In 1948 George Orwell published a book called Nineteen Eighty-Four about a dystopian future perpetually consumed by war. This horrific society was built upon an all-encompassing cult of personality centered around an omnipresent figure called ‘Big Brother’, characterized by overwhelming government surveillance, enabled and sustained by mind-control of the masses under the direction of a privileged (single) party elite. Any proven or conceived independent thought by any individual or group was severely punished by the state as a ‘Thought Crime’, justified by the state as being for the greater good…
Also in 1948, purely by coincidence, perhaps, a Soviet-trained guerrilla fighter named Kim Il Sung became the founder of a new country. Backed by the USSR and China the Northern half of the Korean peninsula became the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (North Korea). Following the 1950-1953 Korean War, Kim Il Sung successfully forged the world’s most impenetrable cult of personality, which would go on to become the ever-decreasingly-likely third generation dynasty that somehow survives today.
Stupendously huge bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, tower over the citizens of every city and town (currently, Kim Jong III seems not to have erected his own statues in every city and town). Countless billboards and posters bear military slogans and propaganda, accompanied by the likenesses of the Great and Dear leaders. Nationwide, television sets are hardwired to receive a single signal, broadcast by the state. People who openly (or privately) criticize the state or its leadership in any way, or are even suspected of doing so, are reportedly shipped to prison camps, or ‘gulags’ for re-education, often with their entire families. All of this is eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.
A few years ago, British journalist and writer Peter Hitchens (who incidentally won the Orwell Prize for Political Journalism in 2010) traveled to Pyongyang and wrote an article in which he noted eerie similarities between Orwell’s fictitious Ministry of Truth, and Pyongyang’s very real Ryugyong Hotel.
Construction on the mammoth Hotel commenced in 1987, which at the time would have been one of the world’s tallest buildings. Work ground to a halt two years later however, for two primary reasons. North Korea simply had no money to build a 105-storey building, and the young soldiers consigned with the task of building it had little idea how to actually do so. Described by Hitchens in 2007 as ‘The ugliest building in the universe’, the Ryugyong languished in semi-completed disrepair for the next few decades until its facade was finally completed by the German luxury hotel group, Kempinski (North Korea remains too broke to pay for… well, much at all really, and the Kempinski Group was compensated with a 75% stake in Koryolink, North Korea’s single, state-run mobile phone carrier).
There are four Ministries in Orwell’s novel which oversee… everyone. These are the Ministries of Love, Peace, Plenty and Truth. The names of each are misnomers, as the true nature of each is the opposite of what its name suggests. The Ministry of Truth (workplace of Winston Smith, the book’s protagonist) deals in the dissemination of State propaganda.
Ok, so THIS is the freaky bit (we’re just getting to that).
George Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ from Nineteen Eighty-four was a colossal 300-metre, three-sided pyramid-shaped concrete building.
Slightly bigger (at 2.5 times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza) the Ryugyong Hotel is a colossal 330-metre, pyramid-shaped concrete building.
The Ministry of Truth had 3000 rooms (above ground).
The Ryugyong was originally planned to have 3000 rooms (though this number was significantly reduced due to structural constraints and the inclusion of facilities generally expected of five-star hotels).
Orwell’s ‘The Party’ maintained total control, utilising a combination of relentless misinformation and ‘re-education’, by means of unimaginable brutality and/or disappearance.
Pyongyang… well, its Pyongyang.
One could be forgiven for thinking Kim Il Sung may have interpreted Orwell’s horrific seminal work as a societal blueprint; a handbook of sorts, rather than a dire warning for humankind as Orwell intended. Is it possible that Kim actually did set out to build the Ministry of Truth (and now continues to thumb his nose at the outside world from the glass box where he lies in state as Eternal President of the crumbling, impenetrable nation he founded)? As for the isolated, corrupt and decrepit society his grandson now rules over, nobody at present can (or will) do anything about it.
Incidentally, Orwell’s Ministry of Truth had three slogans, one of which was written on each side of the gigantic pyramidal building. They were:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
To be honest, I feel a few modern parallels here outside.
If you haven’t already, you can read Nineteen Eighty-four free here.