“It was the hotel with the iconic crane,” said Simon Cockerell, an executive at Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which leads tourist trips to North Korea. “It dominated the skyline.”
Sometime this spring, though, according to the Yonhap news agency in Seoul, the Ryugyong Hotel will partially open — 23 years behind schedule. Initially, it might serve as an office complex, not a hotel, but eventually, travel agents say, the Ryugyong will open for tourists.
As North Korea apparently intends it, the building’s completion marks the literal high point of a major push to spruce up the country’s capital and show off its self-described burgeoning economic strength. The reality is somewhat different: The North’s state-run economy barely functions, and its authoritarian government relied on outside investment from an Egyptian telecom company to complete the hotel.
Still, the planned opening illustrates North Korea’s resourcefulness, particularly as the country prepares for a year of celebrations to commemorate the centenary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth. Pyongyang still has the ability to wangle investment from outsiders, trading rare access to the North Korean market. (In the hotel’s case, support came from the Egyptian company Orascom, which is building a mobile network in the country.) Pyongyang also has the advantage of being able to use its people at will on its pet projects — including, according to reports from defector groups in Seoul, university students whom it reassigned to construction work.
The hotel starts out with at least one major plus: It was famous long before its scheduled launch. When construction began, plans called for 3,000 rooms, five revolving restaurants, a bowling alley and a nightclub. The government featured the Ryugyong on official stamps.
Pride dissipated along with the funding. Architects routinely described the unfinished structure as among the world’s ugliest; several years ago, Esquire magazine called it “the worst building in the history of mankind.” With neither the will to knock it down nor the money to complete it, North Korean authorities for years airbrushed it from some official photos of its skyline.
Officials have not disclosed details of the new plans for the hotel. But Cockerell mentioned a “common rumor in Pyongyang” that many of the middle floors will be left vacant, with the bottom used for hotel rooms and the top for restaurants.