When that apartment building crumbled into the earth in Pyongyang last week—thus becoming the probable tomb of several hundred wives, children, and parents of the elite salarymen who lived in them—I linked to a series of remarkable reports from a guerrilla journalist for Rimjingang, who was willing to risk torture and execution to practice journalism about his homeland. The reports, accompanied by photographs and video, described the shoddy construction methods being used there, and foretold the tragedy to come.
Now, thanks to the Daily NK, we also have our first accounts of the disaster itself. They tell us that the regime was not only unprepared for this disaster, but failed to mobilize an effective rescue after it happened, probably contributing to an even greater loss of life.
The source told Daily NK on the 23rd, “During the day on May 13th, there was a huge bang and then the new apartment block in Pyeongcheon started to collapse. People on the first and second floors were able to get out in time and were rescued, but the remaining 80+ households almost all died.”
“Some people who had managed to escape then used cell phones to let the Ministry of People’s Security and local administrative office know what had happened, but barely a handful of cadres came when they heard the news,” the source said, alleging, “There was no proper rescue mission to speak of; they managed to pull out a few who had been pinned under the debris, that was all.”
Moreover, “They didn’t use any equipment in the rescue work, just mobilized people. That must have served to exacerbate the death toll. It wasn’t until three days later that an excavator was brought in from another construction site, even though that is more or less essential for this kind of thing. Of course, by then not one person was left alive.”
As Rimjingang had suggested, the apartments had been reserved for “senior elites” and their families. Worse:
It is believed that most of the men were at their workplaces at the time of collapse, meaning that the victims tended to be women, children, and the elderly.
In relation to the public apology by Minister of People’s Security Choe Pu Il, the source explained, “They had no choice but to apologize, because news of how poorly the accident had been dealt with was already spreading. People don’t say it out loud, but they are disappointed [in Kim Jong Eun] because of it.”
Upstart NK News adds to this by telling us why this tragedy is likely to be repeated. Its correspondents have collected photographs of other construction projects in Pyongyang and shown them to structural engineers, who point to multiple and serious defects in materials, workmanship, and construction techniques. The article is worth reading for its graphics alone, including .gif-animated time-lapse satellite imagery. Photographs of buildings under construction show a patchwork of parallelograms, obtuse angles, and assorted crimes against trigonometry that can’t possibly be structurally sound.
[Courtesy of NK News]
Those defects have obvious implications for those still living in them, and for those who must decide whether to inspect or evacuate them — or, more importantly, to even suggest it. Ask yourself — if you were an architect or an engineer in Pyongyang, would you have blown the whistle on this? Do you suppose Kim Jong Un, who has staked so much of his standing with the elite on this construction boom, will now go back to these elite residents and confess that instead of blocks of flats, he gave them abbatoirs?
Disaster responses are difficult things for governments to do, including competent ones. During the first critical minutes, when the right reactions can save lives, responders often have incomplete or false information about the nature and scale of the danger. Incompetent, unaccountable governments disincentivize truth-telling, compound the errors that lead to disasters, and often bungle their response when the inevitable happens. In any ordinary country, that would have political consequences. And while some of those consequences will be hidden from us in North Korea’s case, Kim Jong Un will not escape them, either:
[D]aily NK recently sought out the opinions of visa-holding North Korean citizens on family visits in China. What we found was a unified voice of condemnation, one that laments the course chosen by the regime of Kim Jong Eun.
For example, one interviewee who had come to China from her home in Pyongyang said, “It would have been better if they had not built facilities like that water park, and had just helped people to live better. Shouldn’t they be doing that, so that the masses no longer starve?”
“People are having a hard time, what with getting mobilized for this and that construction project,” she went on critically. “In factories the managers keep getting their workers to pay money or give cement, and nobody can push back against it. They just have to do it. If you say you haven’t got any money, they’ll tell you to borrow it.”
However, “If you say anything about [the actions of the authorities] they’ll arrest you, so we just think it instead.” [Daily NK]
There is much grumbling about mass mobilizations to labor on the Masikryeong Ski Resort, and the waste of national resources that ought to have been spent on the poor and hungry. What’s striking about the reactions of these North Koreans, whom the Daily NK’s correspondents interviewed in China, is (1) how similar they are to things I’ve repeatedly said here at this site, (2) their apparent unanimity, and (3) the fact that they represent elite opinion. These aren’t refugees. The names, of course, are pseudonyms.
Park Min Jun from Sinuiju in North Pyongan Province added dejectedly, “People just snort at the construction of amusement facilities. We think it’s all just construction for the sake of the Marshal’s record of achievement. That kind of thing is just going to both make people’s lives and the economy harder.”
Lee Ju Hee from Kaecheon in South Pyongan Province agreed. “People wonder why they didn’t use the money they invested in Masikryeong Ski Resort and Munsu Water Park to help the ordinary people get by,” he said. “It’s true that those amusement facilities will draw foreigners to Chosun, but how much can they really earn that way?”
However, yet again Lee struck a note indicative of pervasive fear in North Korean society, explaining that a person “may think that the Marshal should be using some of the absurd sum he is spending on nuclear tests and the construction sector for ordinary people, but you have to be careful what you say. People like us have to hold our tongues and just get on with it.”
North Korea’s response to the collapse—in the very center of its capital city—makes the South Korean government’s incompetence after the Sewol Ferry disaster seem mild by comparison. Like others on the far left who are trying to exploit the Sewol Ferry tragedy for their own political ends, Christine
Ahn Hong (whatever) doesn’t even seem to have heard about the disaster in Pyongyang. Yet to read her description, you’d think that Park Geun-Hye had personally tied cinderblocks to the feet of those poor kids and thrown them overboard. Much of Ahn’s Hong’s vitriol against Park, and against capitalism in general, would be more valid if directed against North Korea’s political system, and how it contributed to its own disaster.
Right now, South Korea is in a state of hysteria to identify and punish scapegoats. Accountability is certainly an important incentive for safety and the competence of government, if it identifies the right actors and problems, and if it eventually leads to a public conversation about more practical things, like maritime safety regulations and inspections, building codes and inspections, and improving communications and coordination before the next disaster.
In North Korea’s case, an honest discussion of accountability won’t be possible. There will have to be scapegoats and sacrifices, however. Regardless of their politics, one must feel profound sympathy for any man who has lost a wife, his children, or his parents — or all of them. It’s difficult to imagine the depth of sorrow and rage that some of them must be feeling now. Worse, these are elites, who are used to riding in the front carriages of trains, eating rice, and riding in automobiles. Many others, who were not directly affected by this collapse, have lost their confidence in the safety of the buildings where they live.
In fact, corruption and the pilferage of building materials by the military units that built the apartments were probably contributing causes, and rumors of scapegoating and retribution are already circulating. But the fact that the scapegoats are technically a military unit will complicate that. So will the fact that the haste they were driven to and the dysfunction of North Korean society made this disaster — and the next one — inevitable.