North Korea hotels photos: Inside the mysterious hotels of Pyongyang

Two Australians have revealed a rare glimpse of North Korean tourism, with a new book documenting the hotels of capital Pyongyang.

Melbourne-based James Scullin, a former tour guide in North Korea, and photographer Nicole Reed travelled to Pyongyang to visit 11 international hotels in the secretive country.

For Scullin, 37, it was a chance to satisfy his curiosity by getting inside hotels he had only seen from the outside as a tour guide.

"Western tourists typically stay in just two hotels, but I'd always see these structures and wondered what they were," Scullin says of the city's other hotels that were designed for Chinese guests.

Scullin says that, despite the hotels having few tourists at times, due to fluctuating relations with China and now the COVID-19 pandemic, staff remained employed and kept the properties in immaculate condition.

"In any other country, the hotels would go out of business … but in North Korea, because everything is government owned, these relics survive," he says. "So you've got this really old, brutalist, seemingly dated structure, and inside there are people cleaning it and maintaining it.

"A lot of them have these epic lobbies, grand dining halls, strange karaoke rooms. They're such a connection to the past because typically there's not a lot of renovation that's happened, but the maintenance has been first class."

Scullin took the job as a tour guide during a stint living in China in 2013, travelling with six Western tour groups to the country.

He says visitors to North Korea can quickly be disarmed by how friendly and affable the locals can be, particularly the tour guides that chaperone Western tourists.


"You can be quite nervous going over there, then you meet the local guides - who are often young women in the their 20s and 30s - who are really personable. You can be disarmed by that."

As a Western guide, Scullin says it was part of his role to ensure tourists didn't relax too much and kept in mind the various rules of the society - like not photographing soldiers or cropping any shot of a leader's image.

Getting permission to shoot the hotels wasn't difficult, Scullin says, since there were no political aspects to the project.

One of the hotels featured in the book is the infamous Ryugyong Hotel - a giant, 105-storey structure, reportedly with 3000 rooms, which has been under construction since 1987. As far as we know, it's yet to host a single guest.

But it's the Koryo Hotel that's Scullins favourite. It's a place where he would relax with local guides during his touring days, getting an insight into their lives over a drink.

"You'd relax with the guides in the revolving restaurant and talk. Not about political things, but what their lives were like - dating, career, family," he says.

The highlight of the hotel, however, is the karaoke room.

"It's just stuck in the 80s. It's so kitsch. It's got four different types of tiling, it's got this huge, curved futuristic-looking bar like something from The Jetsons," he says.

But the person behind the design remains a mystery.

"You don't know who the designer is - nothing is really credited to any architect, everything is done in service of the leaders.

"But somewhere along the way, someone's had some freedom to design a room creatively. And even though that person probably only lived in North Korea … they've really been able to let their creativity flourish and it's really individualistic."

As far as visiting North Korea is concerned, Scullin says it's a unique experience.

"In a world that's so globalised, countries are becoming more and more similar," he says. "North Korea is up there with Cuba, in terms of being a place that's nothing like anywhere you've been before.

"Visiting gives a new perspective on what the country is like, with all its troubles and challenges as part of that. "

Take a look at some of the photos from the book in the gallery above. 

Hotels of Pyongyang by James Scullin and Nicole Reed

Head Tilt Press, $70


See also: North Korea's secret tunnels into South Korea are open to tourists

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