August 25, 2009
When you arrive in North Korea, there’s a sense of unreality about it. I suspect even Bill Clinton, when he climbed out his private jet onto the tarmac at Pyongyang, must have wondered to himself, “Is this really happening? Am I actually here?” For most of us, North Korea seems to occupy the same imaginary plane of existence as Mordor. I live in Beijing, and the concrete realization that the DPRK is a real place just a short hour and a half flight away — even though I’d known it all along in theory — came as quite a shock. Showing up at the Beijing airport and checking into my flight felt like that scene in Harry Potter where the plain brick walls of King’s Cross station give way to reveal a hidden platform with a magic train to whisk him off to Hogwarts.
In response to Part 1 of my story, many readers were curious to know what the North Koreans we encountered were really thinking behind their fearful and fearsome stares. From the few glimpses we were able to gather, what is life really like there, and what do people think of the outside world? I’m going explore these questions in future posts, and try to offer a few possible insights. But for the moment, let’s take a while to revel in the surreal “down the rabbit hole” quality of those first few hours in Pyongyang. And the best place to do that is at the hotel where we stayed.
Foreign tourists to North Korea pose a problem. The government wants their money, and needs them to show off at the Mass Games, but it certainly doesn’t want foreigners walking the streets and talking to random citizens. If only it could stick them somewhere, like on an island — which is exactly what they’ve done. The Yanggakdo International Hotel is a 47-story tower (one of the tallest in Pyongyang) located on an island in the middle of the Taedong River which bisects the city. The only links to the city are a single, heavily guarded steel bridge on either side, which guests are not permitted to cross. Even on the grounds surrounding the hotel itself, you must have an escort.
The hotel and its rooms are basic but fairly comfortable. You can even, believe it or not, watch BBC on your TV. (The local guides and minders also stay at the hotel, but on separate floors that do not have BBC. We asked one of our minders, who seemed relatively well-informed about world events, whether he had ever watched CNN or BBC, and he said — quite ingenuously — that he had never done so). As for the bed, I came away with a cluster of three angry red flea bites that itched horrendously for weeks afterwards.
Yanggakdo is officially rated as a 4-star hotel, and I would say it corresponds to a typical 4-star hotel in China, with their elaborate facilities and somewhat clumsy execution. You might be surprised to learn that TripAdvisor.com gives it a 94% positive rating, but the titles of the reviews — “The weirdness of it all,” “You won’t have a choice, but still, this is quite OK,” “Excellent views over a strange city,” “Probably the best hotel in an odd place,” — give you a better notion of how bizarre it all seems.
The grounds around the hotel feature a 9-hole par 3 golf course. It was either here or at another, 18-hole course outside of Pyongyang where Kim Jong-Il once played a legendary round of golf, scoring a hole-in-one at every hole except one. Why the missed shot? Because naturally only his father, Kim Il-Sung, would have been capable of playing a truly perfect game. Nearby is a driving range where you hit the balls directly into the river. We were told — and once again could not verify — that all those balls are recovered and recycled by divers who regularly sweep the bottom of the river. There are several other structures on the island, including a cinema and a stadium, which reportedly are almost never used.
The cafe-bar in the hotel lobby serves as a major meeting place and social hub for all kinds of foreigners in Pyongyang, sort of like Rick’s in Casablanca. Between diplomats, aid workers, and tour coordinators, there are a surprising number of Westerners in the city, and the Yonggakdo is one of the few places for them to go. There are also a quite a few businessmen passing through — not engaged in anything nefarious, at least on the surface, just the unglamorous barter trade in machine parts and raw materials that keeps this pariah state functioning despite everything. The guides and minders also like to hang out at the bar, sharing stories and making contacts, into the wee hours of the night. All in all, it’s probably one of the best places to get a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in North Korea.
Next to the bar there’s a phone exchange where you can actually call home at an exorbitant rate per half-minute. There’s no need to change any money. This and all the other stores and services visitors encounter accept hard currency only, and it is actually illegal for you to posses North Korean notes, except one or two to take home as a souvenir.
Once you’ve tired of the lobby, there’s plenty to explore. At the opposite end from the bar is a dark, narrow stairway under a sign that says “recreation center.” Follow it down and it leads to a long, winding subterranean passage lit by flickering fluorescent bulbs. Now you really are down the rabbit hole. The path snakes, widens, and narrows inexplicably, and at points the ceiling drops and the floor rises so even the shortest members of our party had to duck their heads through. Off to one side an opening suddenly reveals a smoke-filled billiards room. A few paces later, there’s another door, this one to a large and well-lit bowling alley. Finally, around one more corner, we arrive at a seedy-looking Karaoke bar. A few days later, our group actually had lunch there, while the KTV machine cycled through American songs such as “You Are My Sunshine” and “Georgia on My Mind.” As we were finishing up, the video screen suddenly erupted into a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful,” with images of the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the wind — not exactly what we expected to find on the Karaoke play list in North Korea!
What we were actually looking for, though, when we first went exploring, was the casino. We had been told that there was a gambling casino, as well as a female-staffed “sauna” of notorious ill-repute in the basement. But we had the wrong basement. Behind the elevators was another sign and another stairwell, this one rather more elegantly appointed, leading to the “Casino Pyongyang” and the “Golden Spring Island Sauna,” both operated by an outfit from Macau. And when I say “outfit,” I think it would be safe to say we’re talking about The Outfit, as in Triads. North Korea has close ties with some rather colorful banks and nightclubs in Macau itself, so it’s actually no surprise their partners have set up a side operation in Pyongyang.
Figuring that what happens in Pyongyang probably doesn’t stay in Pyongyang, and might even end up widely distributed on DVD, we gave the “sauna” wide berth. We gladly paid the small entrance fee to the casino, however. It was packed with Chinese tourists playing slot machines, roulette, and Black Jack — apparently Pyongyang is quite popular with north China day-trippers who see it as a low-rent alternative to flying all the way down to Macau. I’m not much of a gambler in any event, but none of us were inclined to try the odds. In North Korea, we suspected, the House always won.
Supposedly there’s also a revolving restaurant on the hotel’s top floor, but they don’t run it unless you go up and find someone to turn it on. We never figured it was worthwhile to ask, since the only time we were at the hotel was at night, when the city was so pitch black you couldn’t see anything anyway (more on that topic in a future post).
As great as the Yanggakdo Hotel may sound, it pales in comparison to the hotel that was supposed to serve as Pyongyang’s premier tourist facility. Looking out our hotel window at the Pyongyang skyline (when we could actually see anything besides a shroud of fog), you could see an immense triangular structure, like a pyramid. Its shadowy presence looms over the city wherever you go, but it appears on no official map. If you point to it and ask, the guide will evade your question. Disturbingly, this mystery tower fits almost the exact description of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984:
The Ministry of Truth — Minitrue, in Newspeak — was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
In fact, this gargantuan structure is the Ryugyong Hotel, the 28th tallest building in the world and Pyongyang’s biggest embarrassment.
In 1986, a South Korean construction company built the 73-story Westin Stamford Hotel in Singapore, the tallest hotel in south Asia and the 3rd tallest in the world. Kim Il-Sung was mighty peeved, and decided to construct a skyscraper hotel in Pyongyang that would top it. The planned hotel would have 105 floors, stand 330 meters high, and boast 3000 rooms. After several years of construction, and $750 million (2% of the entire country’s GDP) down the drain, the building was discovered to be structurally unsound due to fatal design flaws and substandard materials. For the past 17 years, its unfinished, empty shell — nicknamed the “Hotel of Doom” — has presided over the city like a concrete ghost, too huge to demolish. From time to time construction activity appears to resume, only to taper off again. But for the most part, North Koreans wisely pretend not to notice this monstrous mistake in their midst.
As they say, Ignorance is Strength.
Next installment: Keeping a low profile on the “enemy side” of the DMZ, and the true history of the spoon.
All photos were taken by the author. Please ask permission before copying.