After 23 years of stalled development, the Ryugyong Hotel (류경호텔) is finally set to open. What started as an ambitious project to build the world’s tallest hotel soon became a logistical disaster that came to symbolize the country’s economic woes. The giant pyramid with 3000 rooms is Pyongyang’s tallest structure in a sea of already colossal buildings, and at 1,082 feet and 105 stories, it dwarves everything else in the city. It is set to open on April 15, 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

The hotel’s origins date back to 1986, the year that South Korean conglomerate SsangYong finished constructing the Westin Stamford Hotel in Singapore, which was then the tallest hotel in the world. In what’s reminiscent of their desire to have the world’s tallest flagpole, North Korea was not to be outdone. Construction began in 1987, but the rivalry would intensify politically. South Korea was attracting massive investment and interest in preparation for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and was making new additions to its skyline including stadiums and hotels. This prompted a strong reaction from the North, and it’s still widely believed that they bombed Korean Air Flight 858 to dissaude athletes from traveling to the games. But much of their response was a more constructive effort to rival the games by hosting the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989, which is basically the communist Olympics. The Ryugyong was set to open for the festival, for which other massive Pyongyang landmarks were also built, like the Ryongrado May Day Stadium that hosts the Mass Games every year. There’s actually video of the festival available online that was uploaded by tourists there at the time, and it’s a rare chance for outsiders to see footage of Pyongyang in the eighties (you certainly do not see anything like this in Pyongyang every day, or month, or year).

Planning and doing are very different, however. A lack of materials and funds quickly halted the project, and the fall of the Soviet Union played no small part. Once the building reached its full height in 1992, the construction was halted after estimated costs that were equivalent to 2% of the country’s GDP. As the country entered a massive famine, completion was delayed indefinitely. The building’s hollow concrete edifice then towered over the Pyongyang skyline completely untouched for another 16 years. Throughout most of this period a crane even sat at the top, as if construction was always about to be resumed.

The thwarted project was not even officially acknowledged by the government. In the propaganda from stamps and other sources, some pictures of the hotel were doctored to make it look occupied, while others removed it entirely. It was also removed from maps, and guides who were asked about it typically gave no response. Much of that time was probably spent waiting for foreign investment, because that’s ultimately what’s allowed the building to be completed. Though they had tried to court foreign investors from the beginning, this fell through, and it wasn’t until Egyptian company Orascom Group was contracted out that anything significant started happening. Orascom is more notable for investing in North Korea’s cellular industry by establishing the first 3G network there, which at this point is estimated to have over a million subscribers. Many have speculated that they agreed to finish the Ryugyong as a condition for the opportunity to launch the country’s mobile sector, but for their part they have insisted this is not the case. In any event, Orascom resumed construction of the hotel in April 2008. Brief footage from 2011 of what it looks like now can be found here.

A few practical observations are in order here to give some context. The tourism industry in North Korea is incredibly small. Pyongyang boasts a number of other large hotels to rival the scale of any four star establishment. No matter what time of the year it is, all of these hotels are nearly empty. If their operation were ever reliant on revenue, they could never exist. Not nearly enough people come. But they are clearly built with the pretense that this either isn’t the case or that it won’t be very, very soon. In this state of affairs, many would not imagine that spending over 750 million dollars on a hotel with five revolving restaurants is in order, but Kim Jong Il would insist otherwise. After the contribution by Orascom, the total cost will almost certainly exceed a billion dollars. Not even the North Koreans are expecting to fill it to capacity by tourism alone, and Orascom has stated that it will have mixed use including offices.

But Egyptians are not the only foreign investors in North Korea, and neither are the Chinese. Until a few years ago, the Trading With The Enemy Act (TWEA) barred American companies from doing business with North Korea directly, but no longer. A liquor importer from New York called Korea Pyongyang Trading USA has been hired to help revive North Korea’s resort in Mount Geumgang (금강산). The luxury resort, featuring a golf course and other amenities, was previously run by the South Korean Hyundai Asan Group until North Korean guards shot and killed a South Korean tourist. After the incident, South Korea banned all trips to the mountain resort, and eventually North Korea seized the property in protest. Currently, both Western and Chinese tourist agencies offer trips that feature Mount Geumgang. Now the American liquor importer’s marketing director has gone on the record saying that their investment in the resort is to “help North Korea open up”, which is especially laughable since North Korea only employed Chinese Koreans to work there. The New Yorkers were hired in July, possibly securing the rights to the resort by auction, and their effort to revive the resort will apparently include a casino. Their previous business with North Korea was importing beer and soju (소주), a Korean liquor distilled from rice, but that stopped when the South Korean tourist was shot. These recent dealings have angered the South Korean government, which still insists that Hyundai Asan is entitled to the property.

Kim Jong Il’s birthday is now two days away, and given a certain event in the recent past I would imagine that this will be an especially indulgent occasion. During his 17 years as leader, Kim Jong Il was known to be critical of his own appearance, and while he had countless statues of his father erected, he almost never had one made for himself. But if this is any indication, his legacy in bronze has only just begun. 

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