The Ryugyong Hotel: North Korea’s Deathstar

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Let’s try to imagine the cityscape of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. The buildings are grim and utilitarian, a sprawl of identical decaying apartments and mostly idle factories. Everything here was built since the war, when American bombs obliterated the city that had existed before.

It’s a quiet town. Fewer people live in Pyongyang than you would expect for a city of its size. Those empty factories don’t need many workers so most North Koreans live in the rural parts of the country eking out a living as farmers or working for the state’s largest employer, the North Korean military.

The city streets are also nearly carless due to the country’s lack of oil. The broad avenues that run through the center of Pyongyang still occasionally serve as venue for the epic military parades by which the regime seeks to demonstrate its might, but most of the time their eerie lack of traffic betrays the severity of North Korea’s economic trouble.

The city has parks and monuments but these don’t do much to lighten the mood. They are built to celebrate the North Korean holy trinity: Kim Il-Sung the Father, Kim Jong-Il the Son and Juche, the Holy Spirit of North Korean self-reliance. These monuments are massive and unsubtle and completely typical communist ornamentation: stoic-faced statues of the country’s founders, superfluous arches, big columned buildings, concrete stadiums and murals of strong jawed peasant women pulling ploughs with their teeth and other assorted heroes of the proletariat thrusting hammers and sickles in the air.

The whole scene is made even more depressing by the pall of dark coal smoke that hangs over it all, pumped out by the city’s coal-burning electrical plants. Granted this haze has been reduced slightly in recent years, but not to North Korea’s benefit. The country can no longer afford to import the coal they relied on for power and so now it suffers from a severe electricity shortage.

But there is one building that provides a jarring distraction from this otherwise gloomy vista. Rising above the rest of it- way, way, above it- looms the glimmering Ryugyong Hotel. Looking at this thing, you’d almost think that North Korea had it together. The Ryugyong is massive, 105 floors and 330 meters tall. Its base covers 3.6 square kilometers of ground. It’s shaped like a tri-cornered pyramid, with wings extending up at a sharp angle to a ridged cone for the last 14 floors that gives the building a more than slightly phallic aspect.  The building is azure blue and angular in a retro-futuristic way that brings to mind the 1960s Star Trek. The hotel is the tallest building in North Korea and at one point was the 7th tallest in the world. It seems even taller when you consider its location- Pyongyang isn’t a city of skyscrapers, a tall building there is only 10 or 15 storeys, so the Ryugyong dominates the city’s skyline.

But like so much else in North Korea, the hotel’s mirrored glass façade hides a much different reality. Because inside the hotel there are no staff or guests, no beds or rooms. Just a lot of bare concrete and birdshit. Until very recently there hadn’t even been glass in the windows, just thousands of gaping holes, and the tower had been topped by a rusting and useless construction crane.

Construction began in 1987 but stalled several years later and finally stopped completely in 1992. For nearly  20 years the tower sat there, half complete and abandoned, blatantly
obvious in its pretensions and inability to live up to them. But unlike many of the regime’s other failures the tower was impossible to hide. Even though they could erase it from official photographs of the capital they couldn`t hide the tower itself and it was still there for the North Korean people to see. The propaganda ministry definitely deserves credit for engendering the sort of double-think required for people to still have faith in the regime with that sort of monstrous failure staring them in the face.

It’s easy to focus on the negative when considering the hotel, and see it as just the delusional overreaching of a dictator, wasting scant resources on a vanity project while his people starve. While I won`t deny that that`s at least partially true, what I would rather discuss is how the Ryugyong was conceived with relatively good intentions (for North Korea) and if it had been completed the country might not be in the mess it is today.

Things were never really good in North Korea, but 1987 when the Ryugyong was begun was before they got really bad. This was before the famines, before the death of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and before the collapse of the USSR. But the writing was on the wall for international communism and the North Korean economy was seriously hurting.  Their ally China had begun experimenting with market reforms and limited economic liberalization and had been having some pretty amazing success. North Korea was open to the idea of trying to new things as a way of reviving their own stagnating economy and Kim had visited China to study their new way of doing things. The North Korean government had begun to relax restrictions on private markets within the country and their newest Seven-Year Plan made increased foreign trade one of the nation’s primary goals. It looked like The Hermit Kingdom was preparing to finally engage with the rest of the world.

The Ryugyong would be the centerpiece of this effort, a magnificent demonstration of the Regime’s power and a magnet for foreign investors and travellers. The tower was planned to include bars, nightclubs, casinos and shopping centers, unprecedented in a country that until then had practiced strict Soviet-style communism.

But in taking on such a huge construction project, the North Koreans were a bit out of their depth. North Korean engineers had never constructed a building anywhere close to this size before. There wouldn’t be any assistance from outside the country because none of North Korea’s communist-bloc allies had either, in fact the only structures of comparable size had all been built by North Korea’s enemies. But if his engineers had doubts about the feasibility of the tower, Kim Il-Sung wasn’t someone who you could just say no to so they went ahead and gave it the ol’ juche try.

Also working against them was the fact that North Korea was a poor country and 105 storey luxury hotels are expensive. The North Korean builders tried to cut corners by using cheap, low quality concrete. This use of poor building materials combined with a lack of technical expertise lead to serious structural flaws in the building like crooked elevator shafts and off-level floors.

Soon, in addition to these construction difficulties political events in North Korea’s two main allies also conspired to further imperil the building’s future. In the early summer of 1989 there were the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, then later that year the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events spooked the North Korean leadership, following as they did on periods of market reform in China and the USSR. The North Korean leadership worried that even mild economic liberalization would lead to demands for political liberalization, then dissent and protests and finally the loss of their authority and an end to their regime. They also worried about how increased Chinese and Soviet engagement with the outside world had exposed those countries to dangerous ideas, like democracy and freedom of expression, and about how images of more successful Western countries could undermine their people’s belief that they lived in a workers paradise.

Of course the North Koreans were sensitive to this danger from the beginning. While part of the scheme with the Ryugyong was to attract foreigners with drinking and gambling and luxury, the hotel was also meant to contain those vices within itself and away from the average citizen. But the already paranoid regime wondered if allowing even this limited intrusion into their country was too great a risk.

Still, what were the North Koreans to do? They needed money. Foreigners had it, they didn’t.

The construction of the Ryugyong proceeded, over-budget and behind schedule. The country had been teetering on the brink for some time and finally tipped over in 1991, when its ally and supporter the Soviet Union collapsed. This devastated the country. Suddenly, North Korea lost its largest export market and could no longer rely on Russian aid or subsidies for things its struggling economy desperately required, like cheap fuel and fertilizer for its agriculture. Its factories shut down with no power or buyers for the goods they produced. Farms could no longer grow enough to feed the North Korean people and a period of severe famine began, known to the North Koreans as the Arduous March. Over the next ten years, between three and four million people would die from starvation.

These new circumstances made completion of the tower impossible. The regime no longer had enough resources to afford such a massive project and the will was also lacking. They were now especially paranoid of the western ideas they blamed for the fall of the USSR, the same ideas which the Ryugyong threatened to allow in to their own country. Construction was abandoned in 1992 with the tower half completed.

However, the idea that first inspired the Ryugyong lived on; that the country needed a grand project to impress the outside world into taking North Korea seriously. After Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, his son Kim Jong-Il took over the leadership of North Korea. Kim Jong-Il had his own project in mind to impress the world; a project with far more dangerous implications and also, unfortunately, one that would have far greater success.

Kim Jong-Il devoted North Korea’s limited resources to the development of nuclear weapons. What the Ryugyong was meant to accomplish through awe, bombs could by fear. And they did, after North Korea used the treat of its nuclear program to wring concessions and aid from the United States and South Korea. But this came at the expense of further alienating the country from the rest of the world and making peaceful interaction with its neighbours even more difficult. And this game of nuclear brinksmanship quickly passed the point of profitability. After concessions failed to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, The United States, South Korea and other countries realised that giving in to North Korea was just encouraging them and began to take a much harsher line.

Now Kim Jong Il is dead and his young son Kim Jong-Un is the new leader of North Korea. No one knows much about the new leader or in what direction he is likely to lead his country. But there isn’t much to be gained by following his father’s path; even if his dad did manage to keep things going while he was in power, North Korea is still poor and starving. For all its military strength, North Korea could never win a war against its enemies. Kim Jong-Un needs to realise that North Korea’s only hope is to reengage with the rest of the world and to accept the loss of complete control as a necessary price for modernization.

This may be a lesson that the North Koreans are beginning to learn. After almost 20 years, in 2008 construction on the Ryugyong was resumed. An Egyptian company, hired to develop a telecommunications network in North Korea, was tasked with completing the Ryugyong Hotel as part of the deal. They removed the cranes and completed the façade, and right now the hotel looks pretty much as it was intended to. It’s still empty and unfinished, and it’s unlikely anyone will be staying there any time soon. But the effort to complete the Ryugyong is good evidence that North Korea may be reconsidering a path that was too quickly abandoned 20 years ago.

The Rugged Gent