While North Korea’s second launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile dominated headlines late last week, Pyongyang quietly unveiled renovations around the capital’s biggest landmark: a futuristic, pyramid-shaped 105-story hotel, the world’s tallest unoccupied building. After decades of embarrassing delays and rumors that the building may not even be structurally sound, could this be Kim Jong Un’s next pet project? If nothing else, it at least has a new propaganda sign: “Rocket Power Nation.” Walls set up to keep people out of a construction area around the gargantuan Ryugyong Hotel were pulled down as the North marked the anniversary of the Korean War armistice. Revealed were two broad new walkways leading to the building and the big red propaganda sign declaring that North Korea is a leading rocket power. That, of course, is Kim’s other pet project.
The day after Thursday’s anniversary, North Korea test-launched its second ICBM, which experts believe demonstrated that the North’s weapons can now theoretically reach most of the United States. For more than a week leading up to the anniversary, a major holiday in North Korea, “soldier-builders” at the site in central Pyongyang were clearly visible behind the walls, along with heavy equipment for digging and brightly colored propaganda billboards that are a staple at North Korean construction sites, intended to boost morale. Rumors, almost always unfounded, of plans to once and for all finish the hotel project are something of a parlor game among Pyongyang watchers. And it remains to be seen if the current work on the Ryugyong is intended to be a step toward actually finishing the long-stalled project or, more likely, an effort to make better use of the land around it. But it’s not surprising that work to do something with the idle landmark would begin.
Pyongyang has been undergoing massive redevelopment since Kim assumed power when his father died in late 2011. At Kim’s orders, several major high-rise areas have been completed, including one with a 70-story residence and dozens of other tall buildings in the capital’s “Ryomyong,” or “dawn,” district in April. Pyongyang also has a new international airport, a massive sci-tech complex with a main building shaped like a giant atom, and many other recreational and educational facilities. How Kim can afford to pay for the apparent construction boom and his significantly accelerated testing of multi million-dollar missiles is a mystery, but has led many sanctions advocates to point the finger at China, by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner, for not doing enough to turn the economic screws on its neighbor.
From a distance, the glassy, greenish-blue Ryugyong looks like it’s ready for business. But it is believed to be far from complete inside and possibly even structurally unsound. Work on the building started in 1987 while Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and “eternal president,” was still alive. It was supposed to open in 1989 and would have been the world’s tallest hotel surpassing another in Singapore that was built by a South Korean company. But a severe economic crash and famines in the 1990s left North Korea in no position to pump funds into the hotel’s construction, and it stayed little more than an embarrassing concrete shell for well over a decade before Egypt’s Orascom Group which was also key in establishing the North’s cellphone system helped pay for work to complete the building’s shiny exterior in 2011. Questions remain about whether it is structurally sound enough to ever operate as a hotel or office building. Officials have offered no information regarding their plans for its future.