North Korea resumes construction on world’s most hideous hotel

North Korea

North Korea is the hermit kingdom; a strange land of mass games and dear leaders trapped in a 1950’s communist time warp. While they may not have modern supermarkets or PlayStation 3, North Korea does have one of the tallest hotels in the world, and it looms high above Pyongyang like a tribute to the ill advised whims of dear leader Kim Jong Il.

According to USA Today, The pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel began construction in the late nineteen-eighties and was spearheaded by Orascom – an Egyptian architectural firm. Construction of the abominable structure was halted after the fall of the Soviet Union. Without Soviet subsidies, North Korea could not afford the expensive project. Today, the 105 story building is again under construction and may cost as much as two billion U.S. dollars to complete, or 5% to 10% of estimated North Korean G.D.P. Relative to American G.D.P. terms, it would be like the United States sinking over a trillion dollars into a hotel project.North Korea The windowless and hollow structure stood vacant for decades, just towering above the city. It is a metaphorical monument to a country plagued by its own agitprop claims of supremacy and the central lunacy that drives this madness further. The North Koreans even spent years denying the structure’s existence, removing it from photographs and excluding it from maps of Pyongyang. Too much shame, it seems, in the very obvious failure.

When completed, the Ryugyong Hotel will have 3000 rooms and roughly 3.9 million square feet. The original plan entailed three wings rising at 75 degree angles capped by several revolving restaurants and an observation deck at the hotel’s pinnacle. For a country that just opened its first burger spot last year, it is very ambitious stuff.

Many architects in the international community are questioning the suitability of the project. Bruno Giberti, a professor at California Polytechnic State University’s department of architecture, called it “the worst building in the world.” The European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea deemed the structure irreparable almost fifteen years ago, citing curving elevator shafts. From a humanitarian standpoint, a nation filled with malnourished children could probably make better use of the estimated $2 billion project.

With elevator shafts more crooked than Kim Jong Il’s epic golf game and decades of structural decay, the “ghostscraper” faces a long road to accepting its first guests. North Korea plans to open the hotel to coincide with the posthumous 100 year birthday of Eternal President Kim Il Sung in late 2012.

flickr images via John Pavelka

Pyongyang burger joint opens to wide popularity

Pyongyang has its first hamburger joint, and the locals who can afford it are flocking to the place. With a name rooted firmly in propaganda – not exactly surprising – the restaurant serves distinctly American fare, though I doubt there’s a disclaimer on the menu.

Samtaesung, the name of the fast-food spot, translates to “Three Huge Stars,” an obvious reference to current leader Kim Jong-il, his father Kim Il-sung and the first dictator’s first wife, Kim Jong-suk.

Like the cuisine – and unlike the name – there is a distinctly capitalist flavor to this undertaking. The profits, such a loathsome term in a Communist regime, are going right to Kim Kyong-hui, the Dear Leader’s younger sister. The Korea Times reports:

“Samtaesung (Food) and Cool Beverages is Kim Kyong Hui’s personal operation. It is run by Light Industry Vice Minister and member of Kim Kyong Hui’s inner circle Kim Kyeong Oak, who is in charge of all operations of the hamburger joint, from management to overseas fund transfers,” the official said.

To pick up a burger at Pyongyang‘s Samtaesung, the crowds have made reservations necessary; you have to place your order a day in advance to grab some grub between 6 AM and 11 PM. You can’t make a reservation after 1 PM, because of the long lines that still pressure the 24-hour stand. In a further nod to the regime’s pride, North Korea has not adopted the word “hamburger,” as its neighbor’s to the south have. Rather, they call it “minced meat and bread, reports the Korea Times. Waffles, also on the menu, carry the appellation “baked dough.” Most people do use the term “hamburger,” though.

A burger will set you back around $2 at Samtaesung, making it an unattainable luxury to the average North Korean citizen. The fact that you can make your purchase in U.S. dollars, euros or Chinese yuan – in addition to North Korean won – further indicates the exclusive nature of this establishment.

Curiosity brought the traffic initially, but the locals have developed a taste or “minced meat and bread.” According to the Korea Times, “The third time you eat a hamburger, you really get to appreciate it. By the time you’ve had your fifth, you’re already addicted to the taste,” he said.

North Korean art show focuses on the familiar

A new fine art exhibition kicked off in Pyongyang last week, and according to the Korea Central News Agency, it’s a must-see. If you’re down with the “anti-Japanese struggle,” I suspect you’ll be right at home at the Pyongyang International Cultural Center.

There are “at least 60 fine art works” on display, among them pieces created by Pyongyang-area artists during the “period of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle.” At the top of the list are paintings with the catchy titles “Return Blood for Blood and Oppose Arms with Arms” and “Arirang on Jiansanfeng,” They highlight the efforts of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, and his first wife, the Dear Leader’s mother, Kim Jong Suk. Both, according to the country’s official view of the past.

And, you won’t want to miss “You Should Conduct Combat Training under the Simulated Condition of Real Battle,” which addresses “the commanding trait of General Secretary Kim Jong Il who has strengthened the Korean People’s Army into the invincible revolutionary armed forces.” No exhibition, of course, would be complete without a Kim Jong-il painting!

The KCNA continues:

Among the works on display are Korean painting “Grievance on the Shore of Lake Pujon”, oil painting “Echo in Ulsa Year (1905)”, woodcut “Sea of Blood in Northern Jiandao” and poster “Brigandish Japanese Imperialists Who Forced Koreans to Change Their Names to Japanese Ones!”, which expose the hair-raising atrocities committed by the Japanese imperialists.

Was the Thursday opening well-attended? This is the best we’ll get: “Officials concerned, artists and working people in the city went round the fine art works on display.”

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]

World Cup hangover: North Korea team grilled


The North Korean World Cup soccer team never had a chance in South Africa, but that didn’t make the trip home any easier. At the beginning of July, they faced a “grand debate” because they let down the regime in the “ideological struggle” to put the ball into the net a lot during the tournament. More than 400 government officials, students and journalists watched the spectacle, though I have this sneaking suspicion that none really enjoyed it.

Responsibility for the loss fell to the coach, and the team members were allegedly compelled to point their blame in his direction. He was punished for having betrayed Kim Jong-sun, Kim Jong-il‘s son and rumoured next top dog of North Korea. The coach was fired and reportedly made to become a builder – he was also tossed from the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Apparently, just getting to the World Cup for the first time since 1966 wasn’t good enough, and I’m guessing that the next coach will take note of this.

It could have been a lot worse, though. Past coaches who didn’t measure up were sent to prison camps, according to South Korean intelligence sources.

Meanwhile, travel plans made the difference for two of the team’s players. Jong Tae-se and An Yong-hak, both born in Japan, were able to avoid the humiliating public display by dashing off directly to Japan following the World Cup tournament. If they had middle seats the whole way, I’m sure they weren’t complaining.

Five Unique Ways to Visit North Korea in 2011

You’ve listened to enough friends and co-workers drone on and on about the boring, conventional vacations they take. In the pre-social media days, these people would have bored you to death with slide show and photo albums. Now, they just clutter your Facebook news feed. Want revenge? Take the most unusual vacation imaginable, and they’ll forever be embarrassed to waste your time with worn out tales of roller coasters and walking tours.

The answer to your problem is easy: North Korea.

I just heard from Koryo Tours that there are three great tours in the works for this year, each a cure for the common vacation. Even if you’ve been to this reclusive country in the past, there are some new opportunities that are bound to blow your mind.

1. Hang out in Hamhung: this is North Korea’s answer to Boston. Once you’ve been to the big city (Pyongyang), explore its smaller cousin. The east coast city hasn’t seen a whole lot of westerners. Most of the non-locals who have passed through were East Germans (I know, that’s not even a thing any more) who were involved in rebuilding the region after the country’s 1945 “Liberation from Japan.” Last May, Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours became the first tourist to put leather on the ground in Hamhung since North Korea became a country. Now, the way is paved for you! Local attractions include the Hamhung Grand Theatre and the Hamhung fertilizer factory (where Kim Il Sung once imparted some wisdom!).

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2. Make merry at Outer Mount Kumgang: Also an east coast destination in North Korea, Outer Kumgang is home to a Hyundai-run resort and is now open to access via North Korea for the first time since the 2008 incident when a soldier shot a tourist there (ouch!). It’s a great place for hiking, and Samil Lagoon is apparently not to be missed.

3. Rock Rason: Koryo Tours is now offering independent tours of the Rason area of North Korea, making it the only western travel company ever to do so. This is a rare treat and a chance to see something beyond Pyongyang if you’re an old pro at North Korean travel.

4. Take on the Tuman Triangle:
visit China, Russia and North Korea in one trip, as you explore the area around the river that creates the borders for these three countries. According to Koryo Tours:

The route that our pioneering group of 18 took was a flight to Yanji in NE China’s Jilin province, then to the North Korean free trade zone of Rason (previously known as Rajin-Sonbong, a place where western tourists are almost unheard of but which Koryo tours have been visiting since 1996). We spent 4 days in the area doing a diverse range of activities such as seeing ports and seafood factories, playing beach football against Russian railway engineers, shopping in a public market – the only place this can be done in North Korea – going to the obligatory revolutionary sites, visiting the doctors (!) and local kindergartens, going to a deserted casino, doing a boat trip around the nearby islands, and more!

The last group was the first ever to cross into Russia by train at the town of Khasan, blazing a trail for you to experience what few can only imagine.

5. Sheer stupidity: you could always try to cross the border sans guide, visas and common sense, but that usually doesn’t work out all that well. Your best bet when visiting North Korea is to find a travel company that really specializes in the destination.