For a country that can build buildings in a day or two (for example, the Armistice Signing Hall in Panmunjom in the DMZ) and whole streets full of high rise buildings in a year the 330 metres high, 105 story Ryugyong Hotel (Ryugyong – ‘capital of willows’– a former name for Pyongyang) remains uncompleted after 27 years and until 2018 has been a major embarrassment for North Korea.
The unfinished hotel has been, without doubt, been the country’s number one embarrassment for all these years as, given its size and downtown Pyongyang location, it cannot be hidden or ignored – not even by our guides who could otherwise happily tell us, straight faced and without the blink of an eyelid, that black was white. That said, there have been periods during its protracted construction phase where it has been photo-shopped out of postcards and other official publications.
Construction of the pyramidal shaped hotel, so different than anything else in Pyongyang and North Korea, commenced in 1987, at the behest of the Great and Eternal President, Kim Il-sung. It was to have been completed in 1989 for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students and had it been, it would have been the world’s tallest hotel at that time.
It was specifically designed as a Cold War response to South Korea being awarded the 1988 Olympic Games and to the Westin Stamford in Singapore, then the world’s tallest hotel, built by a South Korean Company. The initial phase of construction stopped in 1992 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic ramifications of that and of famines through the 1990s on North Korea. By 1992 it is thought that the project had consumed US$750million or 2% of the country’s GDP.
Little happened again until 2008 when work resumed, at least partially funded by the Egyptian company Orascom Group which had entered into a US$400 million arrangement with the government to build and run a 3G mobile phone network. In 2011 the exterior of the building with its slick glass facade was confirmed complete.
Because everything is bigger and better in North Korea designers didn’t just settle for that “must have of the day” – a revolving restaurant. The Ryugyong Hotel was designed to incorporate 14 (later reduced to seven) revolving floors with five revolving restaurants, revolving ballrooms and more. Reports in 2012 suggest only one revolving restaurant and no mention is made of revolving floors. Depending on whom you believe, the hotel will have between one thousand five hundred and three thousand rooms (though I have seen a reference to 8,000 rooms) in its massive 360,000 square metres of floor space. By way of comparison, the height and floor space are on a par with the Shard building in London.
Few westerners have been permitted inside the building, let alone right up to the top, though this rare privilege was granted to staff of Kroyo Tours in 2012. Some interior pictures from that visit can be seen here https://koryogroup.com/blog/ryugyong-hotel-special-report – remember these are 2012 pictures.
Suffice it to say work remains to be done. Many western commentators doubt if the hotel can ever be completed due to serious construction faults and elements of the western media have taken to calling the Ryugyong the “Hotel of Doom,” and “the worst building in the world.” That be as it is, there is no doubt that the Ryugyong continues to hold the record as the world’s largest unfinished building on which work is not in progress!
Rather ironically the building is the same shape and size as the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell‘s novel, 1984. Orwell described the Ministry building thus:
“It is an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete rising 300 metres into the air, containing over 3000 rooms above ground.”
In the novel, the Ministry of Truth serves as a propaganda machine, responsible for falsifying historical events to benefit the government!
While we passed the unfinished hotel countless times on our trip in 2014 only once, in passing, did our guide refer to it and, notwithstanding its history, the reference was to the wonderful new hotel which, thanks to the efforts of industrious workers and soldiers, was due for completion within a year or so and, as it was a construction site, we would not be visiting it. Our guide forgot to mention when construction had started or that ‘the speed of Chollima’ seems to have eluded the workers on this occasion.
Roll on to 2018, during the day the guides still didn’t seem to notice the hotel or perhaps just had nothing to say about it. Come night-time the text changed and the guides took every opportunity to point out the hotel which has now become a major talking point in Pyongyang, reborn as a symbol of immense pride and North Korean ingenuity.
At night the unfinished hotel used to sit in complete darkness, except for a lone aircraft warning light at its top. That has changed and it now comes to life daily in a blaze of colour as night envelopes the city.
In a project managed by local designer Kim Yong-il the glass facade of the hotel has been covered with over 100,000 LED lights which for about 4 hours each night pump out images of famous statues and monuments, bursts of fireworks, party symbols and political slogans on what is one of the biggest display screens in the world. While the four-minute recurring display on what would be the front of the hotel, if it ever opens, is the main event lesser displays appear on the other two faces of the pyramidal structure. For the conical section at the top of the hotel, Kim Yong-il created the image of the North Korean flag waving in the wind. It is 40 metres tall and visible from any direction.
The first display appeared in April 2018 to mark the birthday of the country’s eternal president, Kim Il-sung.
Ever thinking of, and working for, the people as well as encouraging workers, Kim Yong-il said of his work:
“The goal of setting up this light screen is to give confidence and hope for the future to our people”
“The response has been great. The national flag at the top of the building is hundreds of metres high and everyone can see it. It fills them with pride and confidence in being a citizen, willing to work very hard.”
While we could see the display from the bus on various of our travels around the city of an evening there was no time specifically scheduled for us to get a close up view and some decent photos. After persistent requests by me and a few others our guides yielded and we got to view the display and hotel from a prime location at the intersection of Ponghwa and Potong streets.
Between my visit in 2014, when to be honest we didn’t get that close to the building, and 2018 hoardings and a wall around the base of the hotel have disappeared and significant ground work/ landscaping and access roads seem to have been completed – particularly on the main approach to the hotel from the intersection of Ponghwa and Potong Streets. While it is unlikely that the whole building will be opened anytime soon it seems plausible that part of it may be opened as government offices (in further fulfilment of Orwell’s description in ‘1984’!) and commercial outlets. However, there have been so many false alarms regarding the hotel over the years that any claims about it invariably include a large element of speculation. Another commentator has suggested that recent activity around the hotel, but not on it, is due to ‘the fact’ that they are building two, possibly three, other hotels around the Ryugyong Hotel. Google maps (e.g. image attached below – April 2017 – which does not have the access roads referred to above on it) would suggest there is not a lot of place for additional building though that is no impediment as the government could very quickly create space with a few bulldozers!
As in 2014 our guides expressed the view that should we come back next year then, for sure, we would be able to stay at the Ryugyong Hotel. You have got to love their optimism.
Note: The hotel remains unfinished as at January 2019 and accordingly it remains something to look at in Pyongyang rather than a place to stay!
My next North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang review HERE