It’s one of the most popular attractions in Pyongyang, North Korea, and with a new coat of paint it’s ready to attract more admiring crowds for a brainwashing display of jingoism.
The USS Pueblo is a U.S. Navy spy ship captured by the North Korean Navy in 1968. While on an intelligence gathering mission in the Sea of Japan to check out the activities of North Korea and the Soviet Union, the ship was attacked by several North Korean vessels and two jets. Two of her crew were killed before the captain surrendered. The survivors spent eleven months in prison and were subjected to physical and psychological torture.
Despite this, they were defiant. When posed for propaganda photos they subtly gave the photographer the finger. When the North Koreans discovered what this meant, the torture got worse.
North Korea insisted the ship was in its waters, while the U.S. said it stayed in international waters. The U.S. had to finally admit “fault” in order to get the crew’s release, and then immediately retracted that admission.
Today the USS Pueblo is still in North Korea. It’s been a propaganda piece for some time and is moored next to the Fatherland War of Liberation Museum, where it receives a steady stream of North Korean visitors and a few foreign tours. Now the Japan Times reports it’s been repainted and restored along with the rest of the museum. Presumably the damage caused by North Korean guns was left intact, as that was a star attraction. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over the ribbon cutting ceremony.
North Korea has issued a warning to foreign companies and tourists to leave South Korea in order to avoid harm in the event of a nuclear war, according to USA Today. The message came Tuesday, just after the joint industrial zone, the last cross-border cooperation in the long-divided Korean peninsula, was closed last week.
Fearing drops in tourism numbers, the government officials in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, called a meeting Monday to discuss the escalating situation. The city is located just 118 miles from North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, and is well within range of hundreds – if not thousands – of North Korean artillery and missile units.But in reality, no country has issued alerts or warnings concerning travel to South Korea, and the country’s tourism numbers are up, writes CNN. Last week, the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) announced a record number of visitors for March, with the inbound international tourists numbering more than a million for the first time in history. Although tourism numbers are not yet available for April, Korean Air and several major hotels told the news outlet there has been no noticeable dip in bookings.
“North Korea has a long history of making confrontational rhetoric and empty threats to South Korea, the United States and other nations as well,” Sejoon You, the executive director of KTO’s New York office, said in an announcement to the travel industry. “All the experts in this matter, both international and based in the U.S., agree that there is no real or present danger that North Korea would act on its threats.”
“The real situation in Korea is completely normal, as the daily lives of the Korean people and its visitors remain peaceful, safe and uninterrupted,” You added. “Korea remains a safe, pleasant and beautiful destination to be enjoyed now and later. All hotels, airports, airlines, cities and attractions are operating normally.”
Our own Jonathan Kramer can attest to that. He’s on the ground in South Korea writing “The Kimchi-ite,” and shows no signs of stopping soon.
One of the top stories this past week on CNN, BBC, Fox News, Reuters and so many other major news organizations was that of North Korea‘s plans for a nuclear test. However, in South Korea, no one seems to care. It was certainly not the biggest story for Korean news outlets, sometimes even buried under stories about a coming cold front, the president-elect’s cabinet choices and advice on how not to get your cellphone stolen from a sauna. People often worry about whether or not it is safe to travel to less talked about South Korea because of the psychotic neighbor to the north. The truth is that even with today’s threats, which are only the most recent in a long string of hostility, South Korea remains one of the safest travel destinations in the world. When traveling throughout the country, rarely will there be an instance of theft or physical abuse. But obviously, travelers are not so much worried about pickpockets and scam artists when curious about the Koreas, but instead are much more worried of World War III breaking out.However, many feel safer in Seoul, roughly 30 miles from the North Korean border, than in the United States. And that is taking into consideration that the Korean War technically has not ended and also that the world’s largest artillery force is likely pointed at the capital right this minute. Much of that safety can be attributed to how ill equipped North Korea is and how well allied South Korea is.
I have asked my Korean friends how they feel about the situation and many reply that it is extremely complicated and they are numb to it all. They have grown up with this constant threat of North Korea. Very rarely does a month go by without some sort of threat to South Korea or the world at large. Most feel that these threats are empty and are simply ways for the nation to intimidate other countries into giving them food aide.
There is a feeling of sadness and sympathy for the people of North Korea. Their situation is dire and there is little anyone can do about it. In many ways, South Koreans don’t feel as though North Korea is a neighbor. Even though it is the only country South Korea shares a land border with, there is no real communication or travel between the two nations, making ties to nearby Japan and China stronger.
All of this is not to say that any report of danger in a foreign country is false, but it’s always important to consider a local perspective. The truth is, there are risky and dangerous aspects to almost all facets of travel. Whether it be the threat of attacks from North Korea while checking out a palace in Seoul, an imminent hurricane while at Miami Beach or having your camera stolen from your hotel room.
Be sure to check out all the other Kimchi-ite posts here.
When city plans exceed reality, or the money dries up, or people simply leave in a mass exodus, skyscrapers vacate and slowly decay. High winds thrash through broken windows. Rats live undisturbed amongst decades old rubble. Stairways lead to doors that may never open again. The ghost of ambition’s past arrives in the present like a howling specter, creating eyesores, dangerous conditions, and free housing for opportunistic urban survivalists.
These abandoned skyscrapers range from forsaken structures aborted long before their doors opened to icons from a bygone era. While a slumper like Detroit has its fair share of empty giants, even cities with tiger cub economic growth like Bangkok are not immune to the plague of creepy abandoned high-rises. South America brings vertical favelas to the list, and Poland has a tower named after a pop-culture villain. And even San Francisco, a city with a high recreational scooter to human ratio and droves of individuals who see the world just beyond the tip of their nose, has its very own abandoned skyscraper.
From North Korea to Venezuela, these structures differ in their stories and circumstance, but each is a fine glimpse at post-apocalyptic urban decay.
Michigan Central Station Location: Detroit, USA Stories: 18 floors Story: The Central Station was finished during the advent of the automobile – 1913. The Beaux-Arts style of the classical building recalls a time when Detroit possessed the resources and momentum to rightfully emulate Parisian architecture. Its old school ambition is not lost on current Detroit residents but its function certainly is. It is a doorway into a forgotten world and a poster-boy for urban decay. The graffiti and dilapidation tells the story not just of Detroit’s acrimonious decline but also the abandonment of rail travel in the United States. At its peak during the 1940’s, 200 trains left this station daily. Today, none. While rail travel is receiving some political buzz in Washington, the fate of this gorgeous structure is uncertain. Many have flirted with re-purposing the old building, from the Detroit Police to casino developers, but for the moment it stands quietly on the outskirts of the modern world like an old ornate wrench that fits no bolt. Abandoned since: 1988
Ryugyong Hotel Location: Pyongyang, North Korea Stories: 105 floors Story: This massive pyramidal structure (above, furthest left) is a 105 story symbol for the absurdist ambitions of Kim Jong Il and the hermit kingdom. It has been under construction (on and off) for decades. It has been called the world’s most hideous hotel. It is an unnecessary extravagance in a country that can barely feed its people. The project was abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union due to Soviet subsidies to North Korea coming to an end. The hollow shell stood vacant for decades, just towering above the city – a failure too large to ignore but too painful to acknowledge. The North Koreans 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. Construction on the structure resumed recently with Egyptian architectural firm Orascom leading the project. It is slated for completion in 2012, to sync with the 100th birthday of Eternal President Kim Il Sung, deceased since 1994. Abandoned since: 1992, currently under construction
Tower of David Location: Caracas, Venezuela Stories: 45 floors Story:The Tower of David, one of the tallest buildings in Latin America, is the quintessential slum-scraper. There is no government interference, just 2500 squatters carving up its 45 stories for purposes ranging from housing to business. The building includes apartments, home-brew PlayStation arcades, beauty salons, and perhaps the most suspicious dentistry operation in the new world. While the current occupants have yet to climb higher than the 30th floor, it is only a matter of time before the anarchic housing market pushes residences higher towards the dilapidated rooftop helipad – a symbol from Caracas’ forgotten banking boom. Abandoned since: 1994, never completed
Buffalo Central Terminal Location: Buffalo, USA Stories: 20 Story: The Buffalo Central terminal has been looted for artifacts, vandalized by bored delinquents, used for art exhibitions, explored by ghost hunters, and even sold for $1. It is a gorgeous old structure plagued by a series of humiliating footnotes, caught in a perpetual fall from grace. But it was not always so. At a time, the Buffalo Central Terminal was an important hub servicing hundreds of trains daily. Still an Art Deco architectural masterpiece, the structure possesses a prominent tower worthy of superlatives, and its halls are said to be haunted by ghostly apparitions waiting for trains that will never arrive. Last Halloween, the TV show Ghost Hunters filmed a 6 hour marathon in the creepy old building. It is possible to tour the structure and even get hitched in its lofty halls. Click here for more information. Abandoned since: 1980
Szkieletor (Skelator) Location: Krakow, Poland
Stories: 20 floors Story: The tallest building in Krakow is a a hulking skeleton of a structure unofficially named after the villain from He-man – a show extremely popular in Poland in the early 1980’s. Construction began in 1975, but the Pols ran into economic troubles. Today, the building is primarily a backdrop in which to drape massive advertisements. It is also a constant reminder of the decades old malfeasance of Skelator – an urban Castle Grayskull looming on the Polish horizon. Abandoned since: 1981, never completed
PacBell Building Location: San Francisco, USA Stories: 26 Story: Once the tallest building in San Francisco, the PacBell building is a Neo-Gothic marvel abandoned last decade. Completed in 1925, the giant is capped with 13 foot tall art deco Eagles looking out over the great San Francisco expanse. While the building was purchased in 2007 for $118 million, it has since been left to decay quietly in its own upscale way. Unlike most abandoned skyscrapers though, this one still has some life in it. Security guards patrol the ground floor, and the tower is lit up at night. A couple of brave urban explorers over at Bearings snuck past the guard and explored the tower’s heights. Check out their first hand account of the abandoned skyscraper. The PacBell Building will likely be repurposed into condominiums in the coming years. Abandoned since: 2005
Edificio Sao Vito Location: Sao Paolo, Brazil Stories: 27 floors Story: The original vertical favela arrived on the scene in the late fifties with the intention of providing housing to Sao Paolo’s middle class community and expats. Before long though, the building fell into disrepair and became an overpopulated den of urban plight – a favela that sprawled up. As basic services and utilities declined over the years, tenants began disposing their garbage out the window and obtaining illegal electricity. Many of the Edificio’s 624 apartment units were split into two – stressing the already shaky infrastructure of the building known as “Balança mas não Cai” (It shakes but does not fall). By the eighties, the tap water was polluted and only one of the three elevators partially worked – making its way halfway up the building. Edificio Sao Vito was formally evacuated in 2004, though crackheads and drug dealers have taken to the abandoned structure like moths to a flame. Allegedly, the Mayor of Sao Paolo tried to demolish the building because it obstructed his otherwise pleasant view. While this bit of urban lore may or may not be true, the building has been flirting with demolition for the last decade. At the time of reading its graffiti flecked concrete walls may simply be dust. Abandoned since: 2004
Book Tower Location: Detroit, USA Stories: 38 floors Story: Construction began on the Book Tower in 1916, just a few years after Henry Ford transformed auto-making forever with assembly line production. It is the old style of high-rise – more a kin of masonry than a child of steel and glass. For years, the classic structure with an ornate copper roof stood for the old world extravagance of Detroit. Now, it has taken on an altogether different metaphorical role as a sad reminder of when the eminent address spoke for the industrialist success of one of America’s finest cities. The property has changed hands many times in the last decade and plans exist to drop hundreds of millions in restoring the old-school giant. Abandoned since: 2009
Sathorn Unique Location: Bangkok, Thailand Stories: 49 Story: During the Thai tiger economy of the 1990’s, skyscrapers grew all over Bangkok in a display of Thailand’s new-found economic prominence. This one never completely grew up. Crows circle the pinnacle and rats call its lower levels home. Locals, convinced its hallways are haunted, stay out of the ghostscraper. Expat urban spelunkers have explored the building and returned to Khao San Road with stories from its upper reaches. The verdict: it is a dilapidated mess. The future of the Sathorn Unique remains unclear but perhaps someday it will be finished. For now, it looms on the Bangkok skyline with many other abandoned skeletal structures. Abandoned since: 1997
Sterick Building Location: Memphis, USA Stories: 29 floors Story: Once the tallest building in the southern United States, the original “Queen of Memphis” is a ghostly skyscraper, boarded up and decaying from the inside. The late Gothic architectural marvel once shuttled around thousands of workers, from stockbrokers to barbers, in its eight high-speed elevators. It has been the domain of urban explorers and desperate vagrants ever since being completely abandoned in the late nineteen-eighties. While inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places preserves its era appropriate charms, the future of the towering structure is unclear. Perhaps a redevelopment boom in downtown Memphis will reignite a need for the large ghostscraper. Abandoned since: 1980s
A new company is trying to get into the North Korea tourism game. Korea Pyongyang Trading USA, based in New York, is looking to diversify out of its current business – importing Pyongyang Soju from North Korea. Founder Steve Park has his eye on Mount Kumgang, the site of a resort that involved a joint venture between South Korean companies and the North Korean government. It went sour when a South Korean tourist was shot there in 2008.
It seems like an interesting business opportunity, given how interesting the hard-to-reach company is too many travelers. And, since it’s so hard to do business with the regime, competition is unlikely to be stiff. The regulatory red tape, on the other hand, is a different story.
South Korea is saying that Korea Pyongyang Trading USA will need to get permission from the U.S. government in order to get the operation off the ground. The Dong-A Ilbo reports:
A government source in Seoul said, “According to U.S. Executive Order 13570 (effectuated on April 19), all products, services and technologies brought into the U.S. require permission from the U.S. government,” adding, “If a company seeks to engage in the service business of Mount Kumgang tours with North Korea, it should win approval from the U.S. government.”
This deal [with Steve Park] follows several years of difficulties over managing Mount Kumgang through an agreement with South Korea’s Hyundai Asan. The resort provided significant cash to North Korea, but the arrangement was terminated in 2008 when a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist from Seoul. South Korean officials demanded an apology, and its northern neighbors say they will “deprive Hyundai of its exclusive right to the mountain tour project and seize all of its assets in the region.”
Is there an ownership or rights dispute in the works? According to The Dong-A Ilbo, officials in Seoul are struggling to accept that North Korea can yank Hyundai Asan’s “exclusive right to the tours.” Of course, there’s always a shot that the U.S. deal will fall apart (with North Korea, this is always a concern!). The Dong-A Ilbo continues, “The South Korean government understands that the North is taking steps to attract another foreign business other than the American company.”