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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Egypt’s Orascom Investment Holding (OIH) S.A.E. financed the introduction of several enormous LED lighting walls on the iconic Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang in early 2018, multiple informed sources have told NK News.
The massive light wall system – which is said to comprise over 100,000 LEDs and displays North Korean propaganda animations – was installed in early 2018 by an unspecified Chinese company on behalf of the Egyptian investors, one of the sources said.
“Yes, Orascom people did it,” a second source said about the involvement of the Egyptian firm in the lighting wall, which also owns 75% voting rights in North Korea’s Koryolink Company.
Furthermore, the company continues to be involved in efforts to construct interior parts of the unfinished tower, including “three to four restaurants” – one of which will revolve – that could be open as soon as “next year,” a third of the sources said.
Asked to confirm the claims, a spokesperson for the firm – known until last year as Orascom Telecom Media & Technology (OTMT) Holding – simply told NK News on Monday that they had “no comment” to make about the issue.
But should it be officially confirmed that Orascom financed the new LEDs, it could be an indicator that a solution may be in sight relating to long-standing hurdles relating to its failed repatriation of Koryolink profits out of North Korea.
In that regard, the introduction of the LED lights in April 2018 came less than a year after Orascom Chairman Naguib Sawiris last visited the DPRK, in April 2017.
No details ever emerged about the full scope of that visit, but analysts speculated at the time it could be related to talks surrounding “the fate of profits from Orascom’s JV telecoms venture”.
A HOTEL INVESTMENT?
Besides its well-known Koryolink activities, Orascom has for over a decade been connected to the Ryugyong Hotel, having installed top-to-bottom glazing there between 2008-2011 via a $30 million investment maintained by Orabank, its affiliated but now-shuttered banking subsidiary.
“We are planning to relocate Koryolink headquarters into the tower very soon to bring life to the building,” Sawiris said in a November 2012 interview with Forbes, adding that “Orascom has the right to operate this facility” once it opens.
But while a 2012 OTMT prospectus document also said “it is hoped to partially complete the interior refurbishment of the (Ryugyong) tower’s 360,000 square metres of floor space during 2012,” in spite of the recent addition of the LED wall installation the building remains unopened.
Since 2016, however, numerous signs have emerged which suggest construction efforts may have resumed to open the building after a temporary hiatus beginning in 2011.
Most recently, former Australian detainee in the DPRK Alek Sigley tweeted in June that new signage bearing the hotel’s name and logo had been added above the main entrance, a possible sign that it might open soon.
New signage above the main entrance to the Ryugyong Hotel bearing its name and logo. A sign that it will soon be open for business?
류경호텔 정문에 걸려있는 새 간판. 간판은 류경호텔의 이름과 상표를 표시하고 있다. 개업날이 다가오고 있는가? pic.twitter.com/bwdDot50ya
— Alek Sigley (@AlekSigley) June 24, 2019
In addition, DPRK state TV revealed grand plans for the area surrounding the hotel building in March 2019, including the creation of two dual-sail shaped 80-story buildings.
Ahead of the LED walls being installed in 2018, two new access roads were spotted being connected to the base of the hotel building in February 2018 – after a wall connecting the hotel to a main road had been removed just the year before.
And in 2016 NK News observed lights on at the top of the building in at least three rooms, an indicator that some activity may have been underway even back then.
Rumors about the hotel’s potential-but-partial opening and yet-to-be-confirmed revolving restaurants have been circulating since at least 2017.
Orascom filings indicate that the between $30-45 million invested in the hotel building are intended to be “repaid when the tower becomes operational.”
“The Company expects to receive a right of use in the tower upon its completion.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News