September 10th, 2004


The Ryugyong Hotel

Confession: I am a major international news junkie. I mainline news services, papers, and weblogs to a degree that's pretty abnormal. Because I have a tendency to forget that abnormality, I often wind up surprised in conversation when people don't know about one thing or another.

One thing that keeps surprising me: a lot of folks don't realize how truly batshit crazy North Korea is.

How batshit crazy? This batshit crazy:
The Ryugyong was designed to have 3,000 rooms, but at the time it was built only a few thousand people were allowed into the country per year, and almost none of them were destined for Pyongyang. Even today, after the establishment of the Kŭmgang-san tourist region, the DPRK only sees about 130,000 tourists per year. Every single one of them could book a week-long stay in the Ryugyong and the hotel would still be significantly under capacity.

. . .The same sense of pride that drove them to build the Ryugyong has driven the North Koreans to an almost pathological level of denial about the building. It's no longer on the city's maps. Guides claim not to know where it is. No one speaks of it. This state of affairs is made all the more surreal by the fact that the almost incomprehensibly massive Ryugyong is visible from every part of Pyongyang. It hangs over the horizon, never far out of sight. The ultimate expression of the idea of the elephant in the corner.

Want more? OK! Here are some North Korean propaganda posters that have to be seen to be believed. And here's a web site devoted to North Korea's only subway -- be sure to check out the maps and photos. But remember:
"There are very few maps available of the Pyongyang Metro. In general, tourists are not allowed to move freely through the city, so there is little need for them."