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.
It’s here that American student Otto Warmbier is said to have stolen some sort of political propaganda from the “staff-only area of the hotel". His televised confession made it seem as if it was some grand scheme, orchestrated with his local church back in the States -- the Friendship United Methodist Church -- and designed to undermine the North Korean state. In reality -- or, rather, in the spirit of speculation-as-commentary that is the norm when talking about North Korea -- this backstory was probably little more than a face-saving measure for the Kim government, a faux justification for holding him in custody since late January.