Families of victims of an accident at an apartment construction site in Pyongyang, North Korea, grieve during a gathering May 17 in the capital. / Jon Chol Jin, AP
In a rare detour from Pyongyang's unrelenting narrative of a government that can do no wrong, North Korea on Sunday acknowledged that an apartment building collapse "claimed casualties" and placed blame on a high-ranking official.
The state-run news service Korean Central News Agency said the building was under construction when it collapsed Tuesday in a Pyongyang neighborhood. Rescue operations concluded Saturday, KCNA said. No casualty count was released, but KCNA said the accident was "serious" and upset North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"The construction of an apartment house was not done properly and officials supervised and controlled it in an irresponsible manner," KCNA reported.
Several high-ranking government officials, including Minister of People's Security Choe Pu Il, met with families of the victims, and all took responsibility for the tragedy.
"Choe Pu Il said the responsibility for the accident rests with him as he failed to uphold well the WPK's (Worker's Party of Korea) policy of love for the people," KCNA said. "He repented of himself, saying that he failed to find out factors that can put at risk the lives and properties of the people and to take thorough-going measures, thereby causing an unimaginable accident."
General Officer of the Korean People's Internal Security Forces Sonu Hyong Chol also took responsibility in the KCNA report, saying he was in charge of the 23-story construction project.
KCNA is tightly controlled by the government and rarely speaks ill of officials or their efforts. The Korea Times, a major South Korean daily, called the KCNA report "unprecedented." When a railway station explosion in 2004 killed 150 people and injured 1,300 more, North Korea media did not report an apology from authorities, the Times said.
The Times said 92 families were believed to live in the building, although it said no casualty count was available. It is common for Koreans to move into apartment buildings prior to completion.
The apology issued this week reflects the North's concern that the accident could agitate North Korean people, the Times said. It noted that most of Kim's support comes from Pyongyang residents.
The Times also noted that the apology and Kim's apparently empathy comes weeks after the tragic sinking of a South Korean ferry that killed hundreds of people. South Korean officials drew sharp criticism for their handling of the tragedy.
On the streets of Pyongyang on Sunday, some residents expressed outrage over the incident.
"This accident happened because they broke the rules and methods of construction," resident Pak Chol told The Associated Press. "After this accident, we must make sure that this kind of terrible accident never happens again, by sticking to the proper method of building."
Another resident, Hong Nam Hyok, said that "everyone in Pyongyang is now sharing the sorrow of the victims and the bereaved families."
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