The Ryugyong Hotel, also known as the Hotel of Doom, is the most iconic building in North Korea. This 105 storey, 330 meters tall building is an unmissable feature of Pyongyang’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 accommodating foreign visitors with over 3000 hotel rooms and 5 revolving restaurants.
Once intended as a thriving resort with the ambition of hosting fabulous grand casinos, the structure has stood vacant for decades, and for most of its history, incomplete.
With renovations being made to the exterior of the building in 2018, it now operates as a gigantic LED jumbo screen for North Korean propaganda slogans. The largest of its kind in the entire world.
Many ask where did the Ryugyong Hotel come from? Why did it never live up to what it was intended to be? Here we have the answers.
Why is it called Ryugyong Hotel?
Ryugyong is translated from Korean into English as “Willow tree”. A native tree that grows naturally around the Pyongyang swamp area. This name also explains why the hotel has its unique design. It was intended to be built to match the shape of a Willow tree. However, the retro Soviet designs gave it a more of a “rocket” or “missile” design hence how it earnt one of its many nicknames as the “missile launch pad” which local Korean guides will sometimes joke about.
History of the Ryugyong Hotel
In the 1980s, North Korea’s economy was starting to stall. Growth was slowing down, and the 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 – Swissôtel The Stamford – Kim Il Sung, this first leader of North Korea, envisioned the creation of a hotel that would surpass it whilst cementing a tourist economy for the country’s future.
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 standing 333 meters tall. Now the hotel has the unenviable title of the world’s largest unoccupied building thus giving it the nickname of the “Hotel of Doom”.
1980s to 1990s
Construction of the hotel commenced in 1987. However, a few years later, the world changed. The Cold War came to an end, the Soviet Bloc collapsed, depriving Pyongyang of all its trading partners and culminating in an 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 Hotel outline became a permanent blotch on the country’s skyline, even to the point it was avoided and scrubbed out in official photos. It was noted when tourists visited Pyongyang back then questions that were asked about the hotel were avoided with local guides.
Just short of a decade later, an Egyptian Telecommunications company called 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 hotel. They agreed to complete the exterior of the building with installing windows and ending the plague the building had on the city’s skyline and rendering it respectable. This project was completed in 2012 just in time for Kim Il Sung’s 100th Birthday Anniversary celebration. A huge milestone for the country.
During this celebration it was the only time for the hotel to have fireworks rigged to shoot outwards from the structure making it a once in a lifetime spectacle and bringing the most attention the hotel had ever received.
However, the interior of the hotel remained incomplete and empty. With the country not attracting meaningful numbers of visitors, no plans have ever emerged to change that.
Partially opening the Ryugyong Hotel
In November of 2012, a leading member of the Kempinski group announced to a shocked crowd in Seoul that they would be signing a management contract with Orascom that would see 150 rooms, office space, restaurants, a ballroom, and cinema opened within the lower floors of the hotel.
Sadly, things then started to change on the Korean peninsula with missile, ICMB and nuclear tests which soured their relationship with Seoul, essentially ending interest in what the Kempinski described as a “money printing machine should North Korea ever open up.”
Things went quiet in 2013. Kempinski announced that no contract had or would be signed for management. The Ryugyong dream was over before it had begun.
Over the next few years multiple rumors circulated around Pyongyang with other business interests from Russia and China saying that there was interests in reopening the first few floors of the hotel using the same idea the Kempinski group had in mind. Overtime nothing had come from it.
2018 to Present
During early 2018, some noticeable activity had been supported around the tower. The famous “wall” which authorities had permanently erected around the premise of the hotel to block off the hotel’s entrance from street level view was demolished. This was rather significant as the wall also supported slogans from speeches Kim Jong Un would give at each New Year’s speech.
Visitors and observers spotted activity around the building, including men working on the windows from a great height. This started a speculation that the tower was aiming to be finally opened.
By April, the answer was clear. One night, the hotel suddenly lit up with flashing LED lights and imagery. The DPRK flag was projected at the top cone of the hotel, whilst scenes of North Korean music videos and propaganda images were displayed onto the side of the hotel. The Ryugyong Hotel had been transformed into the world’s largest LED screen, visible all the way across the city.
What is the future of the Ryugyong Hotel?
Now, this is the question on many people’s lips, including our friends and colleagues in North Korea, so I will address the large and varied scenarios that have been presented to me, as well as the problems that could hamper opening the hotel to the public.
Is the Ryugyong Hotel structurally sound?
No one truly knows the answer to this one, but it has been stated that the lot shafts are not correctly aligned, which, when you have one of the tallest buildings in the world, is more than just a passing issue. That being said, this has never actually been proven and could be part of the wider North Korean myths that have a habit of doing the rounds. However, with the building being exposed for nearly 20 years with no exterior protecting the interior, it is fairly safe to assume that the building will need a lot of fixing for it to be completed.
Will the Ryugyong Hotel ever open?
So, for this one, I will reference various conversations I have had with my colleagues in Pyongyang. It is very much the policy of North Korea open the hotel, and I have heard various different scenarios on this. The plan would generally be to open anything from 6-24 floors of the hotel. This would be a much easier task than opening the whole thing, and even if there are issues with the lift shafts, much easier than opening all 105 floors plus the five revolving restaurants! The building that makes up the Ryugyong Complex would also be easy to convert into working structures.
What would this version of the Ryugyong Hotel be used for?
Obviously, the primary purpose of the structure was to be a hotel, but whilst capacity is not perfect in Pyongyang, nor does it desperately need a superstructure. The general consensus is that much like the Pothonggang Hotel, it would be a dual-purpose structure with part of it used for office space (particularly for foreign ventures), and at least part of it be used as a hotel, probably more along deluxe than budget lines.
If you are (like us) freakishly interested in the Ryugyong Hotel, you can see the best scale model of it at the Three Revolutions Exhibition. What is most interesting about the scale model is that it shows and represents the original plan and blueprint for not just the hotel, but the complete complex. Tours rarely visit here, but it is very easy to arrange as part of an independent tour to North Korea.
Is it possible to visit the Ryugyong Hotel?
A few years ago, some foreigners (non-tourists) were allowed to access the Ryugyong Hotel, and the photos can be seen online. Alas, they were not part of a tourist group, and as of now, tourists are not permitted into the hotel.
Whilst we continue our efforts to unlock this hotel as part of our sightseeing tours of Pyongyang, the absolute best we can do for now is to get you to the front gate of the compound for a photo. Something which only a few years ago wasn’t possible. Previously we could only get a perfect shot of the hotel from the Korean War Museum of from further down the road leading up to the structure. Open, or not the hotel is in fact, an iconic part of the Pyongyang skyline and indeed an essential part of the understanding of North Korean culture.
Of course, if the hotel does ever open, either in full or just for tourists to look inside, then Young Pioneer Tours will be at the forefront of Ryugyong based tourism!