As far as cities go, Pyongyang is a utilitarian utopia. Everything has a purpose, often more subversive than it superficially seems: the railway stations are hundreds of metres underground and double as bomb shelters; the car-less highways are 10 lanes wide to accommodate tanks in the event of an invasion; the vast squares have lines painted on them so military formations remain in perfect unity during extravagant parades; statues of granddaddy and daddy Kim serve as places of worship.
Then there are the two uber-kitsch international hotels, which function as plush prisons for foreigners -- they’re strictly off-limits for ordinary North Koreans. The Ryugyong Hotel is an unfinished 105-storey hotel shaped like a rocket ship. When construction begun in 1989 it was meant to be a symbol of North Korea’s greatness. Now, standing high above everything else in the flat (Pyongyang literally means “Flat Land”), concrete landscape, it’s a humiliating reminder of the government’s incompetence. Then there’s the Yanggakdo Hotel, which is quarantined on Yanggak Island in the Taedong River, complete with revolving restaurant on the 47th floor.