Pyongyang isn’t just any North Korean city. So when a 23-story apartment building under construction collapsed in the center of the showcase capital in May, officials faced a bona fide emergency.
Their response was in some ways predictable: a grudgingly slow and piecemeal confirmation, followed by scapegoating and spin. Three months later, they still refuse to give a death toll, saying only that it was “serious” and that leader Kim Jong Un “sat up all night, feeling painful after being told about the accident.”
But in a country where acknowledgment of failure is rare, experts say North Korea’s handling of the collapse also shines a light on how it is grappling with some deeper issues, including its image among foreign investors, the limits on its control over information and the need to address, at a public level, the concerns of its citizens.
Well aware of how far North Korea lags behind its more prosperous neighbors, Kim has singled out development projects as a key priority since he assumed power following the death of his father in 2011. This week, while visiting a block of apartment houses being built in Pyongyang for university teachers, he reportedly said the nation’s soldier-builders are “racing against time in ushering in a great heyday of building a rich and powerful country.”
Nowhere is that race more feverish – or the political stakes higher – than in Pyongyang.
Home to more than one-tenth of North Korea’s 24 million people, Pyongyang has always been the focus of development and the prime beneficiary of state funding. Providing better housing for Pyongyang residents, who have a much higher standard of living than other North Koreans, is a key means for the leadership to ensure their support and loyalty.
In a country that sorely needs to improve its basic infrastructure, there is no public debate over whether North Korea really needs a new luxury ski resort, or a 105-story pyramid-shaped hotel that has been a Pyongyang landmark for more than 20 years, but has yet to open for business. Questioning the value of megaprojects held up as symbols of progress and national pride in North Korea is taboo.
Housing, however, hits closer to home.
“This accident happened because they broke the rules and methods of construction,” Pyongyang resident Pak Chol told The Associated Press after the accident was reported by the state media. “We must make sure that this kind of terrible accident never happens again, by sticking to the proper method of building.”
“Symbolically, to have a newer building go down in the heart of the city is quite bad indeed,” said Geoffrey See, managing director of the Singapore-based nonprofit Choson Exchange, which conducts training on economic policy, entrepreneurship and law in North Korea.
“This kind of news would have gotten around pretty quickly,” he said. “Not acknowledging it would harm the government’s credibility among the most important political constituency, which is middle-class Pyongyangers.”
Calvin Chua, a London-based architect and urban development specialist who has worked with the North Koreans, said the government also was worried about keeping the trust of foreign investors, largely from China. Foreign investment has become much more prominent in the North’s economy since the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of aid from socialist allies that followed.
“One could read the incident as a knee-jerk response to reduce any possible public unhappiness,” he said. “However, it may also reflect a fundamental change in the style of propaganda and governance, where there is a shift toward more accountability by assuming responsibility and implementing solutions to the problem.”
Chua said a bureaucratic shake-up announced just two days after the accident suggests Pyongyang was already aware of the need for improvement and had been trying to bring its design and construction industry more into step with global norms. That would be significant because international investors are key to landmark projects and expect some form of assurance the local workforce is able to deliver quickly and effectively.
In the shake-up, Ma Won Chun, a lieutenant general in the military and a prominent architect, was appointed to lead a new “Designing Department” within one of North Korea’s most powerful organs, the National Defense Commission.
It remains to be seen whether there will be a more pronounced shift toward the kinds of infrastructure and construction that are most needed by the general population – particularly outside of Pyongyang – or if the driving force behind development will continue to be high-profile prestige projects that have long been favored by North Korea’s central leadership.
In the meantime, however, the North’s rush to build continues unabated.
Dozens of large residential projects are underway in the capital, which is also building a new international airport. To a lesser degree, construction is prominent in the provincial cities of Chongjin and Wonsan, which is near the newly built ski resort and is also the proposed site for an underwater hotel.
Authorities have denied repeated requests by The Associated Press to speak to officials involved in the construction sector about the accident. But the AP was allowed into a recently completed dormitory for more than 3,000 workers at the Kim Jong Suk Textile Factory, which produces one-third of the clothing made in North Korea.
Ko Jin Ho, director of the factory’s technical department, said more than 4,000 soldiers worked around-the-clock to finish the construction in a mere 180 days. Workplaces in the factory were plastered with posters extolling the virtues of “Korea Speed,” a buzz phrase that has also been frequently invoked for mass mobilizations over the past few months to improve roads and gird irrigation systems and levies against flooding.
Such mobilizations, which are very labor-intensive and decidedly low-budget, are common in the North.
But for some North Korea watchers, the fallback to “speed campaign” propaganda – a hauntingly familiar refrain in centrally planned communist economies – is itself cause for skepticism about how much, if at all, the North Korean leadership’s approach toward development has changed.
Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said managers and workers continue to be rewarded based on whether they are able to complete projects either ahead of schedule or using fewer resources than allocated under the official budget, which can lead to cutting corners at the cost of safety and quality.
“This has been seen in communist countries for decades, so unfortunately, the DPRK is not unique in this regard,” he said, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
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