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Grand Illusions


A chance meeting with an Egyptian engineer in Pyongyang's Prosperity Store offers insights into Orascom's scheme for the Hotel Ryugyong, whose soaring pyramid-style structure dominates the capital's skyline.


Companies, People, Ideas
Grand Illusion
Donald Kirk, 10.09.08
Forbes Magazine, October 27, 2008


Will North Korea's Hotel Ryugyong ever be finished?


Something else that North Korea is resuming work on


By Donald Kirk


Egyptian engineer Mahmoud Fawzi has a formidable task. He's a project manager for Orascom Telecom, in charge of a crew of Egyptian and North Korean engineers and construction workers attempting to finish off the Ryugyong Hotel in central Pyongyang.


If that seems like a difficult proposition for the Cairo company, consider what it's up against. Construction of the Ryugyong began in 1987, and the pyramid-shaped building had soared to 105 floors, 1,083 feet by the time construction stopped five years later. Ever since it has been a fixture on the Pyongyang skyline, a lone crane at the pinnacle shooting still higher as evidence that the job is definitely not done. The project is at the stage where green netting is being put up on the sides of the structure, behind which crews will be testing the concrete and seeing what's needed. Right now a visitor can see elevators for the crews running halfway up the building--and a long way to go before work on the top will begin.


Fawzi, who was encountered shopping in Pyongyang's Prosperity Store--a high-end operation that has price tags in North Korean won and euros and caters mainly to foreigners and a few locals--is optimistic about the job. "We're working on the outside," he says, before an omnipresent North Korean minder whisks him away. "Yes, we can do it."


After 14 months Fawzi faces a looming deadline. North Koreans--that is, the guides whose job is to stick with foreign visitors everywhere they go--say the hotel will be done by Apr. 15, 2012. That would be the 100th birthday of the nation's "eternal president," Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 after apprenticing his son, Kim Jong Il.


North Korea is saying that Kim the son was "tired" from visiting factories and military units in the hot summer months. That's by way of responding indirectly to Western news reports suggesting he had suffered a stroke and was still having convulsions and for that reason didn't make it to the reviewing stand for the big parade on Sept. 9 celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea by his late father. Just a bit of recovery, is all.


"He's always giving on-the-spot guidance," says one guide, Oh Keum Suk, after North Korea's rigidly controlled media failed to have him show up anywhere for nearly two months. He may be getting better, though, since the Pyongyang news mill reported that he attended a soccer match at Kim Il Sung University in early October, and it's still possible he'll be well enough to give on-the-spot guidance to workers at the Ryugyong, whose 3,000 rooms are concrete shells, unfinished, bereft of windows.


Since construction had all but ceased well before Kim inherited power, he's never been known to visit the site. He may feel much better, though, if he's in good enough shape to stare up at elevators taking workers dozens of stories above the ground.
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The drive to finish the Ryugyong (whose name means "capital of willows," in honor of the many such trees that line the Daedong riverbanks and the wide, near-empty boulevards) is the most obvious sign of a wave of construction that seems to be sweeping the city. Peer behind the rows of boxy cement structures, all of them built after the devastation caused by American bombing during the Korean War, and you're likely to see construction crews here and there ladling concrete into buckets and laying down blocks for new buildings or for new wings and floors on existing ones. You don't see large cement mixers or modern construction equipment, but rudimentary cranes sprout on the skyline.


Kim Il Sung, as your guides won't let you forget, had Pyongyang rapidly rebuilt after the war against American-led forces.


Choe Jong Hun, a senior guide from the Cultural Affairs Department, speaks proudly of the city's rise from those ashes. "As you can see, our city is dignified and beautiful and calm," he says one evening in the basement bar of the Yanggakdo Hotel. (Currently the tallest building in the capital, complete with basement casino and a rooftop rotating restaurant, all for the benefit of foreign tourists and a very few lucky natives, it rises 48 stories above an island in the Daedong.) "That is the difference between European cities and our city."


Choe predicts Pyongyang, whose 2.3 million people are mainly a privileged lot with positions or relatives in the government, the Communist party and the armed forces, will be still more impressive at the big birthday bash less than four years off. Plans call for building an additional 100,000 apartments; endless blocks of them already line the city.


"All are built according to strength, material and technology," a visitor may be assured. And to keep them all running smoothly, properly powered, with working elevators, "We plan to build 100,000 power stations." At the same time, planners are sensitive to environmental needs. "We have done our best to become a forested city," says Choe. "It is good for the economy."


How could any of this be in a country that's desperately short of power and barely lit, where most of the factories are known to have either stopped operating or slowed down to a near halt?


"More than 70% of the factories are working now," Choe responds, as if on cue. "Our economy is not finished but developing. If we build it, it must be enough for the economy. It all depends on self-reliance"--that is, juche, the word that Kim Il Sung made a national slogan. In fact, there's reliance on foreign aid: first food, and now--in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons if the U.S. and North Korea can ever agree on a verification protocol--energy aid, mainly regular shipments of oil. For the moment, North Korea is hinting it's going back to work on nukes.


Not everything is rosy, Choe concedes. "We have problems," he says, acknowledging "shortage of food, electricity." Yes, he goes on, "to develop the people's livelihood, we must produce more crops and clothing."


That's pretty obvious when you leave Pyongyang in a van cruising down empty highways--the four-lane one that goes 90 miles south to the border city of Kaesong or the ten-lane expressway to the port at Nampo, 40 miles southwest. Oxen pulling plows are seen about as often as other vehicles on the road.


A little beyond Nampo the van arrives at the West Sea barrage, a 5-mile-long barrier between the sea and the port that was built at the same time workers were piling up all 105 floors of the Ryugyong Hotel. The barrage is a source of national pride, the handiwork of 30,000 soldiers, says a young woman, as one or two ships wait to get through the locks from the west or the Yellow Sea to the lake that was formed behind it at the mouth of the Daedong. One of the ships, says a guide, has a load of rice, the donation of a foreign power, most likely the U.S., to feed a near-starving populace--that is, those living outside Pyongyang.


Some sights are unavoidable, try as the guides might to show only what's on a formal itinerary. Clusters of low-lying buildings, whitewashed but decrepit, often windowless, are visible from the road. Scrawny children scamper about with no shoes. Stores appear to have little if anything to sell and almost no customers.


Nor does Choe's claim of environmental concern withstand scrutiny. Rows of hills bare of trees testify to the desperation of villagers needing wood to heat and cook. Such miseries, of course, are not an issue for customers in the Prosperity Store, where Orascom's Fawzi was shopping with a colleague after another day working on the Ryugyong. Choe suggests, however, the pressures Fawzi is up against. "Within several months the surface must be finished," he says.


Whatever happens, it's all part of an unusual deal in which Orascom Telecom, a cell phone giant, took on the job rather than its sister, Orascom Construction Industries. The telecom unit is mainly present under an agreement to provide the North with a mobile phone service. Though cell phones are banned for almost everyone, the party elite needs to stay in touch. Antennas for a relay station can sprout above the 105th floor in place of that crane, if Telecom can learn from Construction to straighten out crooked elevator shafts and fix some suspect concrete.