Defectors: Collapse a “Matter of Time”

Speculation surrounding the collapse of a 23-story apartment building in Pyongyang last week continues after the North Korean authorities made the rare move of reporting the incident via state media channels. The number
of dead and missing are yet to be confirmed. 

Although the North publicly acknowledged a deadly explosion
at Ryongchon Station in 2004, the regime tends to keep quiet regarding construction accidents in order to avoid drawing attention to government failings.  Should a particular incident incur loss of life, people
are warned not to spread “groundless rumors” lest the regime find themselves cast in an
unfavorable light. 

Defectors spoken to by Daily NK believe last week’s collapse was in part due to insufficient and substandard
construction materials.  In the North, the defectors report, construction work proceeds in an ad hoc manner as cadres siphon
off necessary supplies like cement and steel reinforcements for their own gain. 

A former laborer with experience on construction sites along Kwangbok
Street in Pyongyang revealed, “The government has not carried out
construction properly since before the disintegration of the official
distribution system in the 1990s. Corruption exists at every stage; from distribution to procurement, from accounts to the building site itself. It is difficult to imagine a well-constructed building in North Korea.” 

Moreover, the defector lamented, “It was normal practice for work to be sloppy. Even the
steel reinforcements and cement needed for the apartment walls would be taken away. Usually
the high-grade cement would disappear and low quality cement would be used in
its place.  Instead of thick steel bars, we
would have to use the thinner and weaker ones.” 

According to the defector, cheaper alternatives soon became the norm in the face of rampant
corruption. “Coal embers and mud
were mixed in with cement and we made the walls that way. Luckily, we were only
constructing a four story building and I know that there haven’t been any accidents
yet. However, it’s only a matter of time before some of those other high-rise buildings
collapse because they too have been built using these tricks.” 

“Officials are often mocked by ordinary laborers who use the phrase, ‘Party cadres do it confidently, security
agents do it proudly, and laborers do it skillfully,’” a second defector added, explaining that, “Cadres [practice corruption] loudly, the powerful fully
utilize their power, and laborers take something for themselves, but not enough
to get caught.” 

Defectors agree that despite the impressive appearance of many new apartments, corruption at all levels of the construction industry now means that inhabitants are at serious risk in their own homes.

Such an assertion is compounded by reports from inside North Korea
itself, with one source conveying to
Daily NK, “Just like the 2007 collapse of a seven story apartment building in Hyesan, last week’s collapse may have happened because people modify state-built structures as they wish. Even though it isn’t clear who is responsible, some could well lose their lives if they find themselves blamed for it.”

Kang Mi Jin
Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to