This weekend, we hear news of a terrible tragedy in Pyongyang, the collapse of a 23-story apartment building in the central Phyongchon District. The building was still under construction, but apparently, North Koreans move into apartment buildings before the construction is completed.
Sources in South Korea’s Unification Ministry told Reuters that hundreds may have died, and KCNA’s expression of “profound consolation and apology … to bereaved families” seems to corroborate that there were many dead. KCNA says the accident “claimed casualties,” but doesn’t say how many. It reports that the accident happened on May 13th, but didn’t report it until May 18th. By then, rescue operations had already ended a day ago.
To be clear, these are images of an apartment building under construction in the same district, not necessarily the building. They’re very recent images, and when the next ones come out, we’ll be able to identify exactly which building fell down.
(Update: Curtis Melvin identifies a different, similar-looking building and guesses that it is the building that collapsed. I’m not completely convinced, but Curtis is almost never wrong about these things.)
Ominously for those responsible for the project, KCNA said that “officials supervised and controlled [the construction] in an irresponsible manner.” KCNA then prints a series of harshly self-critical apologies from officials, including from the dreaded Ministry of Peoples’ Security (pdf), who had some degree of responsibility for overseeing the construction. The officials also promise future corrective measures, suggesting that for now, there has been no decision to purge them.
Although we’ve seen North Korea publish harsh criticism of Jang Song-Thaek after his purge, and name one or two scapegoats after its disastrous 2009 currency confiscation, I can’t recall having seen so many high-ranking North Korean officials engage in public self-criticism.
[Apartment building under construction, Phyongchon District,
Pyongyang, April 2014, via Google Earth]
Because the AP’s partner news agency, KCNA, first reported this story, correspondents for various news services in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo could report this news as soon as AP’s Pyongyang Bureau could. The AP did publish a story with a Pyongyang byline, including quotes from KCNA about Kim Jong Un staying up all night over the disaster, but Reuters published a much more detailed one from Seoul, including speculation by a Unification Ministry official about the number of casualties.
(The AP later filed an updated report from Seoul, quoting totally random residents of Pyongyang it just happened to encounter and interview on the streets of Pyongyang, who spoke freely with the foreign reporters with absolutely no security officials present. Or not.)
The AP’s only photographs of the disaster as of the time of this post show well-dressed North Koreans crying and mourning, but don’t show the actual collapse scene. All of the photographs are credited to photographers Kim Kwang Hyon and Jon Chol Jin, both of whom are North Korean KCNA photographers seconded to the AP. AP photographer David Guttenfelder tweeted one of Jon’s pictures; his Instagram page has nothing on the collapse. From this, I infer that the North Koreans didn’t allow him to visit the scene.
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The news service that scooped the rest of them, including KNCA, was the guerrilla news service Rimjingang, whose correspondents risk their lives to file clandestine news reports from North Korea.
In January of this year, Rimjingang did a series of clandestine investigative reports on a campaign of shoddy, quota-driven, human-wave apartment construction in Pyongyang. Rimjingang’s reporting, done in the Taedonggang District, just across the river from the scene of the collapse, found poor planning, awful working conditions, faulty plumbing, and serious structural defects:
The root of the problem plaguing these modern yet defective apartments is evidenced in several issues: A lack of materials results in low quality and fragile structures. Further, the rush to construct the buildings, led by the engineering battalion and compulsory-mobilized teams from local workplaces, means that basic building requirements are compromised. Implementation of an unreasonable work schedule, in the name of a “the construction battle”, spurs the work on but at a heavy price. [Rimjingang]
The rush to build the new apartments was driven by political considerations – a promise on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth to build 100,000 new apartments. It was to be done with almost no modern construction equipment, although we know that the regime could have obtained it had it chosen to do so.
Rimjingang’s guerrilla journalist even risked his life to take and smuggle out video, showing buildings under construction with misaligned floor joints and windows whose sizes don’t even match.
Although some of the workers had been withheld from currency-earning work overseas, many others were simply mobilized students, half-starved “shock troops,” and youth league members who knew nothing about construction. According to Rimjingang, the apartments were to have been reserved for “relatives of senior party officials.”
If you want more brave, independent, and informative reporting from North Korea, forget the AP; support Rimjinang. As for the AP, once again, North Korea has prevented it from reporting any actual news from North Korea.
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Ironically, North Korea has recently spat bile at Park Geun-Hye, in an attempt to pin the Sewol Ferry sinking on her. KCNA even features a May 17 story in which the “Central Committee of the Journalists Union of Korea … denounc[ed] the Park Geun Hye group for resorting to press censorship and red herring in a bid to get rid of the worst crisis caused by the ferry Sewol sinking disaster.” Let no one accuse North Korea of allowing the media to stray from its iron message discipline. KCNA is also calling for the “punishment of murderous enterprisers” behind the Sewol Ferry disaster.
As we saw from the domestic political reactions to Sewol, Katrina, Fukushima, and the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, people expect governments to prevent man-made disasters, and to respond competently to both man-made and natural disasters. Almost nothing can destroy a government’s domestic political standing faster than botching a disaster response. The North Koreans seem worried about that, too.
[T]he recent unexpected accident caused damage but there is loving care of our mother party which takes care of all people of the country and relieves their pain, adding that Marshal Kim Jong Un sat up all night, feeling painful after being told about the accident, instructed leading officials of the party, state and the army to rush to the scene, putting aside all other affairs, and command the rescue operation to recover from the damage as early as possible. [KCNA; full text below the jump]
Ordinarily, I’d say North Korea is an exception to all of the rules of political accountability, but unlike the 2004 Ryongchon disaster, this one affected non-expendable, elite citizens of the capital right after the regime reportedly carried out a major purge there. KCNA’s expressions of regret and apology are uncharacteristically (even remarkably) frank, which suggests that the loss of life was indeed serious. I’ve pasted the complete KCNA article below the jump.
The disaster raises other questions about the broader consequences of the disaster. For example, how many other buildings in Pyongyang are structurally unsound? Will the authorities now embark on a program to inspect the new buildings, and reinforce or rebuild the unsafe ones? Will members of the elite complain, panic, or even try to move away out of fear for their safety? If inspectors find widespread defects and evacuate families, will there be a purge of scapegoats? Panic tends to proliferate fastest in places where the authorities withhold information and public suppress criticism.
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Correction: A previous version of this post said that Curtis Melvin had identified the same building as the one pictured in this post. On closer examination, it’s a similar building, but not the same one.
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Update: Yonhap has a photograph of a North Korean official bowing in apology to a crowd of citizens, via the Rodong Sinmun (in Korean only). There is a cleared area and an excavator behind him that might be the collapse site. See also Curtis’s comments.
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Update, May 20, 2014: Welcome, Washington Post readers.