“The Hotel of Doom“- so says sensationalist British tabloids. It’s on all pictures of Pyongyang, you can’t miss it, a gigantic trinagular skyscraper standing without competition above all else. Its unique shape and impressionable appearance has led it to one of those buildings which defines a city. For North Korea’s capital, it’s quite fitting. Mysterious, seemingly intimidating by design and also odd to the fact that despite being a hotel, nobody owns it. A quote from that classic Willy Wonka film comes to mind “Nobody ever goes in, nobody ever comes out“. Rather than being used for its designated purpose, it’s now in fact a gigantic LED screen for North Korean cienematics. Yet the speculation and hysteria around it tells us so little. Just where did the iconic Ryugyong Hotel come from? And why does it sit unused despite being clearly finished? Let’s unmask the story of a building which is also seen, but yet never visited or explained on North Korea tours.
It’s the 1980s. The Cold War is starting to come to an end. South Korea is still in the midst of an enormous economic boom which has saw it leave the DPRK far behind. China is changing too. Deng Xiaoping has unleashed economic reforms which is seeing the PRC change in unprecedented ways. Once lips and teeth with Pyongyang, now it is giving birth to a new class of businessmen and enterprenuers and now cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen are opening up to international markets. As a whole, a tidal wave of neoliberal economics is sweeping the world, but Kim Il Sung has choice not to embrace that. Although his economy has not yet collapsed, it is sluggish and fragile with financial problems. Yet that hasn’t led to change in policy. Somehow however, he has to respond to the changing context around him. North Korea has to keep up. DPRK officials noted that a South Korean company had built a super tall hotel, known as the Westin Stamford Hotel, in Singapore. Their feeling was, it was time to respond and do something better, much better.
Thus came, the Ryugyong Hotel. Named after a historic title of Pyongyang, the building was planned to become the world’s largest hotel, even the 7th biggest building in the entire world. It’s aim was to create a tourist hub involving casinos and other forms of entertainment. Indeed, the aspiration was to transform that part of Pyongyang into a mini vegas; an icnonic site which would attract millions of visitors and inject a doze of life into the DPRK’s international appeal. It is true to say there was nothing like it in the world at that time. It was a hugely ambituous investment, rumoured to cost nearly $750 million.
But then the world changed. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the rise of a pro-American administration in Russia. Now published telephone conversations between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin shown that the President encouraged the new Russian Federation to cut off aid and trade to the DPRK, once a cold war ally. North Korea had in fact, heavily depended on such trade. The consequences of the new environment were a staggering collapse of the economy which saw up to 40% of its GDP wiped out, creating the comprehension of the country as we know it today. This economic crisis changed North Korea’s calculus dramatically. No longer was it about seeking prestige in the world and competing against the South, but instead, the focus turned to pure survival. All around the DPRK, communist states were collapsing. Not only was the USSR gone, but it’s entire bloc in Eastern Europe concurrently fell. The states which survived, such as China and Vietnam had embarked by this point on reforms. North Korea was alone.
Thus in 1992, construction on the hotel was halted and resources were diverted elsewhere. Its skeleton had been completeled. It towered above Pyongyang. Yet it was hallow, empty and ugly. It created a monstrous site. The North Korean authorities had no answer to it but to simply pretend it did not exist. They worked to keep it off photographs of the city, a challenging activity given its size as the largest building in the entire country. With North Korea’s military and nuclear weapons development now dominating the country’s spending as a means of regime survival, it would stay this way for over 16 years.
Then, ironically enough given its Pyramid shape, along came the Egyptians. The telecommunications company, Osracom, were eyeing up an expansion of their global networks. It was hard for such a company to compete established in western markets, but they saw an opportunity in North Korea, a country which had the time no modern internet network in the form of 3G. At the time, sanctions were not high so people were free to conduct business in the DPRK. Orascom would strike a perculiar deal with the country’s leadership. They would, in exchange for installing their 3G network in North Korea through the creation of a joint venture called “Koryolink”, fund the completion of the Ryugyong’s exterior. This deal was struck in 2008, construction resumed thereafter. Suddenly, what was an eyesore was completed and topped out before 2012. It finally had the iconic impression on the country’s skyline they wanted it to have.
However, the inside was left incomplete. Posing the question, “then what?” It appears the DPRK authorities simply wanted to prevent it from being an eyesore, than fully utilizing it as a hotel. After all, in the 20 years for which its construction took, other hotels had since been created in Pyongyang, including the Yanggakdo International Hotel and the Koryo Hotel. Inevitably, visitor numbers to the country were not high, the demand for investing in a 105 storey structure, one already deemed a policy mistake, rendered its full development a liability if anything. Thus even though the exterior was completed, the Ryugyong would still stand redundant above the city. Void, empty and useless.
Six years later, there would be movement again. It is worth noting that in the bid to emphasize the irrelevance of the hotel, the North Korean authorities had erected a big wall in front of it on the street adjacent to its entrance. Then suddenly, one night in 2018, the wall was demolished. Not long after, lights were photographed inside it. Just what was going on? Men were also seen working on the front windows. Speculation was rife. Was the Ryugyong Hotel finally about to be opened to the public? Well, not quite. By May, suddenly the entire local was lid up in a spectre of enormous LED lights. There was a depicted North Korean flag at the top, whilst the front was in fact playing cinematic images of North Korean films and music videos… Yes, you got that right, the Ryugyong Hotel had been transformed into a gigantic LED cinema screen, the largest of its kind in the world. It lit up Pyongyang brightly, but still no signs of it being a hotel.
That leads us to today. Despite changes, the Ryugyong Hotel is no more close to being open as it was 32 years ago when the first foundations were laid. It has been magnificent, yet at the same time bizarre. Critics might call it a white elephant, a catastrophic misattribution of money which in time occurred massive liabilities and a complete inability to deliver. This was an ambitous project, yet it had has never achieved its goal. We are still waiting today, for the opening of the Ryugyong, tick… tick.