Almost all the rooms had been converted into military bunkers, complete with camphor smoke and 30ft-high ceilings and walls
North Korea is one of the most closed societies in the world. Buildings built for foreigners and foreign delegations are often demolished without considering how their demolition may impact on North Koreans. And many of the sites that are left are simply ghost towns, unused since the end of the Korean war in 1953.
But one building – a 12-storey tall, red-brick hotel from 1967 and named Hotel Hilltop – is another story. Unlike most abandoned buildings in the country, it’s still standing and, until a few years ago, had all rooms occupied.
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As its owner, South Korean businessman Park Young-dan, told Reuters: “When people are living on this bottom floor, I do not feel as if I’m destroying a building, rather I see it as an individual building.”
Now, that structure is neglected and decaying. Police ask that the windows be sealed and calls to restore it on its website are ignored. A “family vacation” has been held at the hotel for years, with foreign guests taking holiday in single rooms to avoid the tourists and North Koreans as well.
In 2008, the AFP journalist Terje Roed-Larsen wrote in a cover story on the hotel that it was “a rite of passage, and perhaps also of sacrifice, for young Korean guides … nicknamed ‘Hillspeak Hoe,’ which means villager despite the fact that most are not from the countryside but are from capital cities.” The article also said the hotel had been used “in a scurrilous way” by “North Korea’s finest paper-pusher … Kim Jong Il”.
Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder and current leader’s grandfather, bought the building from the South Korean president Syngman Rhee at the end of the Korean war for $2m. It was a costly purchase, given that the foundation from which it had been built was a military camp the North Koreans built after the war.
Kim Il-sung’s grandiose plans for the structure reportedly involved using it as his own personal floating hotel. Almost all the hotel’s rooms had been converted into bunkers, complete with camphor smoke and 30ft-high ceilings and walls. Kim built some floors on the bottom floor as a banquet hall, which was also used as a mausoleum with walls taken from the Pentagon during the cold war.