Infamously ugly and unfinished, the shell of the Ryugyong Hotel dominates North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. But work on the skyscraper began again last summer after a 16-year hiatus, and as the company behind it tells the BBC’s Matthew Davis, an end may finally be in sight.
A three-sided pyramid with walls that jag upwards at 75 degrees, capped by a series of concentric rings, the Ryugyong Hotel was described by one magazine simply as “the worst building in the history of mankind”.
Other names that have stuck down the years include: “The Hotel of Doom” and “The Phantom Hotel” - references to the fact that for the best part of two decades, all work on the 105-storey skyscraper was halted as North Korea’s economy nosedived.
Conceived as a grandiose projection of emerging wealth, the hotel instead became a symbol of North Korea’s hubris and of the self-isolated state’s failing financial system.
• 330m (1,083ft) high, 105 floors
• Construction started 1987, halted from 1993-2008
• External works forecast to take until end of 2010
• Internal works, 2012 or beyond
Work began in 1987 and continued for six years until funding ran out.
Economic mismanagement and natural disasters had left the country with huge food shortages and a moribund economy, and for the next 16 years, completing the Ryugyong - literally ‘Capital of Willows’ - became a low priority.
For all that time, a rusting crane on the tip of the unfinished building was a reminder of the totalitarian state’s thwarted ambition.
Once, mocked-up images of a finished Ryugyong appeared on national stamps, yet it was now being airbrushed from official photographs.
But to the amazement of North Korea-watchers - and presumably to Pyongyang’s three million-strong populace, the massive project stirred back to life in mid-2008, as the most visible manifestation of a city-wide “beautification scheme”.
‘Rumours flying around’
In the past year, workers have been busy at theatres, hotels and apartment blocks across the capital. Tram lines have been ripped up and replaced, the facades of buildings torn down and reconstructed.
At the Ryugyong itself, an army of labourers has been fixing gleaming glass panels, covering the grey concrete on two sides of the skyscraper and the rings that crown it.
“There has been a very visible increase in building work all over the city, and at the Ryugyong especially,” says Simon Cockerell, of Koryo Tours, a firm specializing in taking tourists to North Korea.
“The hotel is a source of fascination for everyone who comes here. You can’t actually visit it - but there are a lot of rumours flying around town about it.”
The urgency of the construction work stems from the fast-approaching date of 15 April, 2012 - the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s “Eternal President” and father of current leader Kim Jong-Il, who led the nation from its founding in 1948 until his death in 1994.
The authorities want Pyongyang to look like a modern, thrusting capital city, even if the superficial improvements are only a mask. While North Korean officials have spoken of a “need to modernize” - the country is still as isolated and impoverished as ever.
‘A great symbol’
The company charged with finishing the Ryugyong is Orascom Telecom, part of an Egyptian conglomerate that took on the rebuilding work - “in partnership with a local firm” - as part of a $400m deal to build and run a 3G mobile phone network in North Korea.
Dozens of Egyptian engineers and some 2,000 local workers are working on the Ryugyong project, which Orascom’s chief operating officer, Khaled Bichara, tells the BBC is “progressing well”, despite reported problems with suspect concrete and misaligned lift shafts.
“There have been no issues that have caused us too much trouble,” Mr Bichara says. “Most of the work at the moment is coverage of different areas of the building. The first job is to finish the outside - you can’t work on the insides until the outside is covered.
“You can see that we have already completed the top of the building where the revolving restaurants will be. After 2010, that’s when it will be fully safe to start building from the inside.”
How the building will be divided up is “not yet finalized” the company says, but it will be a mixture of hotel accommodation, apartments and business facilities. Antennae and equipment for Orascom’s mobile network will nestle at the very top.
Mr Bichara denies reports that the company’s exclusive access to North Korea’s fledgling telecoms market is directly linked to the completion of the hotel.
But he says the job is a way of planting a rather tall flag in the ground. “We haven’t been given a deadline, we are not tied into doing it by a certain time,” he said.
“But when you work in a market like this, where we cannot sponsor things, a project of this kind is good to do - it’s word of mouth advertising for us, it builds good rapport with the people - on its own it’s a great symbol, one which cements our investment.”
Orascom specializes in emerging markets - it has 79 million mobile subscribers across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia - but is clearly playing a long game in North Korea.
Mobile phones cost several time the average monthly wage of about $100 and are by default restricted to a wealthy elite - notwithstanding any other restrictions the state chooses to impose.
Just 48,000 have so far signed up to Orascom’s Koryolink network.
North Korea’s command economy and policy of isolation make international trade difficult, so whether there will ever be enough tourists and enough business to make the Ryugyong Hotel viable is also open to question.
Some analysts believe that within 10 years, the country may experience enough political and economic reform to allow it take advantage of the vibrant economies that surround it - China, South Korea, and nearby Japan.
But whether it stands incomplete, as a shell covered by a gleaming facade, or bustling with commerce, the domineering ‘Hotel of Doom’ is certain to remain a potent symbol of North Korea’s fate for many years to come.