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North Korea Acknowledges Pyongyang Building Collapse That May Have Killed Hundreds

In a highly unusual move, the North Korean government is publicly admitting to what seems to be a serious construction disaster:

SEOUL, South Korea — A 23-story apartment building that may have housed more than 90 families collapsed in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, last week, a South Korean government official said on Sunday, after the North reported a “serious” accident at a construction site.

Earlier Sunday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that the accident occurred at an apartment construction site in the Pyongchon district of Pyongyang on Tuesday, blaming “sloppy building” and “irresponsible supervision and control.” It said there were “human casualties” but did not give figures.

But confirming the news to the South Korean news media on condition of anonymity, an official at the Ministry of Unification in Seoul said on Sunday that “a considerable number of people” may have died in the accident.

The North Korean news agency said that the Pyongyang government had organized a major rescue operation. It also reported a parade of senior government and ruling Workers’ Party officials apologizing to the bereaved families and district residents.

The South Korean official said that the 23-story building was under construction but was believed to have already housed as many as 92 families. In the North, families often move into an apartment building even before it is completed, the official said.

According to the North Korean news agency, the rescue operation ended Saturday. On Sunday, the Rodong Sinmun, the main party newspaper, and other North Korean news media carried photos showing senior officials bowing in apology before what appeared to be a crowd of district residents gathered in a construction site.

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, “sat up all night, feeling painful after being told about the accident,” the North Korean report quoted Kim Su-gil, a senior party secretary in Pyongyang, as saying.

Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, North Korea has initiated a slew of building projects, including a ski resort, amusement parks and tall apartment buildings in Pyongyang and elsewhere. Pyongyang is home to those most loyal to Mr. Kim’s government.

His government emphasized speed in building projects, setting deadlines and exhorting soldiers and workers at the work sites to finish their tasks ahead of time.

Although defectors from the North have reported frequent building accidents, it is rare for its government to report them. The South Korean news media speculated that the North’s swift reporting of the accident may indicate a high death toll. The last time North Korea admitted to a major accident was in 2004, when an explosion at a train station in Ryongchon, a city near the border with China, killed or injured hundreds of people.

It may also be that the fact that the incident occurred in the capital made it next to impossible for even the notoriously secretive Pyongyang regime to fail to acknowledge it publicly. At the time, it was suggested that the motivations were similar when North Korean media acknowledged the train incident noted above given the fact that it had happened close enough to the Chinese border for news of the incident to slip across the border and into the international media relatively quickly.

As will all things North Korean, of course, one is left to wonder what the consequences of this might be. Specifically, whether any prominent members of the government will be made scapegoats for the incident and disciplined before the public, mostly as a means to reinforce the idea of Kim Jong Un as a “protector” of the people.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    whether any prominent members of the government will be made scapegoats for the incident and disciplined before the public, mostly as a means to reinforce the idea of Kim Jong Un as a “protector” of the people.

    From my vantage point in Daejeon, this outcome seems inevitable. How dramatic the scapegoating becomes remains to be seen.

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