It has a reputation as being one of the most surreal cities on Earth. When you are alone on its dark streets before dawn, on a freezing winter morning, however, Pyongyang must surely also count as one of the scariest.

It is 5.45am and I find myself shivering from a mixture of cold and extreme nervousness as I jog along the potholed roads of North Korea's capital in pitch darkness. Foreign visitors are viewed with intense suspicion here and are banned from going out alone.

Dawn was still an hour away when I put on my running gear, pulled a dark woolly hat down over my head and slipped out of a heavily guarded tourist hotel nicknamed Alcatraz. Keeping to the shadows, I ran out of the grounds then joined a deserted highway into the city.

I feel a little like Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, as I run through the dark, listening for footsteps behind me as I head into the heart of the city that North Korea's own Big Brother, Kim Jong-un, calls "a socialist paradise". Luckily for me, there are no street lights in Pyongyang. Thin people in drab, dark clothes plod along like ghosts, some of them carrying large sacks of coal or wood on their backs. Others cycle noiselessly past before disappearing into the enveloping blackness.

Most apartment blocks are in total darkness. From a handful, dim lights flicker and flare. The near-total blackness and icy, uneven roads make each step treacherous until I realise it's safer to run along the tram lines.

After two kilometres, I am close to the city centre and feel more exposed. Running makes me conspicuous. Even as daylight begins to gather, however, no one challenges me. Instead, people walk towards me with their heads bowed. Anyone who catches sight of me in the headlights of the occasional passing tram or truck seems to quickly avert their gaze.

In this hermit nation, where neighbours and families are encouraged to snitch on each other, they are probably frightened: not of me, but of the avalanche of questions and suspicion that would engulf them if they reported a runaway foreigner.

A huge pyramid the same shape and size as the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's novel looms out of the dark. This is the monolith I have come to see.

An astonishing 24 years behind schedule, the 1,082-feet-high, 3,000-room Ryugyong Hotel is - or, at least, was - due to finally open this summer, signalling another bizarre milestone in Kim's already extraordinary reign. In a few short months, the young leader has invoked deeper sanctions and led his country closer to a potential conflict with the United States and South Korea than at any other time in recent memory. And all this while simultaneously making friends with American basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman. Now, it seems, he is going to preside over the completion of what must surely rank as one of the great architectural follies of modern times: a colossal monument to the madness that is North Korea.

Work began in 1987, under the regime of Kim Jong-un's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and the scheduled opening of what would have been the world's tallest hotel two years later was meant to trump neighbour South Korea's hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics.

The mighty pyramid was quickly completed but work came to a halt in 1992 following the collapse of benefactor the Soviet Union, economic failure and the onset of a devastating famine that killed up to 3.5 million North Koreans. What was intended to be a towering symbol of the nation's technical mastery instead became a hulk of idle blackness on the skyline and a mocking daily reminder of the country's failings.

An inspection by a European delegation in the 1990s reportedly found that the hotel's shell was irreparable and should be torn down because of its appallingly poor quality of concrete and crooked elevator shafts. The longer it stood empty, the more international ridicule it attracted. It was nicknamed the Hotel of Doom, while Esquire magazine described it as "the worst building in the history of mankind".

Then, in 2008, after 16 years of inactivity, work was resumed. In 2011, the exterior was coated in glass tiles that light up with furnace-like brilliance when they catch the sun at dawn and sunset. No longer an eyesore, the building has been added to tourist maps for the first time.

The Ryugyong's fortunes were revived before the young Kim's accession by the signing of a deal with Egypt's deep-pocketed Orascom Group, which took over as developer after reportedly signing a US$400 million deal to establish a mobile-phone network in the country. Along with its telecoms antennas, Orascom installed the dazzling glass panels. Luxury international hotel operator Kempinski signed up to run the Ryugyong and a partial opening as early as July or August was mooted. Last month, though, as tensions on the Korean peninsula rose to fever pitch and United Nations sanctions continued to bite in the North, Kempinski pulled out of the arrangement, claiming "market entry is not currently possible". But that's not to say the hotel won't find new management and open this year as planned.

The dominating feature of Pyongyang's skyline has been transformed. Now, rather than a crash-landed space ship, the monolith is instead being compared to The Shard, in London, to which it bears a startling similarity. It might be a quarter of a century late but the Ryugyong Hotel, originally intended to have more than 3,000 rooms and five revolving restaurants, will still rank as one of the world's biggest and most spectacular hotels if and when it opens.

Speaking in the South Korean capital, Seoul, in November, Kempinski's chief executive explained why his company - best known for its prestige European hotels and a chain of luxury China hotels - wanted to get involved with the decidedly oddball North Korean project.

"This pyramid monster hotel will monopolise all the business in the city," Reto Wittwer said. "I said to myself, 'We have to get this hotel if there is ever a chance, because this will become a money-printing machine if North Korea ever opens up.'"

The plan then, he said, was that 150 rooms on the top floors of the hotel would open this year and a total of 1,500 rooms would be developed over time. That total is half the original planned number but, if achieved, the hotel could still accommodate the total number of Western visitors to North Korea every year (believed to be in the region of 2,000 - although the government claims there were 30,000 foreign visitors, including 4,000 Westerners in 2012) if they all happened to turn up on the same day.

The Swiss hotelier said Orascom had been "compensated by very unique modules" in its deal with the North Korean government. "In North Korea, they compensate with mining rights, raw materials, commodities and commodity exchanges because they don't have cash."

Orascom now owns a 75 per cent stake in Koryolink, North Korea's only mobile-phone operator. This year, foreigners are being allowed to carry and use mobile phones in Pyongyang for the first time - at eye-wateringly expensive rates.


THE RYUGYONG TOWERS OVER crumbling apartment blocks where only the elite and ideologically sound are allowed to live, but even those citizens endure constant blackouts and scrape by on government-set salaries equivalent to about HK$100 a week.

When the basic structure of the Ryugyong Hotel was built it cost the impoverished nation an estimated US$750 million, the equivalent to 2 per cent of North Korea's gross domestic product at that time. No wonder, then, that the hotel has been a sensitive subject for the regime and off limits to foreigners for so long.

Journalists are barred from going to North Korea, so to get into the country I had to pose as a businessman and sign up for a four-day tour as part of a party comprising 15, mostly Chinese, visitors. Setting off for Pyongyang by train from Dandong, Liaoning province, we were ordered to leave our mobile phones and laptops behind, and our passports were confiscated at the border for the duration of our stay. Our luggage was checked for suspect literature and GPS devices. Once inside the country, we were put under what was supposed to be constant escort, taken only to officially approved sites and barred from having any contact with normal citizens.

On the penultimate day of the tour, the guide reluctantly gave in to my nagging and agreed to let our coach stop on a bridge - with a view of the Ryugyong - after a lengthy visit to nearby giant statues of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

Giant hoardings surrounded the hotel and cranes swung back and forth. Outside, lines of soldiers carrying ladders and building equipment marched in and out of the complex.

"We have many soldiers and they are entrusted with building works of national importance," said the guide. The labour supply must be abundant; a nation of 24 million, North Korea has one of the world's biggest armies, with an estimated 20 per cent of men aged 17 to 54 in the military. Enlisting is said to be the best way to obtain Party membership and the privileges that go with it.

We were allowed to snap pictures for just a few minutes before soldiers streaming out of the hotel site gestured at us to leave.

With only one day of our tour left, I realised, then, that the only way to see the hotel up close was to run there under cover of darkness. If anyone stopped me, I figured optimistically, the worst that would befall me would be a stern telling off.

The 47-storey Yanggakdo Hotel, in which our tour group was "detained", sits alone on an islet in the middle of the city's Taedong River, and earned the nickname Alcatraz from its geographical position, which conveniently stops restless foreigners wandering off.

The evening before my breakout, I asked our guide as casually as possible whether I could pop out for a morning jog. "You can," he replied. "But you must not leave the hotel grounds." With a wag of his finger, he added: "If you go outside, you will be arrested for being alone in the city without a passport."


THOSE WORDS ECHO IN MY MIND as I run across the eerily quiet city, keeping my eye on the huge shadow looming on the horizon until I reach a construction access road leading to the hotel, whose name means "capital of willows", the ancient name for Pyongyang.

Portacabins are lined up outside the hotel entrance, which is in darkness except for a single strip light to the left of the lobby area. I peer cautiously inside to see a vast cavernous space and walls of bare concrete. The interior looks years away from completion - even with the might of the military on hand to finish the job.

I step through a maze of scaffolding and set foot in what will be the lobby. I take two steps before seeing a soldier in great coat and hat, with a rifle slung across one shoulder, some 15 feet in front of me.

He squints across the darkness and glares at me in what looks like startled disbelief. I smile nervously, raise a hand in greeting, then turn, stumbling through the scaffolding before running into the darkness. Again, nothing but silence follows me.

The light is gathering fast and a group of children laugh as they run alongside me for a few yards. Groups of soldiers stare hard as I jog past the by-now busy railway station.

As I turn onto the bridge for the home stretch, my luck appears to have run out. Thirty armed soldiers march in shabby formation towards me; but, incredibly, they gaze blankly at me and continue in silence.

"You were seen leaving the hotel this morning with a camera," barks the guide later, as I emerge from breakfast. "Show me your pictures." I assure him I just circled the hotel grounds and have taken no pictures. A fellow tour group member discreetly switches camera memory cards with me, just in case.

My brief glimpse of the Ryugyong Hotel raises questions about North Korea that are impossible for people outside the country to answer and too dangerous for those inside it to ask. How can its rooms be filled when the country attracts so few visitors a year? How can North Korea justify such lavish spending when there is not enough food to go round and rural families must supplement their diets with grass and weeds?

The World Food Programme said in 2011 that six million of North Korea's 24 million people were at risk as the country faced its worst food shortages for more than a decade. A report by the same body at the end of last year said people in North Korea suffered "a serious lack of key proteins and fats in their diets".

For Kim Jong-un, humanitarian concerns and the continued appalling food shortages in the countryside appear to be no more than a trifling concern. More pressing, it seems, is the need to mobilise an army of soldiers and construction workers large enough to complete a spectacular hotel that will be held up as evidence of the hermit state's imagined modernity and technical sophistication.

In a rare speech, Kim spoke last year of his desire to turn the capital into "a majestic and picturesque world-class city" with particular emphasis on the Mansu Hill area, where the hotel is located.

"If we beautify the country by building up Pyongyang as an example and modelling the local cities on it, we can turn the whole country into a socialist paradise," said the chubby young tyrant, referred to within North Korea as Respected Marshall.

The Mansu Hill he spoke of is home to the giant statues of Kim's father and grandfather. So the Ryugyong Hotel, rising 2.5 times higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza, is in some respects a memorial to North Korea's modern-day pharaohs. Although North Korea is officially atheist, the two late Kims are treated as deities - there are an estimated 37,000 statues to Kim Il-sung alone - and no gesture of worship can be viewed as wasteful.

The most surreal part of our tour was a visit to the International Friendship Exhibition Hall, in Mount Myohyang, two hours outside Pyongyang, where 100,000 gifts given by world leaders to the Kims are on display - including train carriages from Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. After viewing the gifts we were ordered to smarten ourselves up and then led in single file into a huge room, filled with piped music, where we were instructed to bow before a life-size waxwork of the Great Leader (Kim Il-sung) standing in front of a backdrop of mountains, flowers and chirruping birds.

How could these quasi-religious practices carry on in a country where there is no religion, I asked our guide. He looked at me sharply and replied, without any apparent irony: "We believe the Great Leader is still alive."

Finding out whether this belief is commonly held, however, is impossible. Citizens suspected of saying anything disrespectful about the Kims or their regime can swiftly end up in one of the country's secret gulags, a vast network of which are thought to hold about 150,000 political prisoners.

At the end of our tour, our train carries us past scenes of chronic rural poverty on our way back to Dandong: bare fields, oxen drawing wooden carts, no tractors or farm machinery and clusters of villagers digging up dry, barren earth under the direction of soldiers.

You can only imagine that - like the hungry, grey citizens and soldiers who looked the other way as I ran through Pyongyang - these poor souls simply keep their heads down, do as they are told and pray that they and their families are lucky enough to be left alone.

Red Door News Hong Kong