Friday, July 18, 2008

Resurrecting the “Hotel of Doom”

North Korea's unfinished Ryugyong Hotel. Originally conceived as a showplace for the DPRK regime, the 105-story building has never been occupied, although an Egyptian firm has (reportedly) resumed work on the structure (Cavit Erginsoy photo via Esquire)

During the 1980s, as the South Korean economy boomed, North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung was struck with a case of “building envy.” With gleaming skyscrapers rising above Seoul and other Asian cities, the DPRK leader had an idea: why not build a magnificent edifice in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital?

Never mind that his country was already on the brink of insolvency, and North Korean engineers had little experience with high-rise structures. In 1988, construction crews began building the Ryugyong Hotel, one year before South Korea hosted the summer Olympic Games. At 105 stories, the hotel would be the tallest building in Asia (at that time), a showcase for the Pyongyang regime, and a source of needed revenue. North Korean officials hoped that the hotel would be a magnet for Japanese businessmen, searching for more comfortable quarters during their visits to the DPRK.

But, like many projects in North Korea, the Ryugyong never quite met its expectations. Work on the hotel stopped in 1992, before the structure could be completed. While the building’s shell has been largely finished, it still lacks windows, fittings and other fixtures. The hotel has never been certified as safe for occupancy.

Indeed, there may be serious structural and material problems with the Ryugyong. Various accounts suggest that chunks of the façade have broken off from time to time, plunging hundreds of feet into the streets below. Those reports—and the fact that the hotel site remains off limits to almost everyone in North Korea—suggest that the Ryugyong was improperly engineered, and may never be completely finished, or occupied.

Engineering issues aside, the main reason the project was halted was pure economics—after spending 2% of their GDP on the hotel, the North Koreans simply ran out of money. So, the Ryugyong has sat empty for the past 16 years, acquiring nicknames like the “Phantom Hotel,” or the “Hotel of Doom.” In an article published last January, Esquire magazine called it the “Worst Building in the History of Mankind.” Looking at the architectural monstrosity, it’s hard to disagree.

In fact, the Ryugyong has become something of an embarrassment for the DPRK. While the structure was added to maps and postage stamps before its completion, the hotel has, in recent years, been “Photo Shopped” out of official photos of Pyongyang.

In other images, the hotel appears open for business, or illuminated against the night skyline, another testament to photo manipulation techniques. The “nighttime” image even became something of a collector’s item among intelligence analysts and other DPRK observers who knew the painful truth-- North Korea could not afford the power bill for illuminating the hotel at night.

But the Ryugyong is now showing signs of life. Reuters reports that workers from Egypt’s Orascom Group have recently been refurbishing the top floors of the hotel, installing windows and telecom antennas, and offering an artist’s rendering of what the finished structure will look like.

We hope the folks at Orascom got their money up front, in hard currency, because there’s little reason to believe that Pyongyang has the cash to finish the project. Given North Korea’s dire economic straits, this latest effort at fitting out the hotel will likely fade in a few months or a year, ushering in another era of dormancy for the Ryugyong. While North Korea would like to get something out of the project—say, a few floors that could be rented to visiting Japanese businessmen—the massive hotel will never fulfill its lofty ambitions. At best, it’s the world’s tallest monument to the banality and brutality of communism.

ADDENDUM: In fairness, we should note that the unfinished hotel has served at least one useful, though unintended, purpose. U.S. military sensor operators, supporting U-2 surveillance missions against North Korea, routinely used the Ryugyong as a “focus point” for tuning the optical and radar sensors on the spy plane.

Even at extreme ranges, it was easy to use the 105-story hotel as a target for the U-2’s sensor pods, and ensure they were working properly. It wasn’t what Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il had in mind when they conceived the project, but the Ryugyong’s role as an “aim point” may be its most lasting contribution in relations between North Korea, the ROK and the United States.


RPB said...

This past summer I worked at Orascom Construction Industries in Cairo and did a partial acquisition of a NK cement plant. Not my call, but a bet on the world's foremost undeveloped economy. That dealing was rather shady. A lot of people we "had" to employ. When our people visited over there they were not allowed to carry NK currency. Anyhow, my main point of contention is that OCI is ran by a Coptic Christian named Nassif Sawiris. As a direct result of this, Orascom is one of the largest USAID contractors in the world. You think the State Dept. put 2 and 2 together and inserted some people? Though I doubt it, I'd hope so. Let me know your thoughts.

UJ said...

What are your thoughts on a possible connection to Egypt's nuclear program? Maybe Orascom isn't very worried about North Korea having the cash to pay for the hotel...

RPB said...

We had USAID on speed dial. We talked to them constantly about projects all over the middle east. It'd crush the company to lose the USAID contracts. I sincerely doubt a connection.

UJ said...

Why would they lose the contract? In the past, and certainly over the last few years in the face of Iranian developments, the US Government has been at least warm to the idea of an Arab nuclear presence. A North Korean connection to Egypt allows the US to tacitly assist the development of an Egyptian nuclear program with NK technology in exchange for "increased outside investment" for North Korea, which was one of the negotiating points of the recent agreement between the US and NK.

Note it would not be the first time someone affiliated with USAID was used for intelligence and national security purposes.

My other thought was that it could be a listening post for various intelligence services, but I believe the western connection breaks down there. Seeing as how the US already has a naval presence on both sides of the peninsula and in South Korea itself, I fail to see the value-for-risk of gathering SIGINT from the hotel. What could we hear that an Aegis parked off the coast couldn't already?

To be clear I am not convinced nor certain that there is ANYTHING amiss about this story. However, the timeline and players involved are all highly suspicious. It seems naive to write this off as another one of those "Oh, those North Koreans are so poor, always building stupid stuff" stories that the media loves to circulate.

I'm just trying to keep an open mind, I suppose. What do you think?