Great Escapes

05.22.14

Nobody’s Home at the Hermit Kingdom’s Ghost Hotel

In 1987, North Korea began building a mega, 105-floor luxury hotel. Now 27 years later, the giant, unfinished shell is a reminder of the country's unfulfilled tourism dreams.

It’s a ready-to-launch spaceship, it’s a post-apocalyptic command center—no, it’s a completely empty hotel. Towering above the boxy gray buildings of downtown Pyongyang, the abandoned, 1,083-foot building is aptly nicknamed North Korea’s “Hotel of Doom.”

For 27 years, the 105 floors of Ryugyong Hotel, a monstrous three-winged, glass-and-concrete pyramid, have gone unused. Its presence is a looming reminder of the estimated $750 million wasted on a tourism industry that never materialized, and an absurd misuse of funds in a country where food, electricity, and health care for citizens are scarce.

North Korea broke ground on the project in 1987, with a two-year timeline for completion. Overseen by the regime of Kim Il-Sung—the current dictator’s grandfather—the hotel was seen as a rib at South Korea for winning the 1988 Olympic Games after the DPRK had proposed the neighboring countries share hosting duties.

Today, it’s the tallest unoccupied building in the world. When building first began, Ryugyong was on track to be the tallest hotel in the world. Then, six years later, construction came to a complete standstill as the Soviet Union collapsed and North Korea sunk into a crippling famine. The project was only resurrected 15 years later in 2008 when Egyptian telecommunications company Orascom slated $180 million for fitting the exterior with glass and sticking an antenna on top.

In 2012, more signs of life started coming from the ghostly Ryugyong Hotel, when German luxury hotel group Kempinski announced plans to take over its management and open for business the following year. “This pyramid monster hotel will monopolize all the business in the city,” CEO Reto Wittwer said. “I said to myself, we have to get this hotel if there is ever a chance, because this will become a money-printing machine if North Korea opens up.”

Of the more than 3,000 rooms originally planned—almost equal in number to the 3,500 annual Western tourists—Kempinski announced it would build 1,500 rooms, beginning with 150 suites on the structure’s top floors. Restaurants, shops, and ballrooms would live on the ground floors, where original designs promised five rotating dining areas and a casino.

“They found the building was a shell, with no apparently electricity or plumbing, and no completed inner construction.”

Just a few months prior to the announcement, North Korea agreed to allow Koryo Tours, the oldest DPRK-centric agency, the first-ever peek inside the Ryugyong Hotel. They found the building was a shell, with no apparently electricity or plumbing, and no completed inner construction.

A few months later, a rogue journalist escaped his minder and slipped through the guards into the behemoth under the cover of darkness. He reported similarly pessimistic findings. “I edge inside to find a cavernous space and walls of bare concrete—layer upon layer of grey concrete shell with scaffolding winding its way up through the vast space at the heart of the giant pyramid,” Simon Parry wrote for the Daily Mail. “Where I can see dusty concrete and a tangle of rubble and wires, Kempinski are now promising shops, restaurants and a ballroom on the ground and mezzanine floors.”

Then, less than six months later, Wittwer shuffled back on his earlier enthusiastic plans. Saying there had just been “initial discussions,” the company admitted that “no agreement has been signed since market entry is not currently possible.”

The company spokesperson told CNN that “you just never know what might happen in the future.”

The prospect of a luxury hotel in North Korea on the grand scale of Ryugyong isn’t entirely unimaginable—the industry for tourist lodgings, complete with marble column-filled lobbies and private beaches, is growing, even if most of the rooms remain largely unfilled.

In 2008, the South Korean media estimated that the Ryugyong project could require another $2 billion to finish construction and ensure safety, which is around 7 percent of North Korea’s GDP. Perhaps Kim Jong-un, worth a rumored—and ill-gotten—$5 billion, will dig into his own pockets to make good on a 30-year promise. Either way, there’s no underestimating a country with its eye squarely on world domination and a cavalier willingness to sacrifice its economy for shows of strength—be it blatant testing of nuclear weapons or refusing to give up on an unoccupied spaceship hotel.