Activist takes hotel chain to task over Pyongyang | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 26.12.2012
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Activist takes hotel chain to task over Pyongyang

Angered at the human rights situation in North Korea and the regime's defiance of international requests not to launch a missile on December 12, Ken Kato has called on Kempinski Hotels to abandon a project in Pyongyang.

The silhouette of the Ryugyong Hotel has stood stark against the hills that surround the North Korean capital since the late 1980s, but it is finally nearing completion.

Constructed in the shape of a 105-storey pyramid, work on one of the North Korean regime's most grandiose vanity projects was halted in 1992 due to the economic crisis the nation suffered after the fall of the Soviet Union, its main sponsor.

The occasional visitor to the secretive state reported that a crane still stood forlornly at the very tip of the pyramid, although work began once again in 2008.

Slogans honoring the leadership are displayed during a mass rally organized to celebrate the success of a rocket launch that sent a satellite into space on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, (Photo: Ng Han Guan/AP/dapd)

Pyongyang celebrates the launch of a long-range rocket on December 12

Then, in November, Reto Wittwer, CEO of luxury hotel operators Kempinski S.A., stunned an industry forum in Seoul by announcing that the Ryugyong Hotel will "partially, probably" open in the middle of 2013. The work to bring the structure up to scratch is being carried out by Egypt's Orascom Telecom, which won the contract to introduce a mobile phone network in North Korea in 2008.

The plan, Wittwer said, is to open the hotel - its name means Capital of Willows and is one of the former names of the North Korean capital - with office space, shops, restaurants and 150 guest rooms.

'Hotel of Doom'

Even with all the investment going into the property, it will be difficult for the building to completely shed the nickname "hotel of doom" that it has been given by critics.

Esquire magazine once famously described the structure as "the worst building in the history of mankind."

The aesthetics of the building are of little concern to Ken Kato, a Tokyo-based human rights activist, who has written to the senior management of Kempinski to urge them to put priority on encouraging North Korea to feed its people, release hundreds of thousands of political prisoners from its gulag system and adhere to pleas from around the world to halt its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

"I am trying very hard to get them to pull out of North Korea because what they are doing there is illegal under United Nations sanctions," Kato told DW.

"I wrote to the management and the owners of the company three weeks ago with evidence of North Korea's illegal actions, but I have not had any replies yet," he said. "But I will keep trying."

There were no replies to messages from DW to Mr. Wittwer and Colin Lubbe, CFO of Kempinski.

Response to rocket launch

A video grab from KCNA shows the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket launching at the North Korea's West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province in this video released by KCNA in Pyongyang December 13, 2012. KCNA said the video was taken December 12, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/KCNA)

Pyongyang denies the rocket was launched for military purposes

Kato sent out another volley of protest letters after North Korea defied the UN and the rest of the world to launch a rocket and put a satellite into orbit on December 12. Experts say the vehicle is a modified Taepodong missile and the launch was little more than a disguised test of the North's weapons technology. Now, they believe, North Korean scientists are working to miniaturize nuclear warheads to the point they can be attached to missiles.

Kato has also written to the governments of the United States, Germany and the Crown Property Bureau of Thailand as the Thai Royal Family owns a stake in Kempinski.

"As you know, North Korea has been supplying missiles to Thailand's neighbor, Burma, and I think Thailand's participation in the Ryungyong Hotel could be a major scandal due to North Korea's renewed provocations," he said.

Kato claims Kempinski's operations in North Korea violate paragraph 18 of United Nations Security Council resolution 1874, which prohibits all financial transactions that "could contribute to the DPRK's nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs or activities."

In addition, a Thai national named as Ms. Anocha Panjoy was reportedly abducted by North Korean agents and held in Pyongyang against her will.

Kato also claims that Mr. Wittwer is "a friend" of Ri Chol, the North Korean ambassador to Switzerland, and that Wittwer lives close to Pyongyang's Representative Office in Geneva.

Money laundering operations

Ri Chol has also been identified in South Korean media as one of the regime's most trusted lieutenants and has overseen Pyongyang's money laundering operations.

Kato insists that Ri has overseen the use of billions of euros for North Korea's weapons and nuclear programs when they should have been used to feed a starving populace.

A malnourished North Korean boy, 3 year-old Jong Song Chol, is fed a vitamin and mineral-enriched porridge at a hospital supplied by the United Nations World Food Programme (Photo: Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images)

Millions of North Koreans are chronically malnourished

"Ri was responsible for laundering money that could have been used to help these people and it is no exaggeration to say that his actions caused the death of 2 million people from starvation," Kato said.

It is estimated that North Korea spent some 750 million US dollars on the initial stages of the construction of the hotel, equating to about 2 percent of the nation's GDP. In the same way that the successful launch of a rocket has boosted the standing of the nation's young leader, Kim Jong Un, the opening of the Ryungyong Hotel could prove to be another message to the world that North Korea is making its mark on the international scene.

Ken Kato is determined to stop that happening.

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