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Pyongyang’s Cannibal Island

The 47-story Yanggakdo Hotel is located on Yanggak Island, situated in the Taedong River that bisects Pyongyang. The hotel was built in 1995 by a French construction consortium, and supposedly the North Koreans defaulted on the payments. Though the hotel appears to be centrally located as to provide access to the heart of Pyongyang, it is actually as far from North Korea as possible. Here's a picture of the hotel I took from the top of the Tower of Juche Idea across the river:

The hotel gleams in the afternoon light, a monument to modernity with its revolving restaurant up top and subterranean karaoke club and casino. Actually, the truth is much different. A special permit is required to access the island, which keeps all citizens of the capital at a remove. Once there, no guest may leave unless escorted by an official minder. Further, the hotel is staffed with Chinese workers on contract so that no contact between a foreigner and a citizen is possible.

Pyongyang loves its show-hotels, which project a cosmopolitan feel to a drab, soviet-block style cityscape. The Koryo, Ryugyong, and Yanggakdo hotels suggest that the flow of international travelers demand such modern structures. The truth is that, even during the Mass Games, when tourism was at its peak, there were only enough visitors to employ the 6th and 32nd floors of the hotel. At night, the entire building was pitch black, except for the thin bands of light on these two floors. Because our minders left us untended on an island we couldn't leave, there was no supervision in the hotel. I decided on the first night to visit the revolving restaurant. I pushed the "up" button on the elevator, and when the doors opened, I moved on instinct to step inside. Yet, a flash of hesitation kept me from doing so. In that split second, I realized there was no elevator, just a dark shaft. The doors closed on their own, and when I called the elevator again, it appeared. It's hard not to notice the lack of button for the 5th floor, which rumor had it was the floor from which all the room surveillance took place.

The revolving restaurant didn't turn. A small bar was surrounded by AstroTurf. Shots of unknown liquor were about $20, though if you wanted Jack Daniels, it was $42. Two bored-looking German businessmen stared out the window. Other than that, the only inhabitants were the fish gulping in the murky water of a half-abandoned aquarium. If I could go back, I'd roll up my sleeves and clean that tank. Then I saw the fire escape. I opened the door, and a dark stairwell led down the empty 46th floor. There, the doors to unused rooms stood open, and it was clear that employees had been stripping parts and fixtures from these suites to keep the ones on our floors looking new. By moonlight, I moved through the abandoned rooms, looking at doors that had been removed and stacked in the hall, toilet seats that had been cannibalized, carpets pulled up in great sheets and rolled down the hall. It seemed like a metaphor for the whole nation: great resources allocated to project false prosperity, a cosmopolitan veneer cloaking enforced isolation, and a secret process of cannibalizing itself from within. I resolved to walk all the floors between 46 and 32, but after only a couple more floors, I was just too creeped out, and I called for the elevator to take me down. When it arrived, it was with great caution that I took my next step.

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Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His previous work includes a short-story collection, Emporium, and the novel Parasites Like Us. The Orphan Master's Son is his second novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of...
    Sale Hardcover $10.98

Adam Johnson is the author of The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea

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