North Korea

Official regret over building collapse a rare display of feeling in North Korea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 4:27am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 4:27am

North Korea is known for putting guns before grain, the military ahead of the people, as a place where millions have suffered through famine caused by state planning bungles without official apology. It is therefore understandable that great prominence was given to media reports about North Korean officials expressing regret for yet another tragic civilian disaster to befall their people - the collapse of an apartment building. Coming after criticism of South Korean authorities over last month's ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing, including a presidential apology, the North's unexpected contrition raised hopes of more openness from the regime.

But the question remains what to make of the uncharacteristic note of compassion. After all, it is not for nothing that North Korea is known as the shakedown state - an untrustworthy negotiating partner that strikes bad-faith bargains that it breaks when it has wrung concessions out of them. The repeated breakdown of the six-party nuclear disarmament talks, brokered by Beijing, is one example of that.

Over the weekend, North Korean officials offered a rare public apology for the collapse of a 23-storey apartment building under construction in a district of the capital Pyongyang, which a South Korean official said may have caused hundreds of deaths. The secretive regime's official news agency said the "serious" accident had upset North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong-un.

Moreover, the report said "the construction of an apartment house was not done properly and officials supervised and controlled it in an irresponsible manner". The report cited one official as saying that Kim Jong-un "sat up all night, feeling painful after being told about the accident".

One gesture does not make amends. So it may yet turn out to be for political show. But the apology may demonstrate that even the most repressive regime can feel the pressure to live up to norms of civilised behaviour and responsibility.