At least 20 North Korean construction workers died last month when an electrical fire tore through their lodging on their Pyongyang jobsite as they slept, RFA has learned.
The workers were part of a quasi-military construction brigade of “storm troopers,” tasked with building 10,000 houses in the North Korean capital. They worked long and grueling hours during the day, retiring to their hastily made workers’ dormitory for about three hours of sleep each night.
Sources told RFA that faulty wiring in their temporary living quarters started the fire on March 30, and many were unable to escape as it engulfed the entire building.
“Late last month more than 20 storm troopers were killed at a residential construction site in Pyongyang where they lived and worked,” a source in Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“The construction command conducted an investigation and found the cause to be a short circuit in an electrical wire,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source said the exhausted workers were unable to evacuate even though the fire lasted only a short while.
“The storm troopers’ lodging at the construction site was built in a hurry. The roof and walls were made of boards and vinyl film and the electrical wiring was not properly done. The wires were all tangled, and it caused a short circuit which led to the fire,” said the source.
“Because their living quarters were hastily built with flammable materials, it burnt down after only about 10 minutes. If they had been evacuated immediately after the fire started, there would have been fewer casualties… The person who was on night-watch duty had fallen asleep, so many died,” the source said.
Authorities give construction managers unrealistic deadlines to complete their projects. The immense pressure forces many outfits to ignore the safety of the workers, according to the source.
“Once an accident happens, the authorities put all the blame on the construction site officials, saying it was caused by their negligence,” said the source.
“The citizens of Pyongyang are concerned. They say that so many workers are victims of accidents at construction sites, and they do not know how many more must be sacrificed in the future. The construction command knows that the order to complete 10,000 houses in such a short time is unreasonable, but they dare not object to the Central Party’s orders. This is what forces the workers to be sacrificed,” said the source.
Another source from the capital confirmed the fire to RFA, saying that there were many workers cramped into the temporary shacks, with some even living in tents.
“The living situation for those construction workers is so poor, even though the construction command orders that they take thorough measures for their own safety. But most of the storm troopers fall into a deep sleep as soon as they get to bed,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“They are exhausted from 12 to 14 hours of hard labor each day, so that’s why most of the storm troopers in the barracks were killed,” said the second source.
Construction deaths increased in North Korea after leader Kim Jong Un took office in 2011 and made large-scale national projects a priority to boost his own profile, according to the second source.
“Construction commanders are so eager to achieve results within the deadline set by the party. They never mention safety issues or the unfair sacrifices of the construction workers, and this is causing resentment among the people.”
Accidents at construction sites are relatively common but casualties are usually in the single digits. RFA has reported several major construction accidents over the past few years.
In May 2015, RFA reported that 20 were killed while working in a hydropower project in the country’s northern Ryanggang province, during two separate spillway tunnel collapses in March and April that year. The 20 were the latest of hundreds killed at the power plant since construction began two decades prior.
A year before that, RFA reported that an unfinished 23-story apartment building in Pyongyang collapsed, with possibly hundreds living inside.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the construction of the apartment building “was not done properly, and officials supervised and controlled it in an irresponsible manner,” in a rare disclosure that an accident had happened.
Though KCNA did not publish a death toll, a South Korean official told domestic and international media that 92 families may have been living in the apartment complex at the time.
Reported by Myungchul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.