The Ryugyong Hotel has towered over the North Korean capital of Pyongyang since construction first began in 1987. However, even 25 years later the building remains unfinished… leading media agencies to dub it the “Hotel of Doom”, the “Phantom Hotel”, and even, somewhat cruelly, “The Worst Building in the World”.
From the moment I first laid eyes on this pyramidal monstrosity, I was desperate to get inside and have a look around. However, there’s a very good reason why the phrase “urban exploration in North Korea” doesn’t get thrown about all too often… and at the risk of spoiling the punchline, I’ll tell you now: I didn’t get inside.
The Capital of Willows
The Ryugyong Hotel was planned to stand as a testament to the power and wealth of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
‘Ryugyong’ itself translates as ‘capital of willows’, a reference to one of Pyongyang’s ancestral names. Boasting a total of 105 floors, and topped by a stack of five revolving restaurants, this 330m structure stands as the tallest building in North Korea by far.
The original plan was to have the hotel open by 1989, at which time it would have ranked as the tallest hotel anywhere in the world. In fact, it wasn’t until 2009 that a taller hotel was built: the Rose Tower in Dubai. Some sources suggest that the Ryugyong Hotel was intended as an answer to the towering Westin Stamford Hotel in Singapore – built by a South Korean company, and completed in 1986. This would have been a typical example of the kind of one-upmanship that flourished between these two nations during the Cold War.
However, five years after construction commenced, the project was put on hold in 1992. The fall of the Soviet Union had dire financial implications for the DPRK, which spiralled into a period of economic crisis. By the time Kim Jong-il ascended to leadership in 1994, the country was a mess; as a result, the Ryugyong project was temporarily abandoned.
The bare pyramid stood for 16 years without windows or interior fittings, an ugly and embarrassing blemish on the city’s skyline. For this time it was widely ignored; I spoke to a tour guide who had operated during those years, and was told that when asked questions, locals would deny all knowledge of the colosal building… for almost two decades, the Ryugyong simply didn’t exist.
It wasn’t until 2008 that anything further happened to the Ryugyong, when salvation came in the form of a serious investment from Egyptian telecommunication giants, the Orascom Group. Orascom already had strong ties to North Korea’s mobile phone network, and it is rumoured that they are in the process of installing a powerful aerial into the conical tip of the Ryugyong Hotel.
Finally back on track, official sources now claim that the Ryugyong will be in partial use by August 2013 – planned to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s ‘Eternal President’. The property is being managed by the German hotel group Kempinski AG, and the interior will be designated into an array of accommodation suites, retail outfits, office spaces and leisure facilities.
Inside the Phantom Hotel
On the final night of my week in Pyongyang, a strange and unprecedented thing happened; we had been out clubbing in the capital with our Korean guides (that’s a story for another day), and had retired to our allotted hotel.
Our accommodation was at The Yanggakdo International Hotel, one of the two foreigner-friendly hotels in Pyongyang… and the country’s second tallest building, just behind the Ryugyong itself .
It was late by this point, and we were sat outside with a few bottles of strong Korean beer. Our guides, both girls, were tired, and decided to head back to their rooms… leaving a handful of us drunk and untended in Pyongyang. Granted, the hotel is isolated from the city itself, located on the small Yanggak Island at its heart. Nevertheless, curiosity got the better of us and we started walking in the general direction of the Ryugyong.
Yanggak Island is joined to the streets of Pyongyang by several small bridges. We approached one of these bridges along a quiet, tree shaded avenue, and for the briefest of moments it seemed as though we were about to cross unhindered; however, at the last minute a young guard poked his head out of a discreet sentry box, and came over to meet us.
The unarmed guard spoke a little English, and he was perfectly friendly – chatty, even. He visibly approved of our chosen brand of beer, and seemed almost glad for the company at this ungodly hour. Nevertheless, when we began to coyly gesture towards the road that led to the city centre, he shook his head. “Forbidden,” he managed to say, and we decided it was best to leave it at that.
Despite my own failure to get anywhere near the Ryugyong Hotel, it seems however that a select few are being invited to view the progress inside the building. Such was the case in September this year, when Western members of the company Koryo Tours were granted access right to the very top balconies of the Ryugyong Hotel. You can see their photos for yourself, on the NK News site.
For now at least, it seems as close as anybody is likely to get.
 Many people take “foreigner-friendly” to mean “bugged”. The elevators in the Yanggakdo Hotel skip straight from Floor 4 to Floor 6, and rumours abound that the missing fifth floor houses a control centre for the microphones and cameras hidden throughout the property. However, it seems that the reality of the situation is quite different – although equally strange.
Once again, you can get the full lowdown on the Yanggakdo’s secret propaganda centre over on NK News. Unfortunately for me though, and perhaps as a result of all the photos from Floor 5 which are now circulating the Internet, by the time I got there the doors were firmly locked.
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