Politicians always like big-ticket projects. However, no country can match the big-ticket madness in North Korea. Over the last 15 years, North Koreans have suffered from famine, while their government has poured precious resources into building nuclear weapons. At least, the nuclear project resulted in some payback. Kim Jong-Il successfully blackmailed his neighbours and secured free supplies of fuel. What's more, more goodies are on their way. So long as they stop producing the weapons of mass destruction, the North Koreans will begin to receive free shipments of food aid.

Before the North Korean went nuclear, they had Ryugyong hotel project - an empty 105 floor concrete shell in the centre of Pyongyang. The word big always had a strange fascination for communists. Somewhere in the mid-1980s, the North Koreans got into their heads that is to build the world's largest hotel. North Korea is already the world's largest prison camp, where it is almost as difficult to get in, as it is to get out. A simple examination of tourist numbers should have told the North Korean leadership that there was not much demand to visit Pyongyang. Economic rationality was not driving this decision. This was a competition with capitalism; big was what mattered and the North Koreans were going to win - big time.

The builders started mixing the contrete in 1987. The designers settled on a mountian motif, with three wings converging to form a pinacle at 1,083 ft. Some hotels boast a rotating restaurant; but for the North Koreans, one swinging eaterie was not enough. Instead, they decided that they needed seven rotating restaurants. If the hotel had been finished, it would have boasted over 3,000 rooms and 3.9 million square feet. Japanese newspapers, who followed the project with awed disbelief, estimated the cost of construction was $750 million, or about 2 percent of North Korea’s GDP

However, in 1992 construction suddenly stopped. No one knows for sure why, perhaps the country ran out of concrete, or it could have been due to the famine that ravaged North Korea in the early 1990s. Perhaps the authorities were tired of the hotel trade and decided to go nuclear. Nevertheless, the concrete shell remains, leaving the authorities with the difficult question – what do you do with an empty 105-floor half-completed hotel?

In North Korea, there is an answer to every economic difficulty, and that answer is the foreigners. The North Korean government set up a firm - the Ryugyong Hotel Investment and Management Co – as a vehicle to attract the additional $300 million required to finish the project. The government even promised that the potential investor could “operate casinos, nightclubs or Japanese lounges if they want to”.

Now that the North Korean government successfully extorted fuel by threatening its neighbours with nuclear destruction, perhaps they could find a foreign investor using a similar method. All Kim Jong-il needs to do is call up some of the the world’s hotel chains and threaten annihilation. It might work; it certainly worked on the US government.

(The Ryugyong hotel project can be seen on Google Earth - 39° 2′ 11″ N
125° 43′ 50″ E)