The Cursed Hotel That’s Never Had A Single GuestPlaces
Let's find out about the Ryugyong, the 3000 room hotel of doom that's never had any guests!
Jutting out of a cold, dank city fog, a massive triangular monolith erupts from the skyline. The city of boxy, concrete apartment blocks below can’t match up to the sheer size of this bizarrely shaped building, which reaches 1,083 ft into the sky. Despite its foreboding appearance, it’s actually a hotel that’s a little taller than France’s Eiffel Tower, or New York’s Chrysler Building.
With 3.9 million square feet of useable floor space and 3000 rooms, it’s big enough to rival some of the largest hotels in the world! It was even designed to include casinos and nightclubs, so you’d think it’d be bustling with life! But despite its shiny façade, this hotel of doom has never welcomed a single guest, and has actually laid empty for almost 30 years! With all that information, can you guess where this incredibly creepy hotel is?
Maybe a forgotten city in Russia? Perhaps China? That would make sense, being the superpowers that they are. But no, this hotel is actually in one of the most repressive countries on earth… North Korea! Yep, this is the Ryugyong Hotel, found in the country’s capital city of Pyongyang!
For those who don’t know, North Korea – officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK – is ruled by the socialist dictatorship of the Kim family. Since 1948, three generations of the Kim bloodline have ruled the country with absolute authority, with its military-first policies and oppressive regime making it many enemies around the world.
For these reasons, North Korea doesn’t have the best trading or tourism relationships with other countries, so they only receive about 300,000 foreign visitors a year. It may sound like a lot, but compared to South Korea’s 17.5 million, it’s hardly a drop in the ocean. So, why would they ever need a 3,000-room hotel? To understand that, we need to hop in our time machine and rewind all the way back to 1986.
Picture yourself in 1986! The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was still raging, and this extended over to Korea. The North backed the Soviets, but the South backed the US, making them less-than-friendly neighbours. But this war was fought with perceived strength rather than battles, and South Korea wasn’t afraid to show off.
In 1986, a South Korean firm backed the construction of The Stamford hotel in Singapore; the tallest hotel in the world at the time. The South was also getting ready to host the 1988 Olympics, which was a huge democratic middle-finger to North Korea.
But instead of getting mad, North Korea decided to get even. They organised the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students, which was a kind of Socialist version of the Olympics. To accommodate the 22,000 participants, Pyongyang’s airport was extended, they built a brand-new 150,000 seat stadium, and began construction of the 3,000-room Ryugyong hotel!
At 105-storeys high, it’d steal the title of tallest hotel away from the South and put North Korea on the map! Furthermore, there are only 21 buildings in the world today boasting more than 100 floors – so this was a serious show of strength for the time!
It was a big task though, because North Korea didn’t have access to a lot of advanced construction materials such as steel. So, they’d have to make do with what they had plenty of: concrete! But without enough steel reinforcement, concrete isn’t structurally sound enough to make massive skyscrapers. Which is why it was designed as a set of three wings, each inclined by 75 degrees, that rose from a wide base to a tapered top.
They’d converge at the top 15 floors, which would house world-class restaurants – one of which would revolve – along with several observation decks. If all went well, this was going to be the jewel in North Korea’s architectural crown! But that would turn out to be one really big “if”.
Construction began in 1987, but when the festival happened in 1989, the hotel was nowhere near finished. They claimed engineering issues had set the project back, but that it would open in 1992 to celebrate the supreme leader Kim Il-Sung’s 80th birthday instead. However, in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and by 1992 North Korea’s economy had tanked.
The project was halted due to a lack of funds, leaving an unfinished ugly concrete pyramid haunting Pyongyang’s skyline – not exactly the birthday gift Kim Il-Sung was hoping for. To make matters worse, Japanese papers revealed the building had cost North Korea a staggering $750 million to build – at the time this was a whopping 2% of their GDP!
Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. It was as if the project was cursed! And like any good curse, it was going to last for quite a while. For 16 years, the uncompleted structure remained with no windows, fixtures, or fittings.
Even the rusty-old construction crane stuck at its peak became too corroded to use! They could have demolished the structure, but that would have shown the rest of the world that they didn’t have the finances or power to finish what they’d started.
So, with demolition off the table, they had no choice but to leave the newly nicknamed ‘Hotel of Doom’ alone. But the government was so embarrassed by the unfinished landmark, that there were reports of officials airbrushing it out of the skyline in photos!
It wasn’t completely abandoned though – large celebrations saw the structure used as part of some impressive firework displays… but still, if you’re going to spend 2% of your country’s entire GDP on something, do you really want it to be a glorified roman candle?
But then, in 2008 – under the reign of Kim Jong-Il – construction started again. The North Korean government had made an investment deal with Egyptian company Orascom, who were also paid to provide the country with a 3G network. They laughed in the face of the curse claims, and struck a deal worth $400 million, $180 million of which would go towards finishing the hotel. And, let’s be fair, there’s no one better at building pyramids than the Egyptians!
However, back in the 1990s, a visiting member of the European Chamber of Commerce who’d been granted access to the construction site claimed that it was in an irreparable state! The masonry was crumbling, the elevator shafts were crooked, and the construction materials used were substandard, at best.
Nevertheless, the brand-new opening date of the Ryugyong was announced for 2012 – just in time to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s eternal reign. It looked like the curse was finally lifting!
By 2011, the exterior was finally complete! Glass panels were installed on the outside giving it a super modern and sleek appearance. But bizarrely, the inside was nowhere near finished. In 2012, the year of its supposed opening, a group of tourists were granted a one-time visit into the heart of the hotel. If they were expecting the inside to match the outside, then they would have been sorely disappointed.
Vast expanses made of hard, cold concrete greeted them from every angle, without any furnishings, fittings, or furniture. It wasn’t even hooked up to the main power grid! At least the view from the top didn’t disappoint! Even so, it was clear it would take a miracle for the Ryugyong to open by the end of the year.
In late 2012, German luxury hotel group Kempinski surprisingly announced that the Ryugyong would partially open under its management in mid-2013. This would be a little late to celebrate that all-important 100th anniversary, but by this point, I bet the North Korean government just wanted to get this thing finished. However, the curse struck again a few months later when, without warning, Kempinski pulled out of the deal.
The brand-new supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un, had been conducting a lot of threatening nuclear tests, which lead to hefty sanctions of luxury import items being placed on North Korea. For Kempinski, being unable to get luxury items into their luxury hotel put a huge dampener on this big deal, and so they quickly and quietly walked away. There were also rumours that Kempinski didn’t trust the hotel’s structural integrity, which would turn out to be with good reason.
In 2014, a 23-floor apartment building in Pyongyang suddenly collapsed, with around 92 families believed to have tragically perished in the accident. The state media reported that construction had “not been done properly” – not exactly what anyone looking to invest in a hotel in the area would want to hear! So, with Kim’s nuclear manoeuvre and Pyongyang’s construction crisis scaring away the foreign investors, the hotel remained untouched for a further 3 years.
By 2017, 30 years after construction first started on this economy-breaking hotel, it still wasn’t open. A brief flurry of activity was seen in 2016, with several rooms at the very top spotted with lights on, but the Hotel of Doom remained shut. Many doubted it would ever open its doors, while others wondered if it was secretly being converted into something else – like an evil lair or maybe a huge indoor waterpark! Well, whatever they thought, it still closed.
But then, one night in 2018, the very top of the hotel suddenly burst into colour! Like a bright red beacon in the darkness, the North Korean flag was beaming from the hotel’s pyramid top. A few months later, the entire front face of the Ryugyong also started to light up at night with a variety of images and short, repeating videos. This soon became a huge, beaming propaganda machine in the evenings, displaying a looping four-minute program with a variety of political slogans, while the cone at the top projected a huge North Korean flag.
Apparently, it still lights up every evening between 7 pm and 10 pm. But out in the dark like that, it kind of resembles the ever-watchful eye of Sauron. As if North Korea wasn’t like Mordor enough already! I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a couple of hobbits nearby asking for directions to the nearest volcano!
But hang on, where exactly did this giant light display come from? It turns out that a huge light wall, made up of more than 100,000 LEDs, had been covertly installed and financed by Orascom.
Now, you might be wondering “Why, on two occasions, has Orascom offered to help build a hotel when they’re deal was mainly for 3G network coverage?”. Well, if you take a close look at the Ryugyong, it turns out the top of the hotel has some sort of signal tower, which I’m willing to guess belongs to Orascom!
While some elements of the deal were kept private, they did reveal that they’d invested even more money into the hotel, which will apparently be repaid when it becomes operational. Although the “when” part of that poses a bit of a problem, because the government hasn’t put an opening day for the hotel in their calendars.
In 2019, a new sign was optimistically posted above the main entrance, but since then the doors have remained firmly shut. So, instead of stealing the crown of the World’s Tallest Hotel from South Korea, as it was intended to all those years ago, it’s now listed as the world’s largest unoccupied building in the Guinness World Records. Or, should that be, Kim Jong-Unoccupied? Sorry about that.
However, wouldn’t covering a hotel in lights so bright that they can be seen across a city be really distracting to any future guests staying in those rooms? Also, wouldn’t the money they spent on the fancy light wall have been better spent completing the inside of the building?
Overall, it really doesn’t seem like the government has any plans to open this as a functioning hotel, despite the sign over the door! Maybe they realised the interior decoration costs would be way too expensive, especially considering how few visitors the country actually gets on a yearly basis – and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic!
Furthermore, there’s actually a dark undercurrent we haven’t explored about the Ryugyong yet: its price tag. Now, that $750 million figure may not seem like much considering skyscrapers like London’s Shard and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa cost around $1.5 billion to build each. But the thing is, most citizens of North Korea live in abject poverty.
Recent reports suggest that citizens of this harsh regime earn just 4% of the average South Korean’s income; that’s a little over $99 a month. Even though the country’s economic growth rate is improving, experts believe that the average North Korean's income is dwindling. This is because the rulers of the hermit kingdom are more focused on spending money on things such as the military, nuclear weaponry, and weirdly ostentatious infrastructure.
This boosts their perceived power and dominance to the outside world at the cost of their people. But what if the US turned around and claimed it wanted to spend 2% of its GDP on a hotel? There would be serious outrage. Now, granted, America’s GDP is significantly higher than North Korea’s at approximately $21 trillion, but 2% of that is $420 billion.
For that, they could build the World One Centre 1335 times over – they could probably turn all of Central Park into one huge skyscraper! It would certainly send a message to the rest of the world, but I don’t think the citizens of the US would be too happy about it – especially if it remained totally empty afterwards! What a waste of money and space!
Ok, that aside – if you were to ever visit North Korea, what would a hotel stay in the least welcoming country in the world actually look like? Well, there are about 8 functioning hotels in Pyongyang, and they’re all quite eerily similar. The décor is reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s, the dining rooms are huge and mostly vacant, the stairwells and hallways are dark and power cuts are frequent – they hardly sound inviting!
But the strangest thing by far is the little enigma machines built into the bedside tables. Maybe they’re part of the phone system or a radio? What do you think they are? I’ll take your best guess because I don’t think I’ll ever be brave enough to visit and find out!