“At the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel, which is forty-five stories high, I was led into an elevator that was as naked as interrogation chamber, save for some overhead klieg lights…the refrigerator next to the wall was likewise empty. The hotel was rich, however, in mirrors: there were mirrors in every passageway, huge four-sided pillars of mirrors in the lobby, ninety-four mirrors in the hangarlike dining room.”
Writing about his tryst with North Korea, Pico Iyer had described its capital, Pyongyang—especially its iconic Koryo Hotel—with great relish, relating with measured mockery the awkwardness of a carefully choreographed tourist experience. And it isn’t just Iyer—the chosen few who do get to land in the so-called hermit kingdom invariably swear by its luxurious, well-serviced and quaint yet futuristic hotels dotting Pyongyang’s stunning sprawl.
The many hotels of the affluent-looking city—the “doomed” Ryugyong Hotel that is easily the defining feature of the Pyongyang skyline ('Orwellian' according to Iyer), the aforementioned 143-metre Koryo hotel with its iconic twin towers, the Yanggakdo Hotel sitting on top of an islet—have been a phenomenon within the country and among the tourists here: the Chinese, and foreign delegates. These opulent structures have now been covered in impressive visual detail in a new photography book.
Written by James Scullin, who has worked in the country as a tour guide and travelled here extensively, Hotels of Pyongyang features photographs by Australian photographer Nicole Reed. The richly ornamented lobbies, vintage furnishings, kitschy karaoke rooms and bulwark-like Brutalist influences on the exterior—the 200-page book covers it all. We caught up with Scullin and had a little chat with him on the grand project. Here’s what they said:
Would you say that these hotels are now heritage experiences for Chinese tourists in North Korea? Or is it part of a concerted effort towards political support—orchestrated as tourism?
Yes, almost all Chinese tourists I have spoken to in North Korea have said their motives for tourism is to see what China used to look like. The bulk of these tourists seem to be middle-aged or older and come from the countryside.
The karaoke room from the Koryo Hotel indeed looks whimsical and right out of the mind of a creative person who has had limited exposure to art and aesthetic abroad—would you want to add to the design sense you noticed here?
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The karaoke room at the Koryo certainly has a groovy pastiche. It's like something out of the Jetsons or Brady Bunch while also having a strong Wes Anderson personality like a lot of rooms in North Korea do. The intrinsic creativity in the room shows that creativity is possible when permitted even in an authoritarian, uniform state.
Room service is absent from these hotels—and staying or sleeping in during the day is prohibited. Your comments on how hospitality transforms in DPRK…
It's a guided tour and you are chaperoned the entire time. While this is more or less unique these days, this was often the habit when visiting countries of the Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain.
Would you say that the prospect of visiting a culture—in the material, physical sense and otherwise—like North Korea, is comparable to a long, subversive amusement park experience?
Not really. Yes, it's different, but the more time you spend with people there you understand that the totalitarian regime is a backdrop to more or less 'normal lives' that resemble life in the western world where people similarly seek relationships, want to improve careers and care for their children.
Any experiences with the hotel staff that stand out in particular?
Taking portraits took a long time because the staff were so modest that they didn't think they deserved to be photographed. Our guides helped us convince them and they were excited when they saw the images.
When you say "hotels tend to be more neutral spaces, where visitors are not regulated in the same way"—what is it that you mean? Could you briefly illustrate with an example or two?
Being in the hotels of the evening are rare times when you are not being on a guided tour. It's the [most] free you feel as a tourist being in North Korea even though you are confined to the hotel. This means you can visit bars of the hotel, and speak to staff and guests and learn about the culture away from museums and officially decreed sites.
What was the thought you put into capturing these hotels visually—that is, from the POV of photography? And is the bare minimal look of the cover of the book a nod to the austerity of these spaces?
North Korea has a lot of vibrant pastel colours so capturing images that brought out this great colour was important. Also, a lot of the lobbies and exteriors were very grand, which meant that it was essential to capture the entirety of the shots.
The choice of grey and pink was to be reflective of colours prominently seen in North Korea. Using vectors of the hotels was to represent the hotels as a collection of individual hotels were sought to capture and document. While North Korea is superficially a very uniform society, we wanted to show that the individual look, feel and management of the hotels represented the wider complexities of a place like North Korea that our Western assumptions often overlook.