At the time, the two economies weren’t so far apart, and the North — with aid flowing in from the Soviet Union — could afford occasional big spending projects. But the Soviet collapse in 1991 ended the flow of funds and also left the North short of raw materials.
Over the years, the North tried several times to revive the project, once even turning to the South.
In 2005, the South Korean port city of Incheon planned to host the Asian Athletics Championship, and the South wanted North Korean participation. The North bargained, saying it would send its athletes — if Incheon funded the Ryugyong.
So a 100-person team from Incheon flew to Pyongyang for meetings.
“The North Koreans made it very clear that Kim Jong Il and other top officials considered this renovation a priority,” said Park Kil-sang, a liaison in the negotiations. “But it looked like a huge cement mountain, and it showed the wear of 20 years of just sitting there untouched. We actually figured it would be better to break it down entirely and build a new hotel from scratch.”
After the Incheon deal fell apart, Orascom agreed in 2008 to begin renovations. Construction workers affixed mirrored glass to the structure, and the building’s conical point came to look like a pen’s silver cap.
Finally, one day, the crane disappeared.
“It was the middle of 2009,” said Cockerell, who was in Pyongyang at the time. “It was a very foggy day, and you couldn’t even see the top of the building. But you could hear very loud helicopter noises. Very loud, and that’s not common in Pyongyang. About an hour later, the fog cleared, and there was no more crane on that hotel. Everybody was just staring at it.
“It was a bit like when my dad shaved his beard off,” he added. “It was a very weird vibe.”
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.