Hotels of Pyongyang, by author James Scullin and photographer Nicole Reed, takes readers inside the frozen-in-time, yet surprisingly glamorous, hotels of the hermit country’s capital city.
Extraordinary photos in the tome show how its hotels have a vast array of amenities – though room service is non-existent and Wi-Fi extremely rare.
It’s also clear that they provide a rare creative outlet in a bleak authoritarian regime for managers and interior designers, because some of the décors are dazzling, psychedelic even.
The hotels’ décors, James revealed, left one with ‘the feeling of being on a Wes Anderson set’.
For instance, he explained that they met a waitress whose pink blazer matched the entire dining hall’s table cloth and aesthetic.
‘A lot of design and colour is very considered in North Korea like that,’ he said.
James, who’s from Melbourne, visited 11 hotels and said that one of his favourite rooms was the karaoke room in the Koryo Hotel.
He told MailOnline Travel: ‘It’s very kitsch and psychedelic. It has three different types of floor tiling and each wall has different wallpaper. It has beads that hang from the ceiling, which give off a 70s vibe, while the futuristic swivel chairs at the bar look like something out of the Jetsons.
‘It’s interesting to imagine that someone designed this room unaccredited without ever having travelled overseas or having been exposed to other countries that aren’t North Korea.’
James was also a fan of the hotel’s revolving restaurant on the top floor, where meals are eaten to a backdrop of North Korean revolutionary songs playing on a loop – a feature of all the hotels they visited.
He added: ‘The Koryo Hotel is considered the most deluxe of the hotels and with a revolving restaurant, it’s a nice place to have a drink and check out the Pyongyang skyline.’
He explained that the hotels ‘are all immaculately maintained and fully staffed at all times’.
And the staff, he said, always provide excellent service.
‘This was great as we got to stay in more of them and experience them. Some come with traditional Korean floor heating called ondol, which makes them cosy.’
However, he didn’t get to experience the exclusive rooms – as those are for VIPs and diplomats and are apparently ‘very expensive’.
The self-published photography book includes photos of hotel staff, but it wasn’t always easy securing their permission.
He found North Korean people to be very modest and throughout the project each staff portrait required a lot of convincing.
The waitress in the pink blazer, for example, only agreed to pose after some determined convincing from James’s North Korean guides.
He said: ‘Most people did enjoy having their photos taken, but there’s just a lot of modesty to overcome. Thankfully, our guides worked hard for us and ensured we got all the shots we wanted.’
Scullin explained that the hotels were actually quite full, mainly with Chinese tourists, but that his photos were taken when the tourists were out on guided tours.
He said: ‘This made our job easier although it does perpetuate the trope that all the hotels are empty, which certainly wasn’t the case pre-Covid.’
Scullin was living and working in Beijing when he first ventured into North Korea as a tourist in 2012.
All tourism is heavily government regulated, so Scullin first visited the country as part of an approved tour group. He was so compelled by what he found that he volunteered to work for the company and began providing guided tours to travellers.
He said: ‘I’ve always had an interest in countries with a Soviet past. They have such different cultures and aesthetics than we do in the West.
‘Also, the fact that North Korea is so isolated makes it fascinating to see how a country develops outside of the globalised world.’
But why choose to focus on hotels in a country with such an interesting and complex history?
‘It was as much of an objective subject matter as you can get in North Korea,’ Scullin explained.
‘Also, achieving access to hotels isn’t so difficult for foreigners.
‘Their brutalist architecture is a relic of a bygone era and I wanted to document them along with their marbled lobbies, grand dining halls and kitsch karaoke rooms.’
And did he ever feel unsafe on his trips? He didn’t, but acknowledged that North Korea isn’t a country for everyone.
He said: ‘Once on the ground in Pyongyang it was fine. As long as you’re respectful of their different political system, the North Korean guides we dealt with were very easy to get along with. Most tourists develop close friendships with the guides, who are much more personable than people expect.
‘Travelling there is certainly not for everyone, but overall I think it’s better to have engagement with a country like North Korea rather than remain isolated from each other.
‘To see how a country with a completely different society, isolated from the West with its own political, economic and social structures is a unique experience, particularly in the globalised world we live in.’