The citizens of Pyongyang are used to living in a state of uncertainty. As darkness descends on the capital of revolution, people liaise with their neighbours about the availability of electricity. The city operates on a system of “alternative suspension of electricity supply”, which means that when buildings on one side of the street are blacked out, the other side of the street gets power.
This night, however, the North Koreans are greeted by a curious sight. The massive 105-storey pyramid that looms over the city, has finally been lit up. The Ryugyong Hotel, as it is officially called, had been plunged in darkness, incomplete and under construction for more than 30 years. Today, it’s the backdrop for a massive light show — with more than 100,000 LEDs flashing images of famous statues and monuments, bursts of fireworks, party symbols and political slogans. In a country that struggles to provide electricity for its populace, this type of opulence is not normal.
Believe it or not, Singapore has a part to play in this absurd tale of Cold War politics, economics, ambition and failure.
The days of Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States are coming to an end in the late 1980s. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s new leader, embarks on reforms aimed at making the Soviet economy and society freer. In North Korea, however, little has changed. The country is still run by an autocratic leader, Kim Il-Sung, who is determined to hold on to power.
Juche, a North Korean political ideology, was still the root of all policy making decisions. The school of thought placed a heavy emphasis on Korean ethnic nationalism. It was the belief that the Korean race independently, without the help of outsiders, could achieve amazing feats. Juche was also a variant of Marxist-Leninism, and as such, it strongly rejected capitalism in all its forms.
The World’s Tallest Hotel Opens In Singapore
In 1986, after years of construction, the Westin Stamford (now Swissôtel’s The Stamford) opened to much fanfare. On opening day, the Guinness Book of Records certified that the building was the world’s tallest hotel, rising to a height of 226 metres. It held that title until 1997 when the Baiyoke Tower II was completed in Bangkok.
Soon, the building became a symbol of newly industrialised Singapore — a visual reminder of what a free market and an efficient government could do. Given that it was built by the SsangYong Group, it also showcased the technical competence of the South Koreans.
In other words, the building was a challenge to the North Korean model and their Juche ideology.
They couldn’t let this slide.
The Ryugyong Hotel
A year later, in 1987, North Korea revealed plans for the Ryugyong Hotel. The Ryugyong was allegedly a Cold War response to the completion of the Westin Stamford, sanctioned by the North Korean leadership. At 330 meters, the pyramid shaped building would be more than 100 meters taller than its rival in Singapore. It would have also been the first building outside of New York and Chicago with over 100 floors.
The North Korean regime wanted the hotel to be a springboard for Western investors to step into the marketplace — and they took active steps to ensure this. A firm was created to oversee the construction of the building and attract foreign investment. The government also made concessions and promises to investors — saying that they would be allowed to operate casinos, nightclubs and Japanese lounges.
It also had a very ambitious timeline. While construction started in 1987, the hotel was scheduled to open in June 1989. Just in time for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, which would see about 22,000 young people from 177 countries gather in Pyongyang. Ironically, like the building, the festival itself was a response to South Korea holding the Olympics in 1988.
Hiccups and halt
North Korea’s lack of experience in constructing large buildings soon showed. Multiple problems with building methods and materials delayed its completion, and the initial deadline – which could be best described as wishful thinking – was scrapped.
In 1992, the building reached its full architectural height and towered over Pyongyang’s skyline. Celebrations didn’t last long though. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the resulting loss of Soviet aid, the North Korean economy was in shambles. There was a massive famine which led to the death of somewhere between 240,000 and 3,500,000 citizens, out of a population of 22 million.
Obviously, all work on the monument of decadence had to be stopped. In the decade that followed, the building stood naked and vacant — no windows, fixtures, or fittings. Just a massive concrete shell, that was an omnipresent “reminder of the totalitarian state’s thwarted ambition”.
Being exposed to the elements, there were soon concerns about the building’s structural integrity. In the late 1990s, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea inspected the building and concluded that the structure was irreparable. There were also many rumors about the quality of the building’s concrete and the alignment of its elevator shafts — which were said to be crooked.
The North Korean government soon doctored images and maps to exclude the building, completely ignoring and erasing its existence. Things weren’t looking too good for the building.
In 2008, 20 years after the project was kickstarted, an Egyptian firm, Orascom was tasked with completing the building by 2012, for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung. The firm made significant progress and by July 2011 the exterior facade of the building was finally complete, adorned with glass and steel. The insides of the building were still left bare though, with no fittings or work being done.
However, North Korean nuclear ambitions and the resulting sanctions soon drastically slowed down progress again. A potential deal with Swiss luxury hospitality firm Kempinski was also abandoned because of tensions and the sanctions, which made it harder to invest in North Korea. Since then, there has been minimal activity on the building — with the construction of access roads sparking rumours of another revival.
Maybe the biggest change came in 2018, when the citizens of Pyongyang noticed that a massive LED display had been added to the North face of the pyramid. It now bombards citizens with nationalist and patriotic videos.
While it’s been almost three decades since the Stamford Hotel opened its doors to customers, the Ryugyong still isn’t complete. The building was supposed to be a symbol of North Korean progress, a proof that the Juche model works better than capitalism.
Ironically, the Ryugyong has done anything but. The Stamford is no longer considered a symbol of Singapore – with newer and bigger buildings like the Marina Bay Sands being more widely recognised. On the other hand, the Ryugyong represents the economy that gave rise to it:
Stagnant and in limbo.
Featured Image from NK PRO.
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