar
Inside Yanggakdo Hotel in September 2018 Korea Times photos by Jon Dunbar

By Jon Dunbar

I used to be afraid of elevators. They took away my sense of control, and once they were moving I couldn't stop them. To cope with this, if I were on a long elevator trip sometimes I would press a few extra buttons so the elevator would stop at more floors, giving me a chance to breathe. I especially hated glass elevators, high-speed elevators and express elevators. I often experienced vertigo for minutes after particularly traumatizing rides. And sometimes at the top of buildings, I had an alarming sensation that the whole building was about to tip over.

My first trip to North Korea in 2010 somehow allayed me of that fear, and then a return trip in 2018 reignited it.

North Korea doubtlessly has the least safe elevators I've ever ridden. Perhaps that's what temporarily cured me, like how going skydiving must cure anyone of a fear of flying. Some of the most memorable elevators I rode included the elevator to the top of the Juche Tower and the Yanggakdo Hotel elevators. It was common for the elevators there to buzz as we boarded, warning us we were overloading it even if there was room for more people to board. Someone would always have to get off and wait for the next one.

Yanggakdo Hotel from August 2010 Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar
Yanggakdo Hotel from August 2010 Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar

Then on my second visit in September 2018, I had one traumatic experience aboard an elevator. Now that the country is full of Chinese tourists, the tourist hotels seem a lot more crowded than they did in 2010. I happened to be waiting to catch an elevator up to my room from the lobby of the Yanggakdo Hotel, while a lot of Chinese tourists were going the same way. The lobby had elevator men who regulated how many people could get on each elevator, but against hordes of pushy Chinese tourists there wasn't much they could do.

As I waited for the next elevator, I made small talk with a friendly Korean elevator man. I got in the next elevator, and then it filled up with as many Chinese tourists as possible. The doors closed, but instead of ascending, the elevator dropped, a short distance I would guess to be anywhere between a foot and a meter. It froze there, the doors not opening and the elevator not moving: we were stuck.

Someone hit the intercom button, and a voice answered in Korean. "We're trapped, help!" I shouted in English.

We were stuck there another minute or two, crowded into this elevator with barely enough room to breathe. This was not how I wanted to die.

Finally it started moving again, in the right direction. It stopped at floor 3 and I leapt off, along with two other women, gasping for breath and feeling lucky to be alive.

From there, all other ascending elevators continued to be at capacity and wouldn't stop for us. So we got in an empty elevator heading downward, and when it got to the lobby, I pushed back against the masses of Chinese tourists trying to get on, making sure this time they wouldn't overload the elevator.

Finally I caught an elevator up to my room on the 38th floor, and I once again felt my fear of elevators rising.


Inside Yanggakdo Hotel in September 2018 Korea Times photos by Jon Dunbar
Inside Yanggakdo Hotel in September 2018 Korea Times photos by Jon Dunbar

By Jon Dunbar

I used to be afraid of elevators. They took away my sense of control, and once they were moving I couldn't stop them. To cope with this, if I were on a long elevator trip sometimes I would press a few extra buttons so the elevator would stop at more floors, giving me a chance to breathe. I especially hated glass elevators, high-speed elevators and express elevators. I often experienced vertigo for minutes after particularly traumatizing rides. And sometimes at the top of buildings, I had an alarming sensation that the whole building was about to tip over.

My first trip to North Korea in 2010 somehow allayed me of that fear, and then a return trip in 2018 reignited it.

North Korea doubtlessly has the least safe elevators I've ever ridden. Perhaps that's what temporarily cured me, like how going skydiving must cure anyone of a fear of flying. Some of the most memorable elevators I rode included the elevator to the top of the Juche Tower and the Yanggakdo Hotel elevators. It was common for the elevators there to buzz as we boarded, warning us we were overloading it even if there was room for more people to board. Someone would always have to get off and wait for the next one.

Yanggakdo Hotel from August 2010 Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar
Yanggakdo Hotel from August 2010 Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar

Then on my second visit in September 2018, I had one traumatic experience aboard an elevator. Now that the country is full of Chinese tourists, the tourist hotels seem a lot more crowded than they did in 2010. I happened to be waiting to catch an elevator up to my room from the lobby of the Yanggakdo Hotel, while a lot of Chinese tourists were going the same way. The lobby had elevator men who regulated how many people could get on each elevator, but against hordes of pushy Chinese tourists there wasn't much they could do.

As I waited for the next elevator, I made small talk with a friendly Korean elevator man. I got in the next elevator, and then it filled up with as many Chinese tourists as possible. The doors closed, but instead of ascending, the elevator dropped, a short distance I would guess to be anywhere between a foot and a meter. It froze there, the doors not opening and the elevator not moving: we were stuck.

Someone hit the intercom button, and a voice answered in Korean. "We're trapped, help!" I shouted in English.

We were stuck there another minute or two, crowded into this elevator with barely enough room to breathe. This was not how I wanted to die.

Finally it started moving again, in the right direction. It stopped at floor 3 and I leapt off, along with two other women, gasping for breath and feeling lucky to be alive.

From there, all other ascending elevators continued to be at capacity and wouldn't stop for us. So we got in an empty elevator heading downward, and when it got to the lobby, I pushed back against the masses of Chinese tourists trying to get on, making sure this time they wouldn't overload the elevator.

Finally I caught an elevator up to my room on the 38th floor, and I once again felt my fear of elevators rising.




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