TOKYO — The twin-towered Koryo Hotel in central Pyongyang, a regular haunt for delegations visiting North Korea, was reported to be on fire Thursday night.
Flames could be seen high up in the 43-story hotel, possibly near the bridge at the 30th floor that connects the two towers, two foreign visitors in Pyongyang said, adding that they were not able to tell how serious the blaze was.
Shortly after midnight Friday, a receptionist at the hotel told The Washington Post by phone that the fire was over, but declined to go into details about damage caused.
The visitors said that several floors in one of the towers were burning and that there was a lot of smoke. Pyongyang had been experiencing heavy rainfall Thursday and that might have helped put out or minimize the fire.
The Koryo, built in 1985, is a well-known landmark in Pyongyang and is favored by visitors, who often include visiting diplomats and nongovernmental organization workers, business people and academics. It is popular both because of its location and because it is fancy by North Korean standards. North Korea rates it as five star, although this is considered a three-star rating in the west.
The hotel is within easy walking distance of the capital’s main train station, which is often crowded even though trains seldom come, and not far from Kim Il Sung Square, the city’s focal point. Journalists and other visitors often try — sometimes successfully — to escape their government-appointed minders and walk around the area.
Its height also means that the rooms offer great views of the city, allowing guests to peer down on parts of the capital they would not be able to visit in person.
Other hotels are typically nowhere near as well located, especially the Yanggakdo, nicknamed “Alcatraz,” which is on an island in the Taedong River and impossible to wander away from. The best-known hotel is one that’s not even open: The 105-story, pyramid-shaped Ryugyong hotel has been under construction for decades and has never been completed, although some progress has been made in recent years thanks to some investment by the Egyptian telecom company, Orascom.
The Koryo, which features an impressive marble lobby with huge paintings of North Korean mountains, is also renowned for having a lively social scene — for North Korea — with its popular microbrewery, multiple restaurants and pool tables. It even has an operational swimming pool in the basement and a sometimes-operational revolving restaurant at the top of one of the towers.
But the rooms, like so much else in North Korea, are dated. They feature loud brown carpet and faux wood paneling, and presumably a multitude of listening devices. Pyongyang urban legend has it that when a diplomat checked in to the Koryo for an extended period while his residence was being renovated, he had his room swept for bugs. Several dozen, of various generations, were found, so the story goes.
Still, the Lonely Planet travel guide recommends the hotel as one its preferred hotels in Pyongyang — not that tourists get a say on where they stay.
The hotel is so well known to visitors that it was even the setting for a murder mystery novel, “The Corpse in the Koryo,” written by a former intelligence agent who used the nom de plume James Church. In the book, a detective called Inspector O is assigned to investigate a murder after a body is found at the hotel.