The scale of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's construction
projects has puzzled outside analysts. REUTERS/KCNA
It may have taken the collapse of an apartment block in
an exclusive district of the North Korean capital to reveal the
Achilles heel of young leader Kim Jong Un's secretive regime.
Last week's accident killed the families of people important
enough for North Korea to issue an obsequious and
unprecedented public apology in a bid to quell public anger,
some analysts said.
The 23-storey building in Phyongchon, central Pyongyang, was
part of a construction boom driven by Kim that includes
apartment blocks, roads, bridges and the Masik Ski Resort
that has become synonymous with his policy of finishing
projects at lightning speed.
South Korea said the building was home to 92 families and
hundreds are feared dead, although the May 13 accident
happened in the afternoon and many residents would have been
at school or at work.
Apartments in buildings taller than 20 storeys are normally
reserved for party officials, professionals, academics and
managers at state agencies, and those recognised for
contribution to the state, the Architecture Institute of
(South) Korea said last year.
"They would be the kind of people who the state can't just
choose to ignore and act like nothing happened," a South
Korean official with access to intelligence on the North
They are not the highest ranks of the North's ruling class
but they are "people who have power or money", said Kwak
In-su, a North Korean defector who works at the Institute for
National Security Strategy, run by the South's spy agency.
"People have mobile phones and talk," Kwak said. "Angry
public opinion can become a boomerang so the regime wants to
prevent it early."
The collapse follows a period of political upheaval and
intrigue and raises questions about the safety of other
buildings going up in the same area.
Kim, who rose to power when his father died in December 2011,
has removed most of Pyongyang's old guard during his
comparatively short rule, replacing ageing generals and
He has changed his Korean People's Army chief of staff four
times. Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, considered the second
most powerful man in North Korea, was executed in December.
The scale of Kim's construction projects had puzzled outside
analysts as to how the impoverished state was able to supply
the materials and equipment needed, and some suggested the
North may be doing without, or using fewer, crucial materials
Accidents like last week's collapse "happen all the time",
the South Korean official said, adding only that the location
was different. Phyongchon is within walking distance of Kim's
"This case is unusual in that unlike most apartment blocks,
for working people for example, they would have used better
materials ... and followed (safety) standards, and still this
happened," he said.
Access to North Korea is severely restricted, but satellite
images show the collapsed building as having had balconies.
As is the case in South Korea, this is where families would
store their kimchi pots through the winter, or put out fake
flowers during festivals celebrating the birthdays of the Kim
dynasty if facing the road.
There are 17 or more high-rise buildings that are new or
under construction in the same area, Curtis Melvin, of the
U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School
of Advanced International Studies, said.
An undercover article published by Asia Press International
in 2011 showed pictures of buildings under construction in
Pyongyang, reporting a shortage of building materials and
food for the workers.
One picture showed an apartment block of more than 20 storeys
with the location and size of windows changing slightly from
floor to floor.
Many of the buildings going up also do not have elevators, a
Reuters witness said, because of the frequent power outages.
"The collapsed building was neither the first finished nor
the most prestigious," said Melvin, who analyses satellite
imagery. "This raises serious questions about the safety of
the other buildings."