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Fire at South Korea’s last slum displaces hundreds

Guryong village of Seoul sprang up after government evicted thousands from low-income areas ahead of the 1988 Olympics

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at the Guryong village, the last remaining slum in the South Korean capital Seoul, on Jan. 20

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at the Guryong village, the last remaining slum in the South Korean capital Seoul, on Jan. 20. (Photo: AFP)

Published: January 23, 2023 10:48 AM GMT

Updated: January 23, 2023 10:56 AM GMT

A deadly fire ripped through the last remaining slum in the Gangnam district of the South Korean capital Seoul leaving at least 60 homes destroyed and about 500 displaced.

The fire broke out at the slum in the Guryong area, known as “a symbol of inequality” in Asia’s fourth-largest economy, on Jan. 20.

About 900 rescuers including firefighters and police used water cannons and helicopters to scramble in frantic efforts to douse the fire and successfully evacuated 500 residents, reported Yonhap news agency. No casualty was reported.

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The residents described waking to the early morning fire as “chaotic.”

"Right after I opened the door, I saw a pillar of fire rising from one side," one 72-year-old resident told Reuters.

"It looks really serious, and I shouldn't escape alone. So, I banged on the doors and shouted 'Fire!' And people came out and screamed. It was chaotic,” the resident said.

Gangnam authorities have reserved dozens of hotel rooms to accommodate the residents temporarily.

The exact cause of the blaze is still unknown. However, observers said the construction of jam-packed houses with highly combustible materials such as cardboard, plywood, and cloths for partitions makes the area prone to fire.

Guryong shantytown has suffered at least 16 fires since 2009, Korea Times reported.

President Yoon Suk-yeol who was in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum called on officials to mobilize all available resources to prevent casualties, said presidential spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye.

President Yoon had raised alarm about the “fire vulnerability of Guryong’s closely packed houses,” said the official.

The shanty town also known as “moon villages,” for their high elevation in the hilly area on the outskirts of Gangnam is a remnant of the people displaced during the city’s urban renewal project ahead of the 1988 Summer Olympics

The then-military dictatorship of South Korea had evicted thousands from low-income areas to raze their homes and build new roads, skyscrapers, stadiums, and parks.

In search of a place to live, the evicted people eventually settled in the barren hilly area that makes up today’s slum area.

Media reports show that a majority of the slum dwellers are in their 60s or older and are living in poverty, a reflection of the country’s rising elderly population.

About 43.4 percent of South Korean elderly people suffer from relative income poverty, according to the Pension Report 2021 published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization covering 38 developed nations.

Data from the Basic Research on the Status of the Elderly Collecting Wastepaper published by the Human Resources Development Institute for the Elderly, South Korea in 2017 indicated wastepaper collection as a major employment source for the senior population in the country.

Around 68.5 percent of elderly individuals reported wastepaper collection as a preferred income channel.

The income earned from collecting wastepaper was found to average about 200,000 Won (US$ 139.87) per month and 2,200 Won (US$ 1.54) per hour on average.

Apart from poverty, the skyrocketed apartment prices are also a factor that has caused many to stay back in the Guryong slum area.

Government data shows some 327,000 households lived in basements in 2020. About 96 percent of basement dwellers were concentrated in three major metropolitan areas – Seoul (61.4 percent), Gyeonggi-do (27.2 percent), and Incheon (7.4 percent).

Basement living in South Korea was featured in the 2019 film, Parasite, which earned accolades globally, and became the first South Korean film to win Academy Awards.

Cheap housing options are rare in South Korea. For example, an apartment that cost 607 million won in 2017 cost up to 1.21 billion won (US$1.03 million) in October 2021 in the capital Seoul.

According to the Gangnam district's government, after the launch of the redevelopment project in 2016, only 406 households out of 1,107 had been successfully relocated as of May 2019.

Until the day of the deadly blaze around 666 houses remained in the village, according to the Korea Herald.

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