The North Korean regime has repeatedly promoted its construction of high-rise apartments along Ryomyong Street, with hundreds of North Korean residents pushed to brutal limits over the past year to ensure its construction. Why has Kim Jong Un pushed so hard for this project? And how do residents actually feel about the extravagant thoroughfare and apartment complex? We turn to Daily NK’s reporter, Choi Song Min, to delve into the actual intentions of the authorities and the reactions from residents over the Ryomyong Street project.
1. The construction was completed in accordance with Kim Jong Un’s orders before the commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15. I have to say it does look impressive on face value. As you have been reporting on the construction process, what are your thoughts on the completed project?
The project was a display for foreign propaganda and to promote national pride, so Kim Jong Un spared nothing to make this achievement look as grand and luxurious as possible. However, there are critical problems over the quality and safety of the construction, as it was carried out with an over-emphasis on construction speed leading to questionable workmanship.
This is not just a personal opinion but a fact, with the officers and staff involved in the project sharing the same concerns.
2. According to various witness statements, mandatory contributions were greatly increased and residents were forced to surrender their cooking pots and tools due to the lack of building materials. What were the residents’ reactions to such demands?
In response to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the international community over Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear missile technology in March last year, he started the Ryomyong construction project on the 4th of April the same year, declaring an “intense confrontation with the United States and their axis of allies.” So the project was nothing more than propaganda to distract the domestic audience and flex its muscles to the international community.
However, as the construction began without sufficient materials including cement and steel, residents and students were forced to make increasing donations to the authorities who stated that Ryomygong Street was a nationwide effort requiring the support of all residents. Students and residents throughout the country were forced to hand in their household pots and fire pokers, even forced to pay cash if they couldn’t meet the quotas.
It is no exaggeration to say that the framework and concrete structures along Ryomyong Street are made from the sweat and blood of the residents.
3. Although it was difficult to stand by helplessly and observe the construction projects along Ryomyong Street made possible by exploitation, it was nonetheless completed within a year. I am suddenly overcome with curiosity over how such rapid construction was possible. Could you share your thoughts over North Korea’s construction habits?
Kim Il-sung’s proclamations of “Pyongyang Speed” and “Chollima Speed” in the 60’s set the stage for the present-day quality of slipshod work and poor construction. Kim Jong Il further exploited this ‘need for speed’ philosophy. During the 70s he forced “speed construction” teams to build various projects in Pyongyang such as Changgwang Avenue, Kwangbok Avenue, and Reunification Avenue. All these projects were used to promote his image as an unparalleled architect of prosperity and development; however, North Korea does indeed hold a rather high level of construction capability, especially in terms of manpower.
But despite the overwhelming supply of manpower, most of the actual construction is carried out manually, as the vast majority of the machinery and equipment are outdated. For instance there is only one 30 ton crane (TADANO), in dilapidated conditions, operating in North Hamgyong Province.
4. That would mean that the laborers involved faced indescribable difficulties under such conditions. Are they compensated appropriately for constructing such luxurious buildings manually? What kind of compensation can they expect in the event of an accident or death?
Compensation in North Korea would involve political rewards instead of monetary compensation. For instance, commendation, medals of honor, or documents of appreciation are handed out. However, in the case of construction accidents or deaths, they are largely determined as ‘accidents’ or ‘personal negligence.’
In rare cases, “patriotic martyr” commendations are sent to the bereaved families or “patriotic deed” commendations are announced through the mass media. To rub salt into the wounds, the bereaved families are told to be grateful for such commendations.
In very rare cases an individual may earn a special honor from Kim Jong Un, but such endorsements are never monetary, and typically involve gifts such as televisions, white rice, or fabric for clothing.
5. No wonder insecurities over poor construction are rampant. I’ve heard that there are many cases of buildings collapsing and even loss of human life due to faulty construction. Could you highlight a few such examples?
Loss of human life has always accompanied large scale construction projects in the North. Accidents involving falls, cave-ins, and collapses are prevalent in the construction of Pyongyang apartments. During the early 80’s, an 18-story apartment under construction along Reunification Avenue collapsed, killing 90 members of a combat engineer company. The authorities quickly took firm steps to curtail the spread of news of the accident by strictly controlling the military and residents involved, and cordoning off the accident site.
In 2015, after the collapse of an apartment construction site in Pyongchon, the Minister of People’s Security (Choe Pu Il) bowed his head in apology to the families of the bereaved. Such an apology was a first in North Korean history.
The situation is similar in the outer regions as well. In 2015 in North Hamgyong Province, many students from the development school affiliated with the provincial safety division lost their lives while putting the finishing touches on a plastering project for a 5-story apartment building when it collapsed. The bereaved families were each sent a television set to cover up the accident.
6. I’m shocked that Kim Jong Un still ordered “speed construction” of the apartments along Ryomyong Street even after being aware of the immense loss of human life due to faulty construction practices in the past. I’m sure that even the high level officials allotted apartments in the area would be uncertain about them. What are their reactions?
Even among the numerous “speed construction” projects in Pyongyang, including the construction of apartments for “10,000 households” and scientists, the officials agree that the apartments along Ryomyong Street pose the highest safety risks.
Construction projects take an average of 3 years to complete. Since the apartments along Ryomyong Street were completed in 1 year in a severe rush job, there are many fears.
Furthermore, there are added fears of collapses as the apartments are all high-rise buildings of 40 to 70 stories. An official from the Ministry of People’s Security claimed that he would not move into the apartments even for free. Giving the excuse that his elderly parents would be inconvenienced by living in such high-rise buildings, he handed his allocated apartment to someone else and paid a great deal of money to live in an apartment in another region.
7. It becomes more perplexing that Kim Jong Un pushed ahead with his obsession over building these high-rise apartments despite the unwelcome response from both the officials and residents. Would this project be labeled as Kim Jong Un’s “greatest achievement” yet?
The authorities have always used such large scale construction projects to strengthen the solidarity of the Party and to encourage opposition to foreign pressure.
The completed Ryomyong Street apartment construction project was also a political show against sanctions imposed by the international community to legitimize North Korea’s parallel policy of nuclear and economic development.
However, the 70-story buildings will become a white elephant in the event of power failures, as the elevators will be completely inoperable. While Kim Jong Un may flaunt the current project as one for the people, it will be hard to stem the tide of negative sentiment in the long run. In fact, murmurs that the Ryomyong Street apartment complex is just as worthless as the Ryugyong Hotel are already circulating.