SEOUL — North Korea said Sunday that an apartment complex had collapsed in its showpiece capital, an accident that stemmed from “slipshod” construction and left an unspecified number of casualties, according to its state-run media.
Such a public disclosure is rare for an opaque country that uses the state media almost exclusively to burnish the image of its leadership and emphasize its indomitability. An anonymous South Korean government official told the Yonhap news agency that 92 households may have been living in the 23-story apartment building, potentially signaling a triple-figure death toll.
In its state media, the North emphasized its “profound consolation” for the collapse and devoted several paragraphs to castigating Choe Pu Il, the minister of people’s security. Choe’s crime against the people “can never be pardoned,” the North said. The North’s account added that supreme leader Kim Jong Un “sat up all night” feeling pain after learning about the accident.
Although North Korea is heavily monitored via satellite by outside analysts, Pyongyang’s admission was the first news of the disaster, which occurred Tuesday in a central area of the capital. Some scholars say North Korea may have publicly divulged the accident as a way to shape gossip that would inevitably spread through the country, where citizens increasingly carry cellphones.
The accident hints at one of the risks North Korea faces as it races to complete construction projects using “soldier-builders” mandated to work at top speed. Under Kim, North Korea has devoted reams of propaganda to its construction prowess, highlighting its completion of pleasure parks, apartment buildings and power stations.
In his New Year’s address, which laid out government policy, Kim called on service personnel and citizens to “make concerted efforts to build up Pyongyang so that it is more grandiose.”
Kim has “associated himself very clearly with this building boom,” said Adam Cathcart, a lecturer at the University of Leeds in northern England and the founder of the Sino-NK blog, which closely monitors North Korea’s propaganda. “But he also needs to distance himself from this kind of accident.”
Defectors say major industrial accidents occur regularly in mines and other labor sites far from the capital. But a building collapse in Pyongyang appears to be rare. North Korea funnels its scarce resources to the city and allows only members of its top social strata — its “loyal” class — to live there.
The construction projects in Pyongyang are treated as community events. On news broadcasts, citizens are shown bringing food to workers or playing music for them. The state holds celebrations for groundbreakings and completions, as well.
The last time North Korea publicly admitted to such a major failure was in April 2012 after a botched satellite launch. A sullen news anchorwoman read a statement on television.
In this instance, the North displayed the news both on the Korean Central News Agency Web site and in its Workers’ Party paper. The admission comes at an awkward time for North Korea, which has spent weeks criticizing South Korea for its response to a ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing.
North Korea has not published photos of the accident site, but its newspaper on Sunday showed an official bowing to gathered masses, with emergency vehicles parked close by. The apartment complex had not been completed, the anonymous official told Yonhap, but it is not unusual for people to move into apartments in North Korea while they are under construction.
North Korea said an “intensive” rescue campaign was launched after the accident. That operation ended Saturday, the North said.
Kim “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,” the North’s account said.