Getting High

North Korea’s Best Building Is Empty: The Mystery of the Ryugyong Hotel

Nearly 30 years—and an estimated $750 million—after its construction began, the empty and unused Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang remains a glorified telecommunications antenna.

This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.

There are unfinished buildings all over the world, but the most mysterious—by far—is the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Towering over the rest of the mid-rise city at more than 1,000 feet, the 105-story pyramid-shaped building with the ballpoint-pen top remains off-limits to the public, despite decades of construction and an estimated cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

What it’s like on the inside—like much of the cloistered country—is unknown to all but the few who've either snuck in or taken what seems to be the single tour of the interior, sanctioned by the government in 2012.

What it’s like on the outside, though, is clear to nearly everyone in Pyongyang, where it has been the dominant feature of the city’s skyline since shortly after construction began in 1987. Today, nearly 30 years and an estimated $750 million later, this looming, gleaming, futurist-modernist arrowhead of a building is essentially a glorified telecommunications antenna.

The building’s conception is attributed to Kim Il Sung, the supreme leader of the country since its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994. Apparently he wanted to build an iconic and record-breaking building to showcase his country’s power.

Kim had recently failed in an effort to either co-host the 1988 Seoul Olympics or to sabotage them by encouraging a Soviet-led boycott of the Games. To recoup some of his country’s lost stature, Kim turned to the age-old practice of monument building.

The project would be a 3,000-room hotel, equipped with a casino and topped with eight revolving floors that would feature five revolving restaurants. It would have been one of the ten tallest buildings in the world—the first outside the U.S. to reach more than 100 stories—and the tallest hotel in the world. It was supposed to be completed within two years, opening by 1989.

Though its frame was completed in 1989, topping out at 105 stories, construction slowed down considerably as North Korea’s main benefactor, the Soviet Union, edged towards collapse.

All work on the Ryugyong project stopped in 1992, as the fall of the Soviet Union sent North Korea into an economic tailspin. After Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 and his son, Kim Jong Il, took over, the country was unavoidably heading towards an agricultural catastrophe. A multi-year famine began in 1995, killing millions. Though conditions have improved somewhat, food shortages remain a part of North Korean life.

In the 16 years that followed 1992’s construction halt, the 105-story pyramid shell of the Ryugyong Hotel sat massively and conspicuously near the center of Pyongyang, its concrete floors open to the elements, off limits to all but its armed guards.

In June 2005, the Italian design magazine Domus launched a design competition calling for “architectural and geopolitical” ideas and designs to complete and functionally redefine the stalled project.

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Ideas were submitted by more than 200 designers from all over the world—including Pyongyang—and published in a subsequent issue of the magazine. One idea [video] imagines the building transformed into a large scaffold for multinational corporations’ billboards, which is then strapped with rockets and launched into the atmosphere.

The whole design competition was strongly criticized by Czech architect Jan Kaplicky for ignoring the human rights issues being faced in North Korea. “The Ryugyong Hotel is certainly not architecture. It is empty. Without people,” Kaplicky wrote. “It cannot be designed and used by brainwashed robots. Modern architecture cannot exist without free human beings.”

The repression of the North Korean regime—along with the building’s long empty years—led many to call it the “Hotel of Doom.” Esquire magazine named the Ryugyong Hotel “the worst building in the world,” calling it “the closest humans have come to building a Death Star.”

But just months later, in 2008, the Ryugyong Hotel came back to life.

The Egyptian company Orascom Telecom Holding signed a deal with the North Korean government to finish the building in exchange for the first commercial license to provide 3G cellular service to North Korea—an investment reportedly worth roughly $400 million. It was a notable infusion of foreign investment in North Korea, and a sign that the restrictive government could be more open to the outside world—to the economic benefit of destitute North Korean citizens.

Billboards featuring sleek renderings of soon-to-be-completed building popped up at the hotel site, its empty concrete skeleton towering immediately behind.

The deal between the telecom and the government soon paid off. Orascom used the building’s impressive height to anchor telecommunications antennas. Throughout 2008 and 2009, the company outfitted the building’s façade with glass windows and aluminum paneling, finally covering its concrete frame at a cost of roughly $180 million.

Once again a point of pride for North Korea, the building was used as the backdrop for an extensive May Day fireworks show in 2009.

Orascom’s plans originally included refurbishing the entire hotel, with a proposed opening April 15, 2012, the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. A May 2009 report in a North Korean propaganda newspaper called it “a phoenix ceaselessly reaching for the sky, the high-rising Ryugyong Hotel is one emblem of North Korea, which is soundly knocking on the door of [becoming] a Strong and Prosperous Nation.”

“There have been no issues that have caused us too much trouble,” Orascom’s chief operating officer Khaled Bichara told the BBC of the project in October 2009. “You can see that we have already completed the top of the building where the revolving restaurant will be. After 2010, that’s when it will be fully safe to start building from the inside.”

But 2010 came and went.

By September 2012, when Koryo Tours organized the first sanctioned tour—and photographs—of the unfinished building, it was basically a massive skeleton of rebar, raw steel columns and unfinished concrete floors.

Just two months later, another company, the luxury hotel group Kempinski announced plans to take over the project, rethinking it as a mixed-use project with fewer hotel rooms and more shops and restaurants.

The company’s CEO, Reto Wittwer, told Bloomberg the project would “become a money-printing machine if North Korea opens up.” Months later without progress, Kempinski told CNN entry into the North Korean market “is not currently possible.”

And though reignited plans for the hotel led some to believe North Korea would be easing relations with the outside world, those hopes have been all but dashed by the increasingly aggressive behavior of the country’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, grandson of Kim Il Sung.

Today, the Ryugyong Hotel remains off limits, empty and raw on the inside. Though its shimmering sides give it the appearance of a completed building, this massive unfinished structure is little more than a shell. And as its pyramid form shadows over the city, it stands as an unavoidable reminder of the ambition and hubris of a government more concerned with appearances than its people.

As they have in the past, new plans for completing the monumental project may emerge again. In the meantime, the only benefit this never-finished building has to offer the people of Pyongyang is slightly better cell phone service.