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Ryugyong Hotel: The Story Behind North Korea’s “Hotel of Doom”

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Ryugyong Hotel

Pyongyang, North Korea, is overshadowed by a massive structure, outshining every other building in the area. It’s the largest building in North Korea, but, on the inside, it’s of a ghost town than a monument to a thriving modern metropolis. Standing at 1,080 feet tall with 105 stories, The Ryugyong Hotel, better known as the “Hotel of Doom,” is the tallest unoccupied building in the world. So, what is it about the hotel that earned such a sinister nickname?

Like many other aspects of North Korea, the unfinished hotel has a dark and complex history. Construction on the hotel was started in 1987 under Kim Il-sung, the president at that time. The construction began after the completion of the Westin Stamford Hotel in Singapore, which at that time, the tallest hotel in the world. The Ryugyong was meant to be an answer to this, and a striking way to surpass the achievements of North Korea’s neighbors.

It was intended to be the tallest building in the world and the largest hotel ever built, but, predictably, the construction process soon went south. The hotel was built in the shape of a pyramid and was intended to be topped with a 14-floor cone that would revolve and include restaurants, shops, and ballrooms. Many have noted the hotel’s resemblance to the description of the Ministry of Truth from Orwell’s 1984, dystopian novel. Whether this is deliberate or not is unknown, but it does carry a certain cruel irony nonetheless.

Initially, the construction of the hotel was funded by the Soviet Union. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the funding was lost and the construction was stopped as North Korea experienced a massive economic crash. After electrical issues, famine, and a lack of quality materials hit the project, construction was officially stopped in 1992. The hotel was left unfinished, with the outside built and standing at its full height, but inside it remains incomplete and empty. It is during this  time that the hotel began to earn its nickname, the “Hotel of Doom,” and many media outlets  referred to it as the “World’s Worst Building.”

People saw it as a sign of failure and a blight on the reputation of North Korean. The total opposite of what the Kim dynasty had intended. Then, suddenly and without acknowledgement of the long pause in its development, construction resumed a full 16 years after it had been first stopped. In 2008, an Egyptian company agreed to pay for the completion of the hotel. The resumed construction was announced, along with a planned opening date of 2012, in celebration of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. A glass facade was added in 2011, and it seemed  as though genuinely progress was being made.

Kempinski, an international hotel operator famous for luxury establishments, agreed to take over the hotel’s management. Then, in 2013, construction stopped again with no explanation. They pushed the hotel’s opening date back even  further, then eventually cancelled it altogether.

To this day, the hotel has never been finished. Occasionally, rumors will circulate about new construction, such as in 2017, when scaffolding  appeared on the building, or in 2019, when new signage was spotted above the hotel’s entrance. However, there has never been an official announcement, and the hotel has yet to ever  open. It is, however, still used for something.

In 2018, the lighting designer put together a light show made up of political slogans, party symbols, and other government propaganda  to be projected onto the surface of the building. Apparently, it plays for hours every night, and as an empty husk of a building covered in vapid propaganda, it serves as a  pretty apt metaphor for the entire project.

The “Hotel of Doom” stands just as it did when  its construction first began, just as empty and just as haunting. The interior is a blank void,  with the lights of the city outside illuminating blank concrete and unfurnished rooms – which feels  especially eerie when combined with the elaborate facade outside. It’s almost more like a cardboard  cutout of a hotel than the real thing. Maybe it will be finished someday, but for the foreseeable  future it continues to be a doomed project, a vacant, ghostly reminder of a nationalistic  dream unfinished and a promise unfulfilled.