A new book offers a rare glimpse inside North Korea's frozen-in-time tourist hotels

Business Insider US
Koryo Hotel poolside bar.
  • In 2019, James Scullin and Nicole Reed traveled to North Korea from their native Australia to document a part of the country that most of the Western world has never seen.
  • North Korea is regarded as one of the most isolated and authoritarian countries in the world. US travellers have been banned from visiting since 2017.
  • Scullin and Reed visited and photographed the 11 international hotels built between 1961 and 1996 in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital city.
  • In contrast to the uniformity that characterizes much of Pyongyang, the pair discovered whimsical and colorful hotels interiors, from a poolside bar decorated with faux pumpkin vines to neon karaoke bars.
  • Scullin and Reed spoke to Business Insider about their journey and shared a preview of their new book "Hotels of Pyongyang," which features over 150 images from their trip.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In April 2019, James Scullin and Nicole Reed ventured to North Korea, one of world's most isolated and authoritarian countries, to document a part of the country most of the Western world has never seen: the 11 international hotels of Pyongyang.

Chongnyon Hotel exterior.

James Scullin had worked as a North Korea tour guide to Westerners since 2012, but only ever saw the inside of two hotels. Determined to visit and photograph all 11 of them, he recruited photographer Nicole Reed to join him in 2018. The pair spent 12 months mapping out logistics.

James Scullin (center left) and Nicole Reed (center right) pictured with their state-sanctioned Korea International Travel Company guides.

Built between 1961 and 1996 to house foreign visitors, many of Pyongyang's international hotels feature brutalist exteriors. From the outside, they exude the sense of uniformity that is prevalent throughout the capital.

Pyongyang Hotel exterior.

On the inside, however, they tell a completely different story. Scullin and Reed encountered grand marble-lined foyers decorated with fake flowers and pastel colours ...

Chongnyon Hotel foyer.

... as well as grand banquet halls adorned with chandeliers and landscape paintings.

Pothonggang Hotel banquet hall.

Neon lights like the kind "you would have seen in a casino in Las Vegas in the eighties" were plentiful, Reed said.

Sosan Hotel karaoke room.

While the hotels reflect an attention to detail that's prevalent in North Korean culture, Scullin and Reed were surprised by the colourful and sometimes whimsical designs.

Koryo Hotel poolside bar with a faux pumpkin vine on its roof.

"In a country with so many rules about aesthetic and ways you represent things, it seems like the Western hotels did permit a flourish of creativity," Scullin said.

Changwangsan Hotel reception area.

Koryo Hotel's karaoke lounge is Scullin's favourite hotel space in Pyongyang. "It just feels like a time machine," he told Business Insider. "It has the beads that hang from the roof and it has this ceramic dog that's in there for some reason."

Koryo Hotel karaoke room.

Scullin likened the bar, with its futuristic swivel chairs, to something out of the 1960s sci-fi animated sitcom The Jetsons. While several hotels have been renovated since they were built, they have retained their original look and feel, he told Business Insider.

Koryo Hotel karaoke room.

"I think to a Westerner, they're very nostalgic places in terms of design and furniture choices," Reed said of Pyongyang's hotels.

Sosan Hotel.

While Scullin and Reed couldn't control what parts of the hotel they had access to, they always tried to photograph the dining hall and the foyer, and the bar and pool if a hotel had them.

Changwangsan Hotel pool.

During their trip, Scullin and Reed also took 20 portraits of hotel staff, from managers to waitresses, pool assistants, and bellmen.

Changwangsan Hotel employee.

One image stands out in particular to Scullin as representative of North Koreans' attention to detail. "There was one room in particular that had a pink dining hall, and then the waitress walked in and she had a corresponding pink blazer on. It has this very Wes Anderson aesthetic where everything's paired so perfectly."

Chongnyon Dining Hall employee.

Many hotels had their own uniforms and insignia.

Ryanggang Hotel employee.

Scullin described taking the portraits as a "battle against modesty". The two North Korea Travel Association tour guides that negotiated Scullin and Reed's access to hotels often had to convince attendants to pose for photos.

Pothonggang Hotel employee.

This portrait is one of Reed's favorite images. She recalls the pool attendant making a comment about wanting to be photographed in a positive way for the rest of the world in order to attract more visitors to the country.

Koryo Hotel employee.

All tourists in North Korea must be accompanied by a tour guide from the state-run Korea International Travel Company. Since Scullin and Reed visited the hotels during the day when tourists were out on guided tours, the hotels were mostly empty.

Sosan Hotel seating area.

Scullin and Reed had just five days to photograph all 11 hotels and were fortunate that their trip went mostly as planned.

Ryanggang Hotel seating area and shop.

One hotel didn't let Reed use her tripod, and they almost didn't gain access to Koryo Hotel's revolving restaurant, which Scullin calls an "integral part" of the Pyongyang experience, but in the end they were able to visit.

Koryo Hotel revolving restaurant.

Scullin carried whiskey with him just in case plans fell apart. "The idea would be that I would offer a bottle of Jameson as a gift to someone, one of the hotel managers to grease the wheels a little bit, but I never really had to do that," he said.

Rakrang Hotel seating area.

Before North Korea closed its borders to tourists due to Covid-19, it received just a few hundred thousand tourists per year, mostly from China. In 2017, the United States banned citizens from visiting North Korea following the death of UVA student Otto Warmbier, who was detained by North Korean officials.

Ryanggang Hotel shop and seating area.

"For me, that's always been very ironic that they have these series of international hotels for a country that's so isolated," Scullin told Business Insider, adding that being able to access these hotels was a "privilege".

Koryo Hotel pool.

Scullin and Reed have just a released a new book "Hotels of Pyongyang," featuring over 150 photographs from their trip. The book is divided into 11 chapters, one per hotel. The only hotel they didn't visit inside was the Ryugyong Hotel, North Korea's so-called "ghost hotel" that has been under construction since 1987.

View of "Hotels of Pyongyang."

Scullin told Business Insider that there are more cities and hotels he would like to photograph in North Korea when travel resumes. Reed would also "definitely go back" given the chance.

Yanggakdo Hotel dining area.
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