North Korea has never been known for progress or leading the world in anything, except perhaps the stifling of ideas and creativity. In the mid-1980’s, North Korean leadership wanted to change that by building something massive – something that would be world-renowned. It was to symbolize progress for North Korea and introduce Western investors. A hotel taller than any other in the world was decided upon, and in 1987 construction by the Ryugyong Hotel Investment and Management Company began. It was planned to be completed in 1989 in time for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, but developers faced every possible hurdle and by 1992 the project was abandoned.
The North Korean economy had been bleak for decades. The Korean conflict had taken its toll on the North and the ruthless socialist regime allowed little for capitalist endeavors. North Korea had little in the way of engineering pride and wanted to build something magnificent to showcase Pyongyang on the world stage. In an effort to attract Western dollars, North Koreans drew up plans for a 105-floor hotel – to be the largest in the world – and promised a complete laissez-faire attitude with oversight of the construction and planned hotel activities. Casinos, nightclubs, and fancy restaurants were encouraged. When the project was planned, it was estimated the cost to build the “largest hotel in the world” would be around $230 million.
The original design for the Ryugyong Hotel
Construction began in 1987, but by 1992 numerous delays and problems had driven the cost up to over $750 million – or 2% of North Korea’s GDP. The early 1990’s saw North Korea enduring food and electricity shortages, and the government was broke. Foreign investors had been wary of the North Korean promises and financiers had been backing out with every delay. The building had finally reached its full architectural height by 1992, but a broke government and a lack of foreign investors meant the project would be abandoned. Had the hotel been finished as planned in 1989, it would have stood as the tallest hotel and the seventh-tallest building in the world. In fact, the unfinished building was not surpassed in height by another new hotel until 2009. (click thumbnails to enlarge)
For the next 16 years, the unfinished building sat vacant without windows, fixtures, or furnishings. The landscape of Pyongyang was dominated by a massive concrete shell with an abandoned rusting construction crane at the top. North Korean officials were embarrassed of the project, which the public now considered an enormous blunder. The government edited official city photographs in order to remove the structure from the skyline. The hotel was removed from all printed maps of Pyongyang and became known as “The Worst Building in the World.” Other common names were “Hotel of Doom” and “the Phantom Hotel.” The level of embarrassment was enough that the North Korean government even declined to acknowledge the hotel’s existence for over a decade.
The “Hotel of Doom” seen here, unfinished, dominating the Pyongyang skyline for 25 years
In the late 1990’s there was a brief attempt at re-starting the project. An inspection crew from the European Union was flown to Pyongyang to examine the hotel, and it was determined that the structure was irreparable. The predominant concerns from the report were quality issues with the concrete used and the elevator shafts were said to not be aligned properly.
In 2008 there was a third attempt at reviving the project. Orascom Group, an Egyptian telecommunications and contractor conglomerate, signed a $400M deal with the North Korean government to build and run a 3G mobile phone network. Coincidentally, Orascom began working on the Ryugyong Hotel at the same time. The level of Orascom’s involvement is unknown, but those closer to the project seem to allude that Orascom is merely reinforcing the structure and shoring up the façade. Visible upgrades performed by Orascom include exterior glass panels and some telecom antennas.
The Ryugyong Hotel during its makeover in 2009
Orascom does not give many details regarding the project, however; in fact the public is still left wondering if this latest contractor was indeed paid to finish the project or just make it look pretty. Construction workers have shared that despite the nice façade, the 3,000+ rooms, offices, restaurants, and banquet halls all remain hollow concrete shells.
North Korean officials proudly declare the Ryugyong Hotel will be completed in 2012 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of “Eternal President” Kim II-sung, but those involved with the project estimate that this is a very optimistic estimation. The exterior of the structure is due to be finished this year, and the interior has yet to even be addressed, leading some to speculate that the government might just be dressing up the structure without actually intending to “open” it.
The hotel is a 1,080 foot-tall (330m) pyramid design with 3 wings, each 330 feet long. Each wing is 60 feet wide and is sloped at a 75-degree angle. The top of the structure is a 14-floor ‘cone’ with 8 floors intended to rotate beneath 6 static floors at the top. The revolving section was intended to house five revolving restaurants and several nightclubs. Truly a magnificent design, the hotel would have been a world’s attraction had it been completed in 1989. In fact it was the first building constructed outside of New York or Chicago that had more than 100 floors. Unfortunately, eccentric billionaires in Dubai have taken some luster off the Ryugyong Hotel in the interim, having built numerous world-record hotels with some of the finest materials in the world.
The Ryugyong Hotel could have been a breakthrough for the North Korean people and a source of national pride. Instead it stands as a black eye, reminding citizens what happens when a poor communist country has delusions of grandeur on the capitalist world’s stage. In a country where the average worker salary is about $47 per month, I’m sure the citizens of North Korea would have rather seen that $750M spent on infrastructure, jobs, and quality of life improvements. But hey, at least they’ll have a nice hotel in a few years – right?
All that aside, it is a beautiful hotel and the North Koreans should be proud. I can only imagine how many fire ants this hotel will destroy when the sun comes out.
Left: Ryugyong in 2009 during remodel. Right: Nearly finished in 2011 (click to enlarge)
See the satellite overhead image and map: click here