A few blocks east of the Brandenburg Gate, Cityhostel Berlin offers cheap rooms and spotty Wi-Fi in a large, gated 1970s building.
But it turns out the hostel is more interesting than its exterior suggests: The building is owned and leased out by North Korea.
Located in what was once Communist East Berlin, the hostel is next door to North Korea’s still-operating embassy, and was formerly its diplomatic quarters. “Parts of the embassy were vacated as relations between Germany and North Korea soured following Germany’s reunification in 1990,” according to The Washington Post. In the early 2000s, the hostel and a conference center were opened in the building.
The building’s ownership came under increased scrutiny after the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2321 in November, after North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test. The resolution says “all Member States shall prohibit the DPRK from using real property that it owns or leases in their territory for any purpose other than diplomatic or consular activities.”
And that’s just what North Korea seems to have been doing in Berlin. Public broadcaster ARD reports that the tenants apparently pay 38,000 Euros (about $41,000) a month in rent to North Korea.
“Any kind of commercial activity on the site of the embassy or in relation to the embassy is prohibited,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schäfer, according to German news site The Local:
” ‘Cityhostel in Berlin constitutes neither a diplomatic nor consular activity of a North Korean foreign representation,” he continued, adding that the government will move to “shut down the financial source to the North Korean regime as quickly as possible’.”
The hostel is on the same property as the embassy next door, over which the flag of North Korea flies. Despite the fresh moves by the German government to shut down the hostel, its ownership was likely not a total surprise.
Philipp Lengsfeld, a member of parliament from the Christian Democratic party, called it “an open secret — every cabdriver knew that,” according to The New York Times.
And the Post reports that in 2014, the German newspaper Die Welt attempted to verify rumors that the hostel was still connected via tunnel to the embassy, but found no evidence: “Despite the media coverage at the time, the hostel’s rental agreement sparked little outrage, even as other North Korean business practices in Europe came under growing scrutiny.”
One group that does seem largely unaware of the North Korean connection is the backpackers who stay at Cityhostel, which TripAdvisor rates as two-star accommodations. Of 541 reviews on the site, only a handful mention the hostel’s owner.
“All in all it’s an OK place to stay, if you don’t mind the North Korea connection, but it’s not our cup of tea,” wrote one visitor.
“Those of you who oppose N. Korea policies may not want to stay here,” warned another.
The hostel and conference center are thought to be North Korea’s last official revenue source in the country, reports the Post. And with the German government moving to shut it down, backpackers in Berlin will need to find a different place to lay their heads. Perhaps with better Wi-Fi.