Archive | March, 2010
March 9, 2010

North Korea: The Ryugyong Hotel

Ryugyong Hotel, September 2009. Older photos (pre-glass paneling) can be found here.

In the center of Pyongyang stands the Ryugyong Hotel, a bizarre, incomplete pyramidal structure that has often been deemed the “hotel of doom” and “ugliest building on earth.”

Construction on the 105 story hotel first began in 1987. Because everything is bigger in the DPRK, it was to be the tallest hotel in the world. The Ryugyong was scheduled to open in time for the World Festival of Youth and Students that was being held in Pyyongyang in the summer of 1989, but the opening was delayed due to various construction-related problems. Construction was finally halted in 1992 due to a lack of funds, and the 3,000 hotel rooms and five revolving restaurants remain devoid of guests. The shell of the Ryugyong is the persistent eyesore of the Pyongyang skyline, and for several years the North Koreans denied its existence and airbrushed it out of official photographs.

However, construction on the Ryugyong restarted in April 2008 after a deal was struck with Orascom Telecom, an Egyptian company that won the rights to develop a cell phone network in North Korea. Completion of the hotel is now set for 2012, when North Korea will be celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birth. I am still puzzled, however, as to why they need an additional 3,000 hotel rooms when they can’t even fill the 1,000 room Yanggakdo Hotel.

Since abandoned buildings and ruins are an endless source of fascination for me, I took quite a few photos of the Ryugyong Hotel while I was in Pyongyang. I really wish I knew how to shoot decent night shots, because the best view of the Ryugyong was during our final night in North Korea. After a long night of karaoke and gambling in the basement casino, I stumbled back to my room at 3am. Off in the distance, a powerful storm was heading towards Pyongyang. I opened my window and just started out into the darkness for 20 minutes as the storm came closer. It was one of the most intense storms I’ve ever experienced – the thunder was deafening, the rain was coming down hard, and every few seconds flashes of lightning would illuminate the pitch black city, bathing the Ryugyong Hotel in a soft, purple glow. It literally looked like a scene from a horror film.

A lovely view of the Ryugyong from my hotel window.

Early morning fog

Early evening view of the skyline

Yeah, it kinda sticks out.

This is the closest we came to the Ryugyong, when we visited the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum.

March 9, 2010

North Korea: Mangyongdae Native House

Our next stop on the “the Eternal Sun of Mankind” tour was the Mangyongdae Native House, where Kim Il-Sung was supposedly born and raised. While this small, simple cottage was of little interest to the majority of our tour group, the North Koreans who flock to it consider it a holy site. It is, after all, the cradle of the revolution:

This traditional scenic wonder leapt to potentially foremost significance in the national consciousness on April 15, 1912 when President Kim Il Sung was born at a plain thatched-roof cottage here, against a backdrop of Korea’s national disaster in the colonial thrall of Japan.

He came of a generations-old patriotic and revolutionary family and spent his childhood under the revolutionary influence of his parents, witnessing the society riddled with contradictions. He nurtured his ambition to liberate the country and establish a society geared to the well-being of the people.

He left his old home at 13 and waged a heroic anti-Japanese war that culminated in national liberation and a people-oriented country. He rendered feats unparalleled in history, as the leader of the Korean people and a veteran statesman of the world.

“Then they entered the yard of President Kim Il Sung’s old home in Mangyongdae where they were briefed on the fact that born in a patriotic and revolutionary family for several generations, he grew up to be a great revolutionary, nurturing ardent patriotism and the noble idea of believing in people as in Heaven. They looked round with deep emotion the relics preserved with good care at the historical house.”KCNA

Kimchi pots

“They looked round with deep attention historic relics impregnated with the personal odor of members of the revolutionary family in Mangyongdae and posed for souvenir photographs in front of the old home before inspecting revolutionary relics on Mangyong Hill.”KCNA

Our tour guide led us to the well from which the Kim family drew their water. We were told that drinking water from the well would make us “a great person, like President Kim Il-Sung.” There were a couple of dirty plastic cups sitting by the well for visitors to use, but I instead opted to use my hands.

Here it is, the moment when I turned great (or started down the path of becoming a dictator).

The location where young Kim would think and read

Pavilion at the top of the hill

Views of Pyongyang

This is where Kim would wrestle with his friends. Our cameraman and American guide demonstrate.

More Kim.

More photos here.

March 8, 2010

North Korea: The streets of Pyongyang, Part II

More random shots.

Kim Il-Sung Stadium. Capacity 50,000. Used mainly for soccer games.

“Monument of Triumphal Speech” mural near the Arch of Triumph.

Rush hour in Pyongyang

Kaeson “Triumphant Return” Metro station

Another shot of the Ryugyong Hotel (just couldn’t get enough of it).

Kaeson Cinema

March 5, 2010

North Korea: The streets of Pyongyang

A few random shots here and there.

Ubiquitous propaganda

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Another Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Building on Kim Il-Sung Square

Kim Il-Sung Square. Tower of Juche Idea in the background.

Building on Kim Il-Sung Square

School children

Flags and decorations

Pyongyang TV Tower

Near the Arch of Triumph. The weird building in the background is the Ryugyong Hotel.

March 2, 2010

North Korea: Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, Part II

In case my explanation was insufficient, below is the footage of our trip to the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery from the North Korean tourism DVD. It includes the usual laying of flowers, bowing, etc.

March 2, 2010

North Korea: Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery

Located on Mt. Taesong, just a short drive from the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, is the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, the final resting place of Koreans who died fighting the Japanese during their occupation of the Korean peninsula.

As with our visit to Mansudae, our group was asked to purchase several bouquets of flowers to lay at the base of the statues.

I was “dressed up” because we visited the cemetery after the Kumsusan Memorial Palace.

The center bust, and the one with the most flowers, is that of Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung’s first wife and Kim Jong-il’s mother.

View of the Rungrado May Day Stadium and Ryugyong Hotel.

More photos here.

March 1, 2010

North Korea: Shopping at the Paradise Department Store, aka the Super Walmart of Pyongyang

Imagine you’re a high-ranking North Korean bureaucrat living in Pyongyang, have a few thousand euros burning a hole in your pocket, and need to purchase a 36” flat screen TV, leather couch, cigarettes, and tortilla chips. Where do you go? The Paradise Department Store, obviously. Stocked full of electronics, clothing, and groceries, it’s the closest thing to Super Walmart you’ll encounter in Pyongyang.

Store entrance

When we arrived at the Paradise Department Store it was devoid of customers, save for two North Korean men wandering the various floors scoping out the available merchandise. This department store is in no way representative of stores throughout North Korea, as the shelves are stocked full of foreign goods that are rarely found outside Pyongyang. It’s a hard currency (i.e., euro) store, so the customers tend to be foreign diplomats, aid-workers, the North Korean nomenklatura, and tourists such as ourselves. You will not encounter a typical North Korean citizen here. We, of course, weren’t in the market for TVs or washing machines, but had been dropped off at the department store so we could stock up on snacks for the long drive south to the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Since I had arrived in Pyongyang loaded down with bags of trail mix and Snickers bars, I didn’t need any snacks, so headed straight towards the liquor aisle to pick up a few bottles of soju to take back to the US. As soon as I grabbed a bottle off the shelf, a clerk took a shopping cart, rushed over to me, placed the bottle in the cart, and then proceeded to follow me around the store. My next stop was the cigarette counter. I’m not a smoker, but our guide mentioned that it was a good idea to bring packs of cigarettes to hand out to the North Korean soldiers serving at the DMZ, so I picked up a few cartons for that purpose. In the display case, there was a cheap looking pack of cigarettes emblazoned with Korean writing and a red flag. I thought it would make a good souvenir, so asked one of the clerks for a pack. She shook her head. “These are no good.”

“Oh, that’s fine. I just want one pack.”

Faced with a dumb U.S. Imperialist who obviously wasn’t comprehending the inferiority of this particular cigarette brand, the clerk called over another clerk with a stronger command of the English language.


“Hi.” I pointed at the pack of cigarettes. “I just want one pack of these.”

The new clerk shook her head. “These are not good cigarettes.”

“That’s OK, I’m not going to smoke them. I just want them as a souvenir.”

“These are not good.” She motioned to another pack of cigarettes. “These are much better quality.”

“Well, uh, I don’t intend to smoke them, I was just going to…”

“You do not want to buy these cigarettes,” she replied sternly. “They are expired.”

I wanted to say, “Look, dudes, you’re going about this the wrong way. I’m supposed to pick an inferior product, and you are supposed to gladly accept my money.” But I was defeated. No matter how long I argued with them, they would not let me buy this pack of cigarettes. This was my crash course in North Korean style capitalism, where the customer was always wrong.

(I did eventually find and purchase a pack of those cigarettes at one of our hotel’s gift shops. The clerk didn’t even try and sell me on a different brand.)

The payment system at the Paradise Department Store is very similar to what existed in many Soviet-era stores (and, to some extent, still exists in stores throughout the former Soviet republics). With my personal shopping assistant in tow, I approached the register (or what I assumed to be the register, anyways). They calculated the total cost of my purchases and handed me a piece of paper with the amount due. I handed over a euro bill (American Express is definitely not accepted here) but they just shook their heads and pointed to a cashier booth in the opposite corner of the store. I paid the cashier, collected my receipt, and returned to the non-register, where the clerks bagged my items and then handed them over to me after ensuring I had paid for my purchases. A very efficient system, indeed.

Below are some of the goods for sale at the Paradise Department Store:

March 1, 2010

North Korea: Monument to the Foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party

After visiting the Tower of Juche Idea, we headed over to another monument commemorating the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). The WPK is the ruling party of North Korea and is headed by its General Secretary, Kim Jong-il. This particular monument was erected in 1995 to commemorate the WPK’s iron-fisted rule over North Korea for 50 long years. More on the monument from KCNA:

The grand monument consummates the great feats of the WPK which has created a world-famous model for the accomplishment of the socialist cause and paved a new path for the founding of the revolutionary party in the Juche era over last 60-odd years.

The monument consists of the 50m-towers which depict a hammer, sickle and writing-brush held by the worker, peasant and intellectual symbolic of the components of the WPK, a circular band on which the slogan “Long live the Workers’ Party of Korea which organizes and guides all victories for the Korean people!” is embossed and the foundation which means the long history of the Party. It is an edifice of the times which combines well the originality of the structure with the architectural art.

Carved in relief in the inside of the circular band are three large sculptures showing the historical root of the WPK, the might of the single-minded unity of the leader, party and masses and the fighting feature of the Korean people to carry out the human cause of independence.

The monument will shine long as a symbol of the glorious Workers’ Party of Korea.


When we arrived at the monument, a mass dance had just ended and groups of North Koreans were sitting in groups waiting to be dismissed by their supervisors.

More photos here.