If a building collapsed in Pyongyang, would anyone know it?


North Korean officials stand among the families of victims of an accident at an apartment construction site in Pyongyang, North Korea, during a gathering at which senior officials apologized and took responsibility. The word of the collapse in the secretive nation's capital was reported Sunday morning by the North's official Korean Central News Agency, which said the accident was "serious" and upset North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. (Kim Kwang Hyon/Associated Press)

On Sunday, North Korea state media announced that an apartment building had collapsed in the capital city of Pyongyang. The remarkable official response to the disaster suggests that it is being viewed as a national tragedy, and reports in the South Korean news media indicate that the death toll could be in triple digits.

The building didn't actually collapse on Sunday, however. In fact, the disaster occurred May 13. For almost a week, the world was in ignorance of a huge disaster in one of the most obsessed-over places on the planet. It's worrying to wonder whether we would have ever heard of it if the North's official Korean Central News Agency hadn't decided to reveal it.

This, of course, is just the latest illuminating example of how little we actually know about North Korea. It comes hot on the heels of another embarrassing case: that of Hyon Song Wol, allegedly the former girlfriend of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Last year, vaguely sourced stories in the South Korean media suggested that Kim had his former lover executed for appearing in pornography. Many experts expressed skepticism at the time (some doubted she was ever Kim's girlfriend), but the story became huge international news anyway.

Lo and behold, Hyon made a public appearance this weekend. Apparently she's very much alive.

The building collapse story differs in one important aspect: It's not just about what we think we know but didn't happen, it's about something that happened that we may never have heard about. And this wasn't a tiny, isolated event in the middle of nowhere. This was the collapse of a building, potentially causing hundreds of deaths, in North Korea's capital.

One problem with understanding North Korea is that few outside journalists can get any access. The Associated Press is the only Western new organization with a bureau there, yet it was unable to report on the apartment collapse until Sunday and was apparently forced to source much of its report to KCNA. The apparent failure of the AP to get on this story has prompted at least one angry response, from Joshua Stanton at the Web site Free Korea (where he makes the same reference as I do in this headline, albeit with more crude language).

I'm not sure we should really blame the AP. North Korea is obviously a very difficult place for a journalist to operate in. And there is some evidence that North Korea may have kept some foreign journalists away from the scene of the collapse on purpose: Adam Cathcart, a lecturer at the University of Leeds in northern England and founder of the Sino-NK blog, has pointed out that reporters from Xinhua News Agency and members of staff from the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang appeared to have been taken out of the capital on a dull-sounding official trip a few days after the accident.

"This kind of activity allowed the North Korean state to claim it's working harder than ever to improve the lives of the people," Cathcart explained in an e-mail to The Post, "while keeping prying eyes out of the streets of the capital city while they finished the extensive clean-up of what must have been an incredibly chaotic site."

In the end, that we even know about the building collapse appears to have been the result of a decision made by the North Korean leadership in response to domestic concerns: Kim Jong Un has tied his image to that of a recent construction boom (apparently done on the cheap) and needed to have lower-level officials publicly take the blame for the mistake. Given that rationale, you have to wonder what else doesn't make it out of the "hermit kingdom."

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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