Hotel of Doom, Alcatraz of Fun: North Korea’s finest tourist stays

The Ryugyong Hotel looms above Pyongyang. (AP/Greg Baker)

Should you decide to join the small but growing contingent of Western tourists visiting North Korea every year, you will probably spend most of your time in Pyongyang, and that means staying in one of the few approved hotels. Like most things on the tightly-controlled, propaganda-heavy tours, lodging in North Korea is said to be a uniquely bizarre, but perhaps revealing, experience.

Most tours, which are shepherded by government minders at all moments except while inside the hotel, put visitors up at the Yanggakdo. It's enormous by North Korean standards, 47 stories, the top of which is a revolving restaurant. Like the thousand or so rooms, the restaurant is mostly empty, all of it an elaborate show of prosperity that doesn't exist. The hotel is on an island in the Taedong River, which runs through the middle of the city. This allows guests a rare freedom of movement, as minders will allow guests to wander the island unguided. Although, as Lonely Planet's guidebook cautions, "don't even think of crossing the bridge into the city." This has earned it the nickname among guides, "Alcatraz of Fun."

There are many quirks to the Yanggakdo: a karaoke lounge, a bowling alley (featuring made-in-America bowling balls, whose journey there must surely be a fascinating story), and a casino with a foreigners-only disco. I don't have evidence that the casino games are rigged, but it would certainly stand to reason.

Perhaps the Yanggakdo's best-known feature is the one that it doesn't advertise. Step into one of the hotel's elevators, and you'll notice there's no button for the fifth floor. "It's brought up every time," Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours said of the trips his company runs there. Often, curious tourists -- who after all cannot leave the hotel grounds after certain times, leaving them perhaps a bit fidgety -- will go to an adjacent floor and take the stairs. What they find isn't exactly Dr. Evil's volcano lair, but judging by this 2011 video someone took, it's still unsettling:

Other than the halls of propaganda posters, "It's just a load of offices and such," Cockerell said. "I have been known to wind a couple of people up about what may be there," Cockerell added, conceding that he'd suggested to some tourists that the floor was full of surveillance centers for monitoring the guests. "Everyone likes a sexy holiday story."

Even the least exciting explanation for the "hidden" fifth floor is revealing. Who else but North Korean officials would hide an entire floor just because it was staff-only storage -- and do such a bad job keeping the secret? The experience of sneaking onto the floor could also perhaps serve as a metaphor for the entire premise of visiting North Korea: you go to find something secret, but end up discovering little more than superficial propaganda; you think you're peeking past the government minders, but it's all part of the elaborate show.

Few hotels in the world, though, could possibly be as bizarre as the Ryugyong Hotel, which might well earn that distinction despite not even being open. Construction on the 105-floor, pyramid-shaped monstrosity began in 1987 but was halted suddenly in 1993, when North Korea's economy cratered. What was meant to be a symbol of national prestige hung over the capital skyline half-finished for 16 years, a carefully-ignored symbol of national failure. "For years, a single crane remained perched at the top, a stranded reminder of grand plans gone bust," The Post's Chico Harlan wrote

In 2008, Esquire magazine declared it "the worst building in the history of mankind." They made a compelling case:

Even by Communist standards, the 3,000-room hotel is hideously ugly, a series of three gray 328-foot long concrete wings shaped into a steep pyramid. With 75 degree sides that rise to an apex of 1,083 feet, the Hotel of Doom (also known as the Phantom Hotel and the Phantom Pyramid) isn't the just the worst designed building in the world -- it's the worst-built building, too. In 1987, Baikdoosan Architects and Engineers put its first shovel into the ground and more than twenty years later, after North Korea poured more than two percent of its gross domestic product into building this monster, the hotel remains unoccupied, unopened, and unfinished.

That summer, North Korean official decided to resume construction, hoping to open it in time for Kim Il Sung's 100th birth anniversary last April (they didn't). The country contracted Egyptian telecom firm Orascom for the project, for which it paid $400 million and granted exclusive rights to build the country a closed cellphone network.

If it's ever finished, the Hotel of Doom is to include 3,000 guest rooms. (Cockerell estimates that only about 4,000 non-Chinese tourists visit North Korea throughout the course of an entire year.) It will have luxury apartments, office space, conference centers, a self-contained world of closed-off tourist attractions and five restaurants, each of which will have its own revolving floor 1,000 feet above Pyongyang's otherwise squat skyline.

It's not clear if the Ryugyong Hotel will ever actually open. But, just three weeks ago, officials allowed Cockerell and a tour group he happened to be hosting into the building. They found an interior of mostly barren concrete (photos here), but were told it would open in two or three years. At that point, the building will have been "under construction" for 28 years, which also happens to be the age of newly minted leader Kim Jong Eun. Which one will be considered a more glaring juxtaposition of the gap between North Korea's vision of itself and its reality?  

This is part two of a series on tourism to North Korea. Read part one, on why people go and what they find. Next, we’ll explore the ethical questions about touring North Korea and what they say about the world’s struggles to understand the Hermit Kingdom. 

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