North Korea has been one of the most reluctant countries in the world for decades. Its isolation from the outside, promoted by today’s communist regime under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, has made it a kind of “forbidden fruit” for travel enthusiasts. “North Korea is the only country in the world that looks really different from everyone else,” explains tour guide James Scullin P3 in a video conference from Melbourne. “It makes China boring for a Westerner,” he jokes. The Australian knows both countries well; After all, he worked for the only company that did tours in North Korea from Beijing. That is why he stepped on North Korean soil eight times in just two years in 2012 and 2013. “Entering North Korea is like crossing a portal to another planet,” says Scullin. “And since my first visit, I’ve fallen in love with the strange aura of your hotels.”
This first influence would determine that years later, in 2020, he would publish the photo book Hotels of Pyongyang together with the photographer Nicole Reed, which collects pictures of the bizarre hotels in the North Korean capital. “Pyongyang’s architecture is frozen in time and is typically Soviet and brutalist with a modernist interior,” says the project’s website. A real feast for the eyes for James and Nicole, who in 2019, in cooperation with Juche Travel Services and the Korean International Travel Company, visited the 11 hotels in the city where foreigners are allowed to stay.
“Very kitschy and strange revolving restaurants, carpets on the floor and on the walls, curtains with elaborate animal patterns, lighting under the tables, karaoke rooms with four different tile types,” Scullin lists the visits again. “An unusual attention to detail, an aesthetic care that surprised me because it is an isolated, socialist country that we usually hope will be grayer and more boring.” Not in these hotels. “The tablecloths match the curtains, they match the flowers in an arrangement, and so on. In many hotels, we feel like we’re in a Wes Anderson movie. “
When we think of design and architecture made inside a country with the characteristics of North Korea, one of the first questions may be related to its isolation from the outside. What are designers and architects based on when creating their works in a country with closed borders? “I couldn’t understand who the architects or designers of each hotel were as there is no signature in North Korea for this type of work. They are always built by and for the leader. “James and Nicole tried to contact the Pyongyang Institute of Architecture to complete the pages of the book with further information, but to no avail. “In any case, we’ve been told that all items found in hotels are designed by North Korean designers and manufactured in factories across the country. And there are no two hotels with the same furniture, each one is unique and unrepeatable. “
Pyongyang is an incredible city, according to Scullin. “It has been monumentally reconstructed to serve an ideology of worship for the leader and the party,” he describes. “You don’t see advertisements in the streets, but you see a lot of advertisements. There are tall, strange buildings everywhere, five-star pyramid hotels, empty in the middle of nowhere. “The concept of commercial success doesn’t matter in North Korea. “It is the state that manages all the hotels, which means they will never go bankrupt. The staff is immense and the hotels are always spotless. However, working at one is considered an excellent job. “
The men and women who work at these hotels are key elements in the experience of anyone visiting North Korea. You and the tour guides in each group are the only North Koreans visitors will have contact with. “No freedom. You are with the guides at all times and can not even leave the given route for a minute. And it is certain: every day you will be back at the hotel at 7 p.m. and have to wait for the next day to see Pyongyang further. “Pyongyang, which the North Korean state naturally wants to show abroad.
But the hotel staff is always friendly and easy to work with, says Scullin. “They always start by saying, ‘Me? Because I? I’m just a servant and I look awful ‘but they are starting to do their hair for the photo. Deep down, they want and want to be photographed. “And communication is easy. “North Koreans have an excellent sense of humor and are sarcastic. But at the moment of the photo, it is certain that they will take a serious stance, as if it were the family portrait of those made in the past where no one could smile. So everyone thinks that they are all sad and malnourished, which is not true – at least in this context of course. “
James Scullin and Nicole Reed’s photo book, published by Head Tilt Press, describes places few of us can see. “The book does not attempt to provide a description of life in North Korea, but rather to open a window onto the hotels, in which every architectural and decorative option reveals a quality of individual expression that can challenge the expectations of those who make them watch west. “