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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
A deadly Pyongyang building collapse in 2014 might have been avoided if warning signs had been properly heeded by local officials, a recent defector with intimate knowledge of the city’s construction sector has told NK News.
North Korean media unexpectedly came clean about the “serious accident”, which caused an unknown number of deaths in May 2014, explaining it as having been caused by officials taking an “irresponsible” approach to supervision, and construction efforts that had not been “done properly.”
That, it turns out, was not far from the truth, said Kim Jun Hyuk, who left Pyongyang in 2015 and was responsible for monitoring various construction projects in the city.
Working at the time of the accident in the Logistics Mobilization Guidance Bureau under the Ministry of People’s Security, Kim’s interview answered lingering questions about the accident, detailing the warning signs, rushed nature of the clean-up operation, and implications for long-term building safety in the capital.
And though his testimony could not be independently verified, during his interview Kim was able to readily identify the location of the collapse in satellite imagery of the city, providing several key details that echoed findings in previous research carried out by NK News.
Prior to the accident, Kim told NK News that throughout 2013 he had been personally tasked with the job of conducting building inspections throughout Pyongyang on behalf of the Ministry of People’s Security.
“At that time, in the reports that I submitted to the state security department, I highlighted buildings (of concern),” he said. “I can’t say if this particular building was included in my report at the time because I inspected so many buildings.”
But despite not recalling if he had personally warned authorities about problems before the collapse of the Pyongchon apartment, Kim said authorities were aware of the issues.
“There was a report on the signs of collapse right before the collapse occurred,” Kim said. “Water was leaking in the basement level and rocks were protruding and piercing through the concrete,” he said, based on internal communications he became aware of after the accident.
Despite these problems, the building – incomplete at the time of incident – was occupied at the time of its collapse, which took place sometime between the early evening of Wednesday May 13 and early morning of May 14.
Because it was occupied, the accident “claimed casualties,” North Korean state media reported on May 17, 2014, without revealing precise numbers.
“Some tens of families lived there,” Kim said, but was unable to give a specific number of the fatalities caused by the accident. “It’s always the way people live in Pyongyang: they move into the lower floors even as construction is (still) going on.”
CAUSE OF COLLAPSE
State media photos published by the Korea Central News Agency of Pyongyang showed little – if any – damage to neighboring buildings and structures on Saturday May 17, just three days after the officially reported date of the collapse on May 13.
As a result, building and construction experts contacted by NK News after the accident were puzzled as to the cause and manner of the building’s collapse.
At the time, John Nolan, former President of the London-based Institute of Structural Engineers said the “only way” it could have been brought down would be through controlled demolition via “sophisticated controlled explosives designed to cause the building to implode on itself.”
But Kim said the remarkably clean nature of the collapse is no conspiracy.
“The reason for the collapse? In one word, it was poor construction…workers in Pyongyang do not follow construction regulations,” he said.
On the one hand, structural problems may have resulted from residents knocking down or thinning internal walls within the structure to create bigger spaces. On the other, the height of the building was likely over-limit, putting additional stress on the core.
“Each zone of Pyongyang has its own height regulation, like ten floors only in one zone while the other zone is allowed to go up to 20.”
The collapsed apartment was, however, 23 floors.
“So what they do is they first build the 20 floors and add up three more floors on top of it. You know why, right? To have more marginal profit out of the construction,” he said.
Another related – and major – problem relates to the concrete mixes used, Kim said.
“(In North Korea) concrete is supposed to be a mix of 6:4 ratio of sand and cement, but they never use the right amount of cement for it,” he said. “So what does it become? It becomes like sand.”
A lack of support in the lower floors, combined with an over-regulation height, would have contributed towards structural problems that could have caused the collapse.
“The reason for the collapse? In one word, it was poor construction”
“Naturally, the weight of the whole building would be concentrated on the bottom floor of the building,” he said, noting that although workers would have increased the structural load through extra floors added to the top, they neglected to “add more concrete to the bottom” to compensate.
“As their goal is not increasing the quality of construction, the whole building would (have been) pressured – especially from the first floor to the third floor,” he said.
“What happens when concrete like this is pressured? It turns into the same consistency as sand or soil (meaning) the building would collapse right on top of itself rather than fall to the side. Boom – it’s gone.”
Because of this, Kim said almost no damage was visible on neighboring buildings following the accident.
“A building made of steel beams would collapse to the side. But just think of stacking up a structure out of soil. If the bottom part of the soil disappears, the whole thing would just collapse (on top of itself) and it would never fall to the side.”
This argument is consistent with what Nolan, the engineering expert, observed of photos of the wreckage at the time of collapse.
“It appears from the mound on the 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,” Nolan said.
At the time of the incident, rumors circulated in South Korean media that up to 400 had been killed when the tower block collapsed.
“…this accident was more like an avalanche”
In most cases after such an accident, rescue workers meticulously pore through the rubble, looking for any potential survivors caught under remaining parts of the structure.
But the Pyongyang building collapse was notable for an extremely rapid clean-up operation which saw nearly all debris cleared away in under four days.
At the time, engineering experts said the rapid nature of the clean-up, independently confirmed by NK News, could have resulted in the lives of any survivors caught under the rubble being put at risk.
But Kim said the manner in which it collapsed meant there would have almost certainly been no survivors.
“No matter how inhumane the North Korean government is, they wouldn’t bulldoze (the debris) knowing that there might be survivors inside,” he said.
“If a building made with steel beams collapses, then it would create some space between the debris, (with a) chance of people staying alive in a space like this.
“But this accident was more like an avalanche,” he said. “No one tries to “save” people from an avalanche as the victims would die of suffocation in just a few minutes after the incident. And this building (would have just become) sand, as it just collapsed.
Kim said that’s why it was possible for the accident to take place in downtown Pyongyang without – apparently – any foreign residents or the city’s Associated Press bureau noticing.
“Of course, none of the foreigners would know (about it),” he said. “How would they know? How?”
Indeed, Kim is sure it would have been easy for the government to cover up the disaster because of the ease of cleaning up such a large amount of debris for local troops, and the fact that the route it would have been removed from was far away from major landmarks.
“To do all that work in three days, considering the level of the North Korean tools, it would need… about a company of soldiers. How many in a company? It would be around 300 to 400.”
And Kim said that Pal Chong Gook, or the Logistics Mobilization Guidance Bureau, had about 80 to 90 dump trucks of 20-ton capacity available at the time, which were not being used for coal export purposes at the time (as might have been the case).
It was these trucks, Kim said, which moved debris away to parts of the city that would have made the clean-up unnoticeable to local foreigners.
“The trucks can only go to the west (with such debris),” Kim said. “East is ideal as there are many valleys to the east of Pyongyang. However, the trucks like this can’t go to the east. To go to the east the trucks would have to follow the Tong-Il Road to the south and circumvent Gang Dong County, but it would take too much time.”
Furthermore, going south would have involved crossing bridges with over-heavy loads – and going through extremely visible parts of the city.
“To do the dumping job in the fastest manner, the trucks would have to go west,” he said. “They can’t dump it into the ocean (as it would take so much time)… the most likely place is near the sewage treatment plant.”
But while Kim was not aware of the precise location of the dump-zone, satellite imagery obtained by NK News from May 17 2014 showed multiple trucks carrying debris to an area once reserved for farmland in a location consistent with where he speculated it might have gone.
While there have been no state media reports of further building collapses since, Kim suggested a handful of other construction issues around the city. In particular, he said that Changjon street, or “mini-Manhattan” near Kim Il Sung Square, could become a major trouble-spot in future.
Already, he said, there had been a building so badly built that prior to the opening of the area to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15, 2012, part of it had to be quickly dismantled.
“They just finished the building at that point and did the parade,” he said. “And about two days later, they “tented” it and scraped off the top parts of the building and turned it into a ten-floor high structure.”
Longer term, much bigger problems could occur if recent natural disasters on the peninsula occur north of the DMZ.
“It was such great luck that the recent South Korean earthquake happened in Kyungju, all the way down the south (of the peninsula),” he said, referencing the biggest quake to hit the Koreas since records began this September.
“If an earthquake of that magnitude… broke about 400 kilometers more to the North, then I don’t think that many newly built apartments in Pyongyang would be left.”
Main picture: NK News
Edited by: Oliver Hotham
Translation by JH Ahn and Jade Bae