Standing at 1,080 feet (330 meters), the Ryugyong Hotel towers over the Pyongyang skyline. The spectacular marvel of architecture has earned many distinctions. It was conceived to be the world’s tallest hotel, the world’s largest pyramid, the tallest building in North Korea, and the 7th-tallest building in the world. Today, it stands, unoccupied, and is not only a spectacular piece of architectural creativity but it is also a hugely-embarrassing testimony of yet another North Korean symbolism over substance. Welcome to the “Hotel of Doom.”
When the Westin Stamford Hotel in Singapore became the world’s largest hotel in 1986, North Korean leaders decided to challenge that record. Building something that would eclipse Singapore’s accomplishment would not only show the world that North Korea was a world-class power but it would also open a channel for foreign investors.
Out of this ambitious strategy came the plans to build the Ryugyong Hotel. The North Korean government sought to lure western investors with promises of uncharacteristically-relaxed government oversight. With goals of raising $230 million in foreign investments, government lobbyists cast grand visions of a luxury hotspot for future North Korean tourism, with casinos, nightclubs, and Japanese lounges.
The North Korean construction firm Baikdoosan Architects & Engineers (also known as Baekdu Mountain Architects and Engineers) began construction on a pyramid‑shaped hotel in 1987. Completion was to be done in time for the 80th birthday celebration of Eternal President Kim Il-Sung in 1992.
When completed, it would dominate the Pyongyang skyline, easily surpassing the height of anything else in the city or the country, for that matter. Reaching 105 stories, the building has earned the local nickname of the “105 Building” in honor of the number of floors. The building would consist of three wings, each measuring 100 meters (330 ft) long, 18 meters (59 ft) wide, lightly stepped once but otherwise sloping at a 75‑degrees to the floor, which would converge at a common point to form a pinnacle. The building would be topped by a truncated cone 40 meters (130 ft) wide, consisting of eight rotating floors, topped by a further six static floors. It would house five revolving restaurants. Conflicting sources put the number of guest rooms at either 3,000 or 7,665.
From outward appearances, the 1992 opening date seemed to be on track. The building reached its intended height, impressively telling the world that North Korea could deliver on its promises. Inwardly, the project was just as hallow as the country’s promises.
Work came to a screeching halt in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies to its Southeast Asian puppet state. By that point, the estimated cost of construction had reached $750 million, consuming 2 percent of the entire GDP of the nation.
For over a decade, the windowless, vacant building loomed as an unfinished concrete shell. The construction crane on the top of the building remained and slowly rusted. The BBC dubbed the project “a reminder of the totalitarian state’s thwarted ambition”. When representatives of the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea inspected the building in the late 1990s, they noted the inferior quality of the concrete, misalignment of the elevator shafts, and a number of structural deficiencies and concluded that the building was irreparable.
Rather than being the pride of North Korea, the Ryugyong Hotel had become a horrible embarrassment. Foreign media sources routinely mocked the edifice and dubbed it “the worst building in the world” and the “Hotel of Doom.”
Although at the start of the construction project, the Ryugyong Hotel was a focus of national pride, as progress ground to a halt, that began to change. In the early days, North Korean postage stamps were adorned with the Pyongyang skyline as it would appear with the completed hotel as its most prominent feature. By the time it had been assessed as an embarrassing failure, the official government photos and maps of Pyongyang were edited to erase any evidence of the building’s existence.
After 16 years without any evident progress in construction, work was restarted in April 2008. North Korean officials announced that the hotel would be completed by 2012, in time to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung.
In July 2011, the exterior work was reportedly completed, with all glass window panels and the telecommunications antennae in place. In September 2012, photographs showing the unfinished interior were shown for the first time on the Koryo Tours website.
One of the most impressive features was unveiled in April 2018. A large LED display featuring the North Korean flag had been added to the top of the building. By May, the LED display had been extended to the entire side of the building, offering rare light and color to otherwise-dark North Korean nights.
Work continues sporadically. In June 2019, there was new signage bearing the hotel’s name (in Korean and Latin letters) and its logo over the main entrance. This led to rumors that it would soon be open for business. As 2020 comes to a close, the building enters into its 14th year and has yet to host a single guest.
In all modesty, we point to the fact that Commonplace Fun Facts chronicled the embarrassing saga of Germany’s Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg Airport that, after 14 years, had yet to see a single airplane or passenger. We published the details of this construction and bureaucratic faux pas in June 2020. Four months later, the airport finally opened for service. A coincidence? We think not. Perhaps this article will have a similar influence on the builders of the Ryugyong Hotel. Inasmuch as we have yet to have a single visitor to Commonplace from North Korea, however, we are not holding out much hope.