Pyongyang: Home to the Tallest Hotel in the World That Could, but Will Never Be

The Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-Story Building Started in the Late '80s, Was Never Finished


Oct. 23, 2006 —

Pyongyang's Ryugyong Hotel, a structure that if it were ever possible to finish would have been the world's tallest hotel, is symbolic of the state of North Korea itself.

The building is incredibly ambitious and very secretive. There are many conflicting versions of its story from the few you can find to talk about it.

One part that's almost always never left out is the assertion that one day the magnificent structure may just have to come down because whatever is holding it together has got to be faulty.

Yet it still continues to stand in staunch defiance of all outside it.

"You know the scene in 'The Wizard of Oz'?" asked Mike Chinoy, a former Asian correspondent for CNN and now the Edgarton fellow at the Pacific Council on Foreign Policy.

"Every time I've driven to [North Korea's capital] Pyongyang, there's this thing that's ticking up from way in the distance and it's so out of sync with everything that it becomes a great metaphor for North Korea in many ways."

Those interviewed had visited Pyongyang since the Ryugyong Hotel was started in the late '80s.

They all said virtually the same thing: As an outsider you just can't avoid asking what that humongous monstrosity is, but it's almost impossible to get anyone to talk about it -- let alone secure a hotel reservation for the night.

"The hotel's pretty incredible to see, and it does dominate the skyline," said Andrew Morse, an ABC News producer who's seen the building on his trips to Pyongyang.

"My Korean minders weren't keen to talk about it, so I don't know much, but I can definitely confirm that it exists," Morse said.

What Is and What Will Never Be

What you can see in a picture is the outline of a great pyramid with jetsonian revolving disks at the top.

There are no windows, pipes, lighting, fixtures, or the North Korean version of the AAA seal of approval hanging out front.

Nothing is inside the place but black shadows. A crane still sits at the top.

Emporis, an architectural information reporting firm, says the building is 105 stories tall.

If it was ever finished, it would be taller than any building in the United States.

It would also be the seventh-tallest building in the world to be used exclusively to house a five-star hotel of the highest luxury, with seven revolving restaurants on the top -- all for a country that today, as ABC News' Diane Sawyer reports, has a mere 300 foreigners within its borders.

And no, she did not stay at this hotel.

The Grandest of Hotels Built for Whom Exactly?

In a communist country that recently survived a famine in which it is estimated that more than 1 million people died, why was there ever a need for such massive luxury accommodations?

Depending upon which story you believe, the building may have been started to counter a massive South Korean-built hotel project in Singapore.

Another suggestion is that the government was attempting to build it to spark some tourism around the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, but ran out of time to get it done and just left it.

"I first saw it there in 1989," Chinoy said. "It was essentially the way it was now."

The most plausible speculation into why it was never finished comes from the lack of just about all the things you need to build a building -- let alone a monumental one -- such as raw materials, energy and well, money.

One of the more interesting tales is that there were so many problems with the project that they began to snowball because no one had the guts to report them to the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.

The story goes that the problems eventually became insurmountable and that the dysfunction was eventually made obvious without a word being spoken.

Ryugyong Hotel: Looming Symbol of North Korea Itself

There's some mutterings of finding an "outside developer" with $300 million to come in and save the day, but as Emporis reports, the cement used in the structure is not safe enough to continue the project and is presently crumbling.

So even if an outside developer wanted to finish the job, it would have to first start by knocking it down and starting over from scratch.

At the moment, it appears that the present-day leader, Kim Jong Il, has other more important things on his mind, too much pride, or a lack of resources to tear it town.

In the meantime, a good solution to the problem was forged in the uniquely North Korean way: The landmark has been taken off printed maps, and now everyone just changes the subject whenever it's mentioned.

"I have a sightseeing guide to North Korea [published in Pyongyang] in my hands," Morse said. "And there's no mention of it, and it's not on the maps in there."

They've done what Harry Houdini could have only dreamed: They've made an 105-story building, the largest of anything around, completely disappear. Presto!

"Kim Il Sung had this enormous crater or growth on the left side of his neck. It was enormous," Chinoy said.

"It was never photographed, and on occasions when I met him and we were allowed to shoot, we always had to be positioned in such a way. … It was something you couldn't mention. It's just another one of these oddities of which there are so many in North Korea," Chinoy said.