The Tower of Pyongyang

By Race Capet

The Tower is most often associated with the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Indeed, faced with the terror of its two plummeting figures and the pyrotechnic splendor of its lightning and flame, anything less than than a Faustian epic of biblical proportions might seem disappointing. Mindful, however, of Eliot's observation that the world ends “not with a bang, but a whimper”, one is tempted to locate its modern-day analog in a structure far more mundane—the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang.

Ryugyong hotel 01

In 1986, a South Korean company completed what was then the world's tallest hotel, the Westin Stamford, in Singapore. Seoul was already slated to host the 1988 Olympic Games. Forgetting that it, too, was a part of Korea, the deeply impoverished North Korean regime felt its pride threatened and responded by asking to host the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students—a prestigious Eastern Bloc celebration of sport and culture—in 1989 and constructing, in preparation, the Ryugyong Hotel. Following numerous setbacks in construction and difficulties with the materials, the opening of the hotel was postponed again and again. The festival came and went with the half-finished building still unusable. Following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991 and the consequent disruption to its aid and trade, North Korea experienced widespread power outages and rampant food shortages. The hotel, now at full height but unwindowed and empty, was abandoned and, for the next sixteen years, the crane atop North Korea's largest building rusted in the breeze.

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber taught that God lived in no place but in the relational space between us when we address one another (and even the elements of the natural world) authentically, as one being in the world to another, in true dialogue—the space, as he called it, between an I and a Thou. When we fail to do this, we interact not with others as they are but merely with our ideas and conceptions of them and thus begin not a dialogue but a monologue in which everyone and everything outside ourselves is an object—a relationship between an I and an It. In this condition God is shut out from us, since the only kind of relationship one can have with God, according to Buber, is I-Thou, and all I-Thou relationships refer back to and allow the entrance of this most fundamental one. In formulating this dialogical theology, Buber doubtlessly was drawing upon the old Kabbalistic teaching of tzimtzum—the “contraction” of God by which He created a space outside His own totality where at least a semi-autonomous existence might take form. God, said the kabbalists and the Hasidim after them, withdrew the overpowering totality of his Being from the world (a word, which, in Hebrew, is derived from the same root as “concealment”) in order, as Buber might have put it, to allow for a Thou that He might relate to as an I.

In our own limited way, this is the essence of all human hospitality. When we open our homes to others, if we are good hosts, we too undergo a kind of tzimtzum to leave a space where our guests might be themselves and we might relate to them as an I to a Thou. We have all known hosts who do not do this because their real objective is not to relate to us as a Thou; they want us only as an It to show off their nice houses or prove how far they have come since high school. In filling the space—physically, psychologically, conversationally—with themselves they have shut us out and, in so doing, shut out the opportunity for the Spirit that suffuses and sustains us all to make itself manifest between us.

This is the folly of hosting an event not to foster friendship, but to outshine someone else's event—of building a hotel not to house guests, but to be taller than someone else's hotel. The government of North Korea, like every bad host, projected its ego to fill the space it should have been opening. The slogan of the Festival was “For anti-imperialist solidarity, peace, and friendship,” but as the hotel's construction came to consume two percent of North Korea's GDP while its people starved, the true motivations of the leadership's “hospitality” became very clear and when, as one North Korean government official put it, “North Korea ran out of money,” the embarrassed regime airbrushed the structure out of all the city's photos and removed it from the official street map. Kim Jong-Il, like Nimrod before him, built a grand temple in the power of his kingship only to find that he was alone in it and God was not there.

The arcanum of the Tower certainly stands as a counsel against the sin of pride and the vanity of ambition, but on a more everyday level it is also a caution against the far more common sin of boorishness. It is a reminder to us that the glory of that Being in which we all have our foundation is made manifest by more tongues than our own, and that our greatest glory is often simply to let the others speak.

Image of Ryugyong Hotel courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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