Satellite imagery exclusively obtained by NK News – taken four days after North Korea claimed a 23-floor building collapsed in Pyongyang – has cast significant doubt on both official and non-official accounts of the tragedy.
The satellite imagery, which was taken on the final morning of a rescue operation North Korean state media claimed wound up on May 17, shows little sign of the remains of a 23-floor apartment complex that had previously been standing there as recently as April 21.
Besides showing no visible sign of a major rescue operation, several specialists told NK News that imagery of accident site raised several questions about North Korea’s narrative of the event.
In particular, two engineering experts who assessed the imagery told NK News if the apartment block fell as claimed on May 13, there would have have been insufficient time for North Korean authorities to complete a full scale rescue and clean-up operation by May 17.
Notably, photos taken of the apology event by North Korean state media and the Associated Press (AP) on May 17 appear to be choreographed to include several emergency responder vehicles that were not present in satellite imagery of the same accident location just hours before.
In addition, a lack of major damage to the structure, windows and paintwork of nearby buildings in ground photos suggest that substantial repairs, cleaning and repainting may have been conducted in the period following the actual building collapse, further casting doubt on the speed of North Korea’s suggested four day rescue and clean-up operation.
And in analysis exclusively commissioned by NK News, satellite imagery experts AllSource Analysis identified several nearby sites which which may have been used to dump wreckage and debris from the building, through transport including train, land and water.
Together, the imagery and expert opinions suggest either the collapse in fact occurred well before May 13 and that authorities lied about the timeline. Or, that against all the odds, North Korean authorities successfully completed a major clean-up operation in under four days – a remarkable feat – though one which experts say would have had little to no regard for trapped survivors.
In either case, John Grisafi, a military and leadership analyst at NK News, said he thought the North’s criticism over March’s sinking of the Sewol in South Korea meant that authorities may have first attempted to delay or possibly even avoid revealing the building collapse to the general public.
“But when they did eventually publicize the accident – which they didn’t do for at least four or five days and possibly longer if they lied about the date – they carefully regulated the presentation of the site and the government’s own handling of the incident.
“In the context of Pyongyang’s harsh criticism of the Sewol ferry sinking in South Korea and Seoul’s handling of that incident, North Korea wanted to appear to have quickly taken care of the situation and depict the government authorities as being compassionate and willing to immediately accept responsibility, whereas some South Korean officials were criticized for saying the ferry sinking wasn’t their responsibility.”
Above all, Former President of the London-based Institution of Structural Engineers Professor John Nolan told NK News he was concerned about what, exactly, caused the building to collapse in the first place.
“Was it design or construction, or a combination of both, or was it a terrorist act, and are there are other buildings there that might be similarly at risk?”
THE OFFICIAL ACCOUNT
At 06:25 on Sunday May 18, North Korean state media announced “a serious accident” occurred on May 13 at the construction site of an “apartment house” in the Pyongchon District of Pyongyang, which caused an undefined number of “casualties”.
The accident was publicized by both national newspaper the Rodong Sinmun and international facing media outlet, the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA).
In their own reporting of the tragedy, North Korean media said that “an intensive campaign to rescue survivors, treat the wounded and arrange the scene of the accident,” adding that “the rescue operation came to an end on May 17”.
“An intensive campaign to rescue survivors, treat the wounded and arrange the scene of the accident…came to an end on May 17”
Photos released of the site by both state media and the AP, dated Saturday May 17, show an official bowing to a crowd of grieving onlookers, with several emergency responder vehicles visible nearby.
Despite the nearby collapse of the 23 floor building, apartments seen adjacent to the collapse site show no signs of damage, with paintwork and windows all unmarked.
Echoing Pyongyang’s official line, on Sunday May 18 the AP conducted two interviews with local residents who expressed outrage over the incident, one of whom said the accident occurred because the authorities “broke the rules and methods of construction”. AP did not however detail when the accident occurred.
Based on North Korea’s official account of the events, the rescue and clearance process was completed in just four days, from start to finish, something two engineers however told NK News would be almost impossible.
Corroborating North Korea’s official account of events, an anonymous source in Pyongyang told the Daily NK that the apartment collapse occurred on May 13, with excavation equipment only arriving at the scene three days after the accident:
“During the day on May 13th, there was a huge bang and then the new apartment block in Pyeongcheon started to collapse. People on the first and second floors were able to get out in time and were rescued, but the remaining 80+ households almost all died.
“They didn’t use any equipment in the rescue work, just mobilized people…It wasn’t until three days later that an excavator was brought in from another construction site, even though that is more or less essential for this kind of thing…” the Daily NK source explained.
“It wasn’t until three days later that an excavator was brought in from another construction site, even though that is more or less essential for this kind of thing”
A second anonymous source further told the Chosun Ilbo that the accident occurred between “5 to 6PM” and that up to 490 people had been killed in the tragedy.
A further Pyongyang source quoted by Radio Free Asia (RFA) said that “many lives had been destroyed” in the accident and that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) had been called in to remove debris.
Residents in the building included major party members, the RFA source said, adding that North Korean media only reported on the accident because it would have been impossible to cover up.
An official at the Ministry of Unification in Seoul, speaking on condition of anonymity, told South Korean media later on May 18 that as many as 92 families may have been living in the building at the time of collapse.
THE VIEW FROM ABOVE
Before-and-after satellite imagery of the suspected apartment collapse site shows there is no doubt that a 23-floor building came down in the Pyongchon district of Pyongyang.
But the satellite imagery taken on May 17 – and analyzed exclusively for NK News by the Colorado-based Allsource Analysis – paints a different timeline of events to those described both by official and unofficial narratives.
Far from witnessing the search and rescue operations North Korean state media claimed to be ongoing until May 17, the imagery in fact suggests that authorities “were clearly well along in debris removal/cleanup operations” by the time the picture was taken.
In fact, satellite imagery of the site shows “only one possible emergency response vehicle present and a couple of probable security vehicles on either end of the street,” Allsource Analysis said. “This is not the presence we would expect if search and rescue operations were still underway.”
“This is not the presence we would expect if search and rescue operations were still underway”
Curiously, for a final “rescue” phase, the imagery shows significant efforts to smooth out the area for the upcoming apology event, with reddish colored dirt visible that clearly differs from anything else around the site. This, Allsource Analysis said, “indicates they brought the dirt in,” with “marks in it indicative of it being moved around by heavy equipment”.
“If you compare this to the ground photo of the presentation, the red dirt was later covered by sand in a probable attempt to provide a clean appearance for the media (basically polishing the site for the event),” Allsource added.
And the building itself, which is shown to have almost completely disappeared, appears to have collapsed on to itself in a way that mysteriously kept damage of nearby buildings to a minimum.
“From what we see, it appears the building fell close to straight down and a bit to the south, with some debris remaining between the green and white roofed buildings immediately to the south,” Allsource said, pointing out that some debris was still visible at the site.
Prior to its collapse, the building – of which construction is seen commencing in archival imagery between May and September 2011 – was last seen standing in Google Earth imagery as late as April 14, 2014.
However, NK News has learned that unpublished satellite imagery exists of the building standing upright as late as April 21, signifying the accident must have occurred sometime between then and May 13 – a 21 day window.
Timeline compiled by NK News shows sequence of events
5,000+ TONS OF RUBBLE
While anonymous sources in Pyongyang appear to corroborate state media claims that the building fell on May 13 and was cleared by May 17, two structural engineering experts told NK News they had serious reasons to doubt both the official and unofficial account of the events.
John Nolan, the former President of the London-based Institution of Structural Engineers, said that based on the area and height of the apartment complex, the “complete building would have weighed in excess of 5,000 tonnes.”
“I cannot envisage how a rescue operation, followed by a clear up to the level visible in the photograph could possibly be achieved in just 4 days”
If as suggested the building collapsed on the evening of May 13, press and satellite photos taken on May 17 therefore indicated that North Korean authorities successfully completed a large-scale cleanup of the rubble and recovery of casualties within just four days.
“I cannot envisage how a rescue operation, followed by a clear up to the level visible in the photograph could possibly be achieved in just 4 days,” said Professor Nolan.
In particular, Nolan said that a rapid cleanup of the debris would not be possible within four days because of the nature of the reinforced concrete used in the building’s construction.
“Usually when reinforced concrete buildings collapse you are left with a pile of concrete lumps, some of which are quite large and in many cases still tied together by their steel reinforcement. In order to clear them away they have to broken down into manageable sized pieces and the reinforcing bars cut so that they can fit onto a lorry. This would require specialist breaking equipment and large excavators,” Nolan said.
“It appears from the mound on site that some of the rubble may not have been carted away, but I am rather surprised that the mound seems to comprise a fairly fine grained material with no obvious steel reinforcement remaining, suggesting that the rubble had also gone through a crusher.
“In my experience that would have taken weeks not days,” Nolan explained.
Another engineering expert – who requested anonymity for commercial reasons – echoed Nolan’s analysis that the building debris could not have been cleared within four days.
“I struggle to believe that this has been removed in a four week period let alone four days”
“Conservatively a building of this size and proximity to adjoining buildings would take six months plus to demolish and remove the debris using high reach machines and following UK health and safety obligations.
“Obviously North Korea may adopt a somewhat slacker standard, but I struggle to believe that this has been removed in a four week period let alone four days,” the expert added.
The expert, who has significant experience in building and demolition, also told NK News that only an operation unconcerned with recovering trapped survivors might allow for any rapid removal of debris.
Shadows visible in May 17 photographs claimed to be taken of the accident site by both North Korean state media and AP indicate that a North Korean official made a public apology late in the afternoon, several hours after satellite imagery of the scene was taken.
But as described, the satellite imagery shows only three vehicles present at the scene at 11:36 AM, only one of which appears to be an emergency responder. However, the press photos of the same area show the presence of an emergency treatment tent, two ambulances, two fire trucks, one excavator, and one dump truck later the same day.
Why these emergency responders were not present earlier in the day is suspicious, Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS told NK News.
“KCNA has a well-earned reputation for getting the pictures they want. If they can stage the photos to convey a particular message, they will do so,” Melvin said.
“If they are unable to stage the perfect shot, they can always resort to Photoshop – the actual facts of the news story are of secondary importance,” Melvin added.
“KCNA has a well-earned reputation for getting the pictures they want. If they can stage the photos to convey a particular message, they will do so”
Further suspicion relates to the orange colored dirt visible in the morning satellite photo that appears to have been covered with sand by the time of the press apology photo.
“The area on which the crowd is gathered appears to be fresh sand, and there are at least seven steps leading up to it from street level, meaning it is likely to be at least 1.3m high. The ground also appears to rise where the spectators are standing at the back of the site,” said Robert Benaim, founder of engineering consultancy Benaim Group.
“It is not inconceivable that this is fresh soil covering the debris which has been spread out over the building footprint and the area between the building and the road. It would be possible to carry out such an operation within a few days given the resources,” added Benaim, in contradiction to the other experts who said such a rapid clean up would be impossible.
Three of the engineering experts contacted by NK News expressed suspicion at to how the apartment collapse had appeared to have caused so little damage to neighboring buildings in ground-level photos taken by the press on May 17.
“I am very surprised that there does not appear to be any visible collateral damage to the adjoining buildings and indeed the pink building looks remarkably clean given the level of dust that a collapse and clear up would usually produce,” said Professor Nolan, the former President of the Institution of Structural Engineers.
Professor Høiseth of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) echoed Nolan’s surprise at the visible lack of damage
“If you look at the pink building, it doesn’t even have any marks on it, which is strange. We’re talking about a 23-story building here. Even if it collapsed vertically on itself, there would be damage (to adjacent buildings), at least up to the third floor,” Høiseth said.
“Even if it collapsed vertically on itself, there would be damage”
Pointing to the recent controlled demolitions of two 20-floor buildings at the UK’s Aston University, Nolan said he believed that only a controlled demolition – not an accident – could have prevented serious damage to neighboring buildings.
“In my opinion the only way that a building of this height could be brought down avoiding damage to adjacent properties would be by controlled demolition, either on a storey by storey basis or by sophisticated controlled explosives designed to cause the building to implode on itself,” Nolan said.
The expert who requested anonymity for commercial reasons hypothesized one of two collapse scenarios, both of which he said would have caused significant damage to neighboring buildings.
Either the building would have come down as a result of a “catastrophic collapse” similar to the fall of the World Trade Center – which would have resulted in a significant spread of wreckage – or a “partial collapse” that while less deadly, would have resulted in a “much trickier clean-up, depending on what remained of the structure”.
“I suspect the clear up period would be much slower with a partially standing structure,” the expert added.
Video of controlled demolition at Aston University, UK
RESCUE EFFORTS QUESTIONED
If, despite assessments that a cleanup and rescue would be unlikely within just four days, North Korean authorities had nevertheless cleaned up the entire structure by May 17, it may have been at the expense of any meaningful rescue operation, experts said.
“If you look at earthquake situations, clearing up takes much more than four days precisely because of this. It can take up to two weeks before they begin, so that rescue teams can make sure there are no survivors left,” Karl Vincent Høiseth, Professor of construction engineering at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) said.
“If [as many as 92 familes] have been living there you can’t just start driving around with bulldozers ten minutes after,” Høiseth added.
Professor Nolan of the Institution of Structural Engineers added that: “I would be very surprised if the search and rescue phase [itself] didn’t take at least 4 days”.
The expert who requested anonymity echoed both Nolan and Høiseth’s view, saying that “if the time lines are correct, no or a very limited attempt of rescue was made.”
“If the time lines are correct, no or a very limited attempt of rescue was made”
“Large buildings don’t simply disappear, for that to happen this does look like a catastrophic collapse and an immediate all out clean up over many weeks ignoring the potential for rescue,” the anonymous expert added.
With at least 5,000 tons of debris to clear, it is certain that North Korean authorities would have been unable to completely bury the building – and potentially casualties too – in the area seen in press photographs on May 17. That raises questions, therefore, about where large parts of structure could have been dumped.
Allsource Analysis told NK News that it was possible debris may have been moved to one of three possible locations.
“We found one possible site about 3 kilometers away, located next to the river on some old farmland. This site was newly developed since the last good image was acquired one month before,” Allsource explained.
“We cannot, however, definitively tie it to the apartment collapse as most of the dump trucks going in and out of the site are headed in the opposite direction to what we would expect.”
Another, perhaps more likely, location was the use of the Kyongui-son Rail Yard, located three blocks from the apartment site. “This location could serve for disposing of the debris on rail cars, would have minimal impact within the city, and provides a good location where access could be carefully controlled.”
But warning that it was impossible to be definitive, Allsource pointed out a third and fourth possibility — either making use of dredging operations/barges on the North side of the Taedong river or that it was trucked beyond the extent of the satellite imagery.
“In any event, because the debris contains human remains, we would expect the North Korean Government would remove the debris and either bury it or dump it away from the population,” Allsource concluded.
COVER UP OR COVERED THEM?
Overall, without satellite images to prove that the building collapsed prior to May 13, it will be challenging to be certain about when, exactly, the Pyongchon apartment building collapsed.
As such, satellite imagery and expert analysis suggests that either one of two cases appears to have occurred.
Firstly, the building collapse occurred sometime after the last known satellite imagery was taken of it standing on April 22, but well before May 13, when official media says it collapsed. While this would have given increased time for search, rescue and clean-up operations, it nevertheless seems remarkable that news of the collapse did not leak prior – and that even unofficial accounts still corroborated the official timeline. However, with Pyongyang’s diplomatic compound far from the collapse site, it remains possible that resident foreigners may not have heard the crash of the fall – nor been in a position to see the resulting dust cloud.
Secondly, if the collapse did indeed occur on May 13, the rapid clearance process would have left almost no room for adequate search and rescue operations. In this scenario, experts say that any major prioritization of an urgent clean-up would have come at the cost of minimizing chances for survivors caught in rubble.
And in either case key questions remain about why neighboring buildings appear undamaged by the collapse, why press photos show emergency personnel that were invisible just a few hours prior, and where rubble and casualties were all taken.
Whether a concise picture of what occurred at the Pyongchon apartment collapse ever emerges, it is evident that a large and tragic loss of life was incurred. And given structural problems highlighted by this website at other Pyongyang buildings, there is fear that similar collapses could again occur in future.
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