The North Korean state media has reported on the collapse of a multi-story apartment block in Pyongyang last week, noting that it led to loss of life.
“On the afternoon of the 13th a 23-floor apartment in Ansan 1-dong of Pyeongcheon district in Pyongyang collapsed,” a South Korean government official revealed earlier today. “It is normal in North Korea for people to move into apartment buildings before they are officially complete, and it is presumed that 92 households were living in this apartment, too.”
“A large number of people are going to have died in the collapse,” the official concluded.
In a highly unusual step, the North Korean state news agency, Chosun Central News Agency, and Rodong Sinmun, the Party publication, also reported the news today. Using the same article, the two outlets declared that it was “the irresponsibility of workers” who failed to supervise the construction appropriately that had caused the “serious accident” to occur.
Though the article acknowledged that the collapse “claimed casualties,” it did not report how many people died or under what circumstances. Rather, it focused on an apologetic visit to the site by the Minister of People's Security and other officials. Minister Choe Pu Il, it said, “Met the bereaved families, citizens in the district and other Pyongyangites to express deep consolation and apologies.”
Choe claimed public responsibility for the accident, saying that he had “failed to uphold well the [Chosun Workers’ Party’s] policy of love for the people.” Also, “He repented of himself, saying that he failed to find out factors that could put at risk the lives and properties of the people and to take thoroughgoing measures, thereby causing an unimaginable accident.”
Another official, Pyongyang Municipal People’s Committee Chief Secretary Kim Su Gil, distanced both the Party and Kim Jong Eun from the incident, stating that “Marshal Kim Jong Eun sat up all night in great pain upon receiving a report of the accident, and instructed leading officials of the Party, state and army to not only set aside all other affairs and rush to the scene to command the rescue battle, but also to recover the damage as early as possible.”
The report on the collapse of an apartment building in Pyongyang was on the bottom of page four. The front page
carried news of apartments for satellite scientists. | Image: Rodong Sinmun via Daily NK
Public reporting of accidents of any kind remains extremely rare in North Korea. However, this one may have been deemed necessary as the accident not only took place in the capital, but also comes in the aftermath of a barrage of critical reporting of the way the South Korean administration of President Park Geun Hye has handled the sinking of the Sewol, a passenger ferry which went down off the island of Jindo on April 16th.
In particular, the KCNA description of Kim Jong Eun’s swift and impassioned response upon hearing news of the collapse not only distances the North Korean leader from personal responsibility for it, but also illustrates the depth of his concern for "the people," in deliberate contrast to President Park.
The North Korean approach to construction project management is one likely cause of the disaster. In particular, professional skill is deemed less important than the mobilization of units of “shock troops” inspired to work by their political devotion rather than the promise of payment. Insufficient resource allocation and the siphoning off of cement and other inputs due to corruption are also likely to have played a major role.
Daily NK interviewed a defector with experience of the construction sector in North Korea. He noted, “Kim Jong Eun has been emphasizing ‘Masikryeong Speed’ and ‘Chosun Speed’, and when he goes on visits to construction sites he always hands down special orders to complete the construction in just a few days. This kind of thing is largely responsible for the poor construction that results.”
“In the event that they ignore these elements and resolve the issue by just finding someone to punish then this kind of accident is probably going to happen again,” he added.
Lee Soo Seok of the Institute for National Security Strategy further clarified, “Cell phones are now ubiquitous in Pyongyang, so news can travel fast. The regime would have grasped that if they were upfront about the accident that would lessen the chance of unfounded rumors harmful to the regime.”
Moreover, “Showing those responsible apologizing for the incident is Kim Jong Eun working to prevent any public anger coming back to him.”