The Ryugyong hotel is the most iconic building in Pyongyang. Towering above everything else, this 330m-tall building is an unmissable feature of the city’s skyline, standing as the tallest building in the entire DPRK. Yet, it is an oddity for the fact it has never been used for its designated purpose of housing foreign visitors. Once intended as a thriving resort with the ambition of hosting fabulous grand casinos, the structure has in fact stood vacant for decades, and for most of its history, incomplete. As of 2018, it now operates as a gigantic LED cinema screen for North Korean films, the largest of its kind in the entire world. But just where did the Ryugyong Hotel come from? And why did it never live up to what it was intended to be? Here we have the answers!
In the 1980s, North Korea’s economy was starting to stall. Growth was slowing down and national debt was becoming a problem. Across the border, South Korea had transformed from an agricultural backwater into one of the world’s most successful economies, leaving Pyongyang behind. With the Cold War not yet over, both countries were still, at this point, actively competing for global prestige and legitimacy. Seeing the tables turn against them, the DPRK desperately needed something to outdo South Korea. Seeing that Seoul was participating in the construction of a mega hotel in Singapore – that is, the Westin Stamford Hotel – Kim Il Sung envisioned the creation of a hotel which would surpass it whilst cementing a tourist economy for the country’s future. Thus was born the “Ryugyong Hotel”- an ambitious structure which, at the time, constituted the world’s largest hotel, a feat that was not surpassed until the completion of the Rose Tower in Dubai in 2005.
Construction of the Ryugyong commenced in 1985. However, the world changed. In that timeframe, the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet Bloc collapsed, depriving Pyongyang of all its trading partners and culminating in economic depression that wiped out 40% of the country’s GDP. The 1990s was a catastrophic time for the DPRK; competition with South Korea was replaced by the political priority of attaining mere state survival. By 1992, the outer skeleton of the hotel had been completed, but the economic turmoil forced the state to allocate resources elsewhere and mothball the project. An incomplete and unappealing Ryugyong outline became a permanent blotch on the country’s skyline, even to the point it was avoided in official photos.
Just short of a decade later, an Egyptian Telecommunications company, Osracom, arrived in Pyongyang seeking to expand into an untapped foreign market with a 3rd-generation internet project. Negotiating with the DPRK leadership, the company struck a deal with Pyongyang that they would install their network, which would be named “Koryolink”, in exchange for solving the dilemma of the Ryugyong hotel – that is, completing its exterior. From 2012, construction resumed on the problematic structure. Its exterior was fleshed out with windows, ending its plague on the city’s skyline and rendering it respectable. However, the interior remained incomplete and empty. With the country not attracting meaningful numbers of visitors, no plans have ever emerged to change that.
By 2018, however, unique activity began to occur around the site again. The famous “wall”, which authorities had constructed to block off the hotel’s entrance from street level view, was demolished. Visitors and observers spotted activity around the building, including men working on the windows from a height. What was going on? Could this be its opening? By April, the answer was clear. One night, the Ryugyong hotel suddenly lit up with flashing lights and imagery. The DPRK flag was projected at the top, whilst scenes of North Korean music videos and films were projected onto its surface. The Ryugyong hotel had been transformed into the world’s largest LED cinema screen, visible all the way across the city.
This marks the story of the Ryugyong, a mega hotel which has not yet lived up to its potential, instead being reinvented as a makeshift screen. The world still awaits the day in which it may finally open to tourists. Until then, it remains a remarkable empty shell..