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SEOUL, South Korea — A 23-story apartment building that may have housed more than 90 families collapsed last week in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, a South Korean government official said Sunday, after the North reported a “serious” accident at a construction site.

Earlier Sunday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that the accident occurred Tuesday in the Pyongchon district of Pyongyang, blaming “sloppy building” and “irresponsible supervision and control.” It said there were “human casualties” but did not give figures.

An official at the Ministry of Unification in Seoul, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Sunday that “a considerable number of people” might have died.

The North Korean news agency said the government had organized a major rescue operation. It also reported that senior government and ruling Workers’ Party officials had apologized to bereaved families and district residents. In a rare admission of a government failure, Choe Pu Il, the minister of the people’s security, consoled the families, holding himself and his agency responsible for an “unpardonable crime,” according to the North Korean news media.

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The South Korean official said the building was under construction but as many as 92 families were believed to be living there. In the North, families often move into an apartment building before it is completed, the official said.

According to the North Korean news agency, the rescue operation ended Saturday. On Sunday, the Rodong Sinmun, the main party newspaper, and other North Korean news media carried photographs showing senior officials bowing in apology — another rare gesture of public contrition for the North’s ruling elite — before what appeared to be a crowd of district residents gathered at a construction site.

Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, “sat up all night, feeling painful after being told about the accident,” the North Korean report said, quoting Kim Su Gil, a senior party secretary in Pyongyang.

Since taking over as the country’s top leader after the death of his father in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has poured resources into revamping Pyongyang, the home to those most loyal to his government, setting of a building boom in the showpiece city. Other projects around the country include a ski resort and amusement parks.

Although recent visitors to Pyongyang have testified to the city’s face-lift under Kim, outside analysts say the young leader has spent resources on projects that have yielded quick results, aimed largely at pleasing the country’s elites while much of the population has suffered chronic food shortages. Following the examples of his father and grandfather, Kim has pushed for the rapid completion of the construction projects, setting deadlines and exhorting soldiers and workers at the sites to finish their tasks ahead of time.

But while defectors from the North have reported frequent building accidents, it is rare for the government to report them. The South Korean news media speculated that the North’s swift reporting of the accident might indicate a high death toll. The last time North Korea acknowledged a major accident was in 2004, when an explosion at a train station in Ryongchon, near the border with China, killed or injured hundreds of people.

South Korean media speculated Sunday that by acknowledging the disaster and making his government quickly apologize, Kim was trying to pre-empt criticism of his policies and sending a message to his people that he is different from the South Korean president. President Park Geun-hye’s government has been under growing public pressure for failing to prevent and mishandling the response to the sinking of a ferry on April 16 that left 304 people dead or missing, the vast majority of them high-school students, and she was criticized for a tardy apology over the disaster.


South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Monday she will push to disband the coast guard in the wake of last month’s ferry disaster. The coast guard has been under growing public criticism over its alleged poor search-and-rescue work after the ferry Sewol sank April 16, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing. Park said the coast guard’s responsibilities would be handed over to police and a new government body she plans to establish.

—The Associated Press

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