North Korea's "Hotel of Doom" gets a face lift

SEOUL Fri Sep 4, 2009 3:47am EDT

1 of 2. Ryugyong Hotel is seen in Pyongyang in this picture taken August 28, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/The Korea Sharing Movement/Handout

SEOUL (Reuters) - A towering North Korean hotel which Esquire magazine once dubbed "the worst building in the history of mankind" has come back to life with a facade of shiny glass windows affixed to one side of the concrete monolith.

But few expect the North will ever finish construction of its 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel, started in 1987 and halted for 16 years because it could have bankrupted the destitute state.

"The hotel doesn't look as shoddy as it once did, probably because of the reflective glass," said a member of a civic group in South Korea that recently returned from a visit to the North.

The 330-meter (1,083 ft) tall hotel dominating the Pyongyang skyline consists of three wings rising at 75 degree angles capped by several floors arranged in rings supposed to hold five revolving restaurants and an observation deck.

Foreign residents of Pyongyang contacted in Seoul said Egypt's Orascom group began renovations last year.

The peak of the 3,000-room hotel, in a country that permits few foreigners to visit, is encircled in new rings of shiny steel. Mirrored glass has yet to be affixed to the other sides of the muddish-grey concrete structure, foreigner visitors said.

"North Koreans told me that you put the glass on one side and if all goes well and looks fine, you then continue on to the others," the civic group member said.

Analysts said the North was likely sprucing up the Ryugyong's facade as part of a campaign to try to turn the state into a "great and prosperous nation" by 2012.

The communist North started construction in a suspected fit of jealousy at South Korea, which was about to host the 1988 Summer Olympics and show off to the world the success of its rapidly developing economy.

But by 1992, worked was halted. The North's main benefactor the Soviet Union had dissolved the previous year and funding for the hotel dried up.

As the North's economy took a deeper turn for the worse in the 1990s, the empty shell became a symbol of the country's failure, earning the nicknames "Hotel of Doom" and "Phantom Hotel."

For a time, the North airbrushed images of the Ryugyong Hotel from photographs.

Architects said there were questions raised about whether the hotel, which has never opened for guests, was structurally sound and a few believed completing the building could cause it to collapse.

Estimates published in South Korean have put the costs of completing the hotel and making it structurally sound at as much as $2 billion, more than 10 percent of the North's yearly gross domestic product.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim)

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