Flood deaths in Seoul: South Korean capital vows to move families out of ‘parasite’-style basement homes

Flood deaths in Seoul: South Korean capital vows to move families out of ‘parasite’-style basement homes

The deaths, including a family who drowned after being trapped underground, have prompted the South Korean capital to give people who live in “banjiha” houses – the often cramped and dingy basement dwellings made famous by the film “Parasite” became famous to put an end to.

The family of three – a woman in her 40s with Down syndrome, her sister and the sister’s 13-year-old daughter – died after water pressure prevented them from opening the door of their flooded home in Seoul’s southern Gwanak district.

On Monday night, torrential rain – the heaviest in the city in more than 100 years – caused severe flooding in many low-lying neighborhoods south of the Han River, sweeping away cars and forcing hundreds to evacuate.

Banjihas are often small, dark, and prone to mold during the humid summer. Banjihas rose to worldwide prominence following the release of Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning 2019 film Parasite, which followed a fictional family’s desperate attempt to escape poverty. Since then, the houses have stood for rampant inequality in one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

For years, there have been increasing calls for the government to provide more affordable housing, improve living conditions in banjihas, or end them altogether — which officials pledged to do after public outcry over President Yoon Suk Yeol’s handling of the crisis.

A woman scoops water from a flooded basement apartment in Seoul, South Korea, on August 10.

“In the future, basements and semi-basements (banjihas) may no longer be used for residential purposes in Seoul,” the Seoul city government announced on Wednesday.

But experts say the government’s pledge overlooks bigger problems that exist beyond the basement walls, namely skyrocketing living costs, forcing the most vulnerable to seek shelter in substandard shelters vulnerable to flooding and heat — some of the worst impacts of climate change.

Bunkers to boom

Banjihas were first built in the 1970s to serve as bunkers amid rising tensions with North Korea, said Choi Eun-yeong, executive director of the Korea Center for City and Environment Research.

As Seoul modernized in the following decade and attracted rural migrants, the tightening space prompted the government to allow the basements to be used for residential purposes — although they “were not built for residential purposes, but for bomb shelters, boiler rooms or warehouses,” he said choi

Banjihas have long been riddled with problems such as poor ventilation and drainage, water leakage, lack of easy escape routes, insect infestations, and exposure to bacteria. But its low price is a big draw as Seoul becomes increasingly unaffordable — especially for young people who face stagnant wages, rising rents, and a saturated job market.

The median price of an apartment in Seoul has more than doubled in the last five years, reaching 1.26 billion won ($963,000) as of January this year – making it less affordable relative to income than New York, Tokyo and Singapore .

Safety concerns about banjihas came to the fore when severe flooding in 2010 and 2011 left dozens dead. In 2012, the government introduced new laws banning banjiha housing in “typically flooded areas”.

Record rain kills at least 9 people in Seoul as water floods buildings and submerges cars

But the attempted reform failed, with an additional 40,000 banjihas built after the law was passed, according to a press release from city officials.

Officials again vowed to look into the issue after “Parasite” grabbed the spotlight on banjihas – but they were soon distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Choi said.

As of 2020, more than 200,000 banjiha dwellings remained in downtown Seoul — which accounts for about 5% of all households, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

In addition to failing to improve housing, the city government has come under fire this year after cutting its annual budget for flood control and water resource management by more than 15% to 17.6 billion won ($13.5 million).

family drowned

The family who died in Gwanak could not leave their home because water pooled outside their door, said Choi Tae-young, chief of the Seoul Fire and Disasters Headquarters.

The fire and rescue chief escorted President Yoon to the scene of the death on Tuesday, where they inspected the building and questioned some of its residents. Photos show the President crouching on the street, peering through the ground-level window into the still-flooded basement apartment.

“I don’t know why people here weren’t evacuated beforehand,” Yoon said during the inspection – a remark that has since been widely criticized on the internet.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visits the flooded basement in Gwanak in Seoul August 10 where a family was killed by flooding.

“Water came immediately,” a resident replied.

“It took less than 10 or 15 minutes (for the water to rise),” said another resident, adding that the victims “lived a very, very difficult life.”

In its statement Wednesday, Seoul’s municipal government said it will phase out basement and banjiha apartments “to prevent them from being inhabited by people, regardless of ordinary flooding or flood-prone areas.”

Banjihas are “a backward housing type that threatens housing construction in all aspects, including safety and living environment, and should be eliminated now,” said Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon.

The elimination process will include a 10- to 20-year “grace period” for existing banjihas with planning permission, and tenants will be helped to move to public rental housing or receive housing vouchers, the government said in a statement. After the banjihas are cleared, they will be converted for non-residential use, she added.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visits the flooded basement apartment in Gwanak, Seoul, August 10 where a family died.

Choi Eun-yeong, the city environmental researcher, expressed skepticism on the government’s alleged obligation to abolish banjihas, arguing that the proposal is overly ambitious and lacks concrete details such as details on the timetable or compensation figures.

“In fact, I think there’s a very good chance that it’s just a declaration and won’t be implemented,” she said, citing the government’s various promises – and limited success – over the years.

The poor are hit the hardest

The rain has since eased in Seoul – but experts warn that this type of extreme, unpredictable weather will only become more frequent and intense due to climate change.

The climate crisis “is increasing the temperature of the earth and ocean, which means the amount of water vapor that the air can hold is increasing,” said Park Jung-min, deputy director of the Korea Meteorological Administration’s press office. “It depends on the weather where this sac of water will flow.”

Soldiers carry debris from a flooded house in Seoul, South Korea, on August 10.

As is so often the case, it seems likely that the poorest will be among the hardest hit.

“Those who are struggling in life and those who are physically ill are bound to be more vulnerable to natural disasters,” President Yoon said Wednesday. “Only when they are safe will the Republic of Korea be safe.”

Similar problems have arisen in other countries in recent years; monsoon floods have repeatedly destroyed slums in parts of India; In Bangladesh, many people have migrated from villages to urban areas to escape increasingly frequent flooding. And in the United States, research has found that black, Hispanic and low-income families are more likely to live in flood-prone areas.Floods destroyed his home four times in three years.  This is the reality of climate change for India's poor

Aside from chronic displacement and devastated livelihoods, the expected increase in rain across Asia could bring a host of health risks, including a higher risk of diarrheal diseases, dengue fever and malaria – another blow to already impoverished families without access to medical care or means to move.

Meanwhile, floods and droughts could lead to rural poverty and rising food costs, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In Seoul, Banjiha residents face the dual threat of floods and heat waves, Choi Eun-yeong said.

“The changes brought about by the climate crisis are almost catastrophic, especially for the most vulnerable because they do not have adequate shelter to respond to these conditions,” she said.