SEOUL – When a South Korean ferry sank with hundreds trapped inside last month, the whole world knew about it. But in North Korea, there was utter silence about the collapse of a 23-story apartment building for five days, until state media issued a rare apology.
The North is not a black hole for information. More than 2 million people have cellphones. Hundreds of foreigners live in Pyongyang, the showcase capital where the collapse occurred a week ago Tuesday. A handful of international news bureaus, including The Associated Press, operate there under restrictions, and the city sees a steady procession of visiting tourists, academics and diplomats.
But with no Internet for most citizens, a local press that operates as the government’s propaganda wing and a security apparatus that severely curbs foreigners and citizens alike, if North Koreans get news about something, it is almost always because young leader Kim Jong Un wants them to get it.
Kim may not have meant for his people to know anything about the collapse at first. Three days after it happened, a North Korean state-run newspaper carried a photo of the beaming leader watching a soccer match. The date shown on a screen display of a telephone beside Kim was a day after the collapse, according to a South Korean official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to media about the matter.
Chang Yong Seok, an analyst at Seoul National University, said North Korea may have finally publicized the building collapse because news was likely spreading among citizens in Pyongyang via the domestic cellphone service.
In any case, the delay in reporting gave North Korea’s propaganda mavens more time to spin the narrative in a way that glorified the ruling Kim family.
The North Korean story highlighted a grieving Kim Jong Un, who one official told state media “sat up all night, feeling painful after being told about the accident.”
The state-run Korean Central News Agency said there were casualties but released no specifics on deaths or injuries. Most of the few details to emerge — things that people in democracies would likely consider newsworthy — have come from South Korean officials, who said they believe many people died because nearly 100 families had likely moved into the building, even though it was still under construction.
The North Korean report includes apologies from five officials who accepted responsibility. It is in keeping with a consistent propaganda message showing Kim as a man of the people with no patience for his officials’ failures. Kim’s late father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, was seen as more aloof than his son.
“As with everything in North Korea, this is all about establishing Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy,” said John Delury, a specialist on North Korea and China at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Even when a building collapses, they’re thinking about how to use it to consolidate his power.”
Authoritarian governments that choose isolation often have the opportunity to spin the news to their liking. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Myanmar, then ruled by a military junta, was accused by aid groups and others of underreporting the loss of life by simply not counting anymore once the death toll topped 130,000. South Korea’s former military leaders were accused of minimizing deaths from a 1980 massacre and misrepresenting the motives of the prodemocracy protesters who were killed by soldiers.
North Korea routinely denies outsiders’ negative reports about the country, particularly about human-rights abuses and its extensive system of prison camps. But it has released potentially embarrassing news before.
In 2004, it reported on a train explosion near the Chinese border that killed more than 100 people. And in 2012, after several cases in which it claimed failed launches to be successes, it acknowledged that a long-range rocket broke apart shortly after liftoff.
Acknowledging the collapse may have been an attempt to contrast Kim with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, whose government has faced massive criticism over allegations that incompetence, bad leadership and corruption led to the April 16 ferry disaster, which left more than 300 people dead or missing. The North has issued scathing attacks on Park’s handling of the sinking.
Though the reporting on the building collapse was slow by international standards, it gave North Koreans the message that “Kim Jong Un really cares and holds officials responsible,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Hawaii.
Had the North decided not to release the news, it would likely have eventually made its way through a murky underground network that brings information, sometimes distorted, across the porous border with China and eventually to websites in the South.
But Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in South Korea, said the North continues to exert an iron grip on information. Citizens have few contacts with foreigners; local media would never report something the government didn’t want seen; and foreign reporters are often limited in where they can go.
“If news starts spreading, it usually does so very slowly,” Lankov said. “It’s the world’s most controlled media. End of story.”