The tragedies of the recent historic flood in Seoul have exposed the miserable life of the poor in semi-basement flats, as well as the inequality in Korean society.
Three members of a family of four were killed in Sillim Ward, Gwanak District, when floodwater flooded down the steps, submerging their three-room semi-basement house in southern Seoul.
At the time of the accident, the only survivor, a 72-year-old woman surnamed Lee, was in the hospital. Her 47- and 48-year-old daughters, as well as her 13-year-old granddaughter, were not so fortunate as her. All three were caught in the flood and drowned.
Mrs. Lee said her 47-year-old daughter took the day off from work on August 8 to drive her to the hospital and back home after that.
“She would have lived if she had gone to work instead of taking me to the hospital,” the old lady sobbed.
Mrs. Lee burst into tears when she shared photos of the underground apartment her daughter had remodeled just a month before the tragedy.
“This cannot be true,” she cried.
The house was still flooded with waist-high floodwaters on August 9, when South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol visited the area where the family of three died. Inside, pillows, tables and chairs, and plastic bags floated like paper boats.
The deaths reported in South Korea's unprecedented 80-year flood have highlighted the plight of the urban poor, as well as the housing crisis and growing inequality. Unfortunately, what was once thought of only in “Parasite” - Korea's first black comedy to win an Oscar, is now happening daily in a wealthy and developed city such as Seoul.
According to the New York Times, the poor in Korean cities frequently live in "banjiha," or semi-basement apartments. Because of the low rent, many low-income people prefer this type of apartment, which is partially submerged underground. This type of house, on the other hand, is not only infested with mold, pests, and a lack of sunlight, but it can also be a death trap, especially when heavy rains cause floods. In fact, the dangers of living underground during the rainy season are depicted in the Korean film “Parasite.”
The wealthiest families, such as CEO Park’s family in "Parasite," live in villas with private courtyards and pools, where absolute priority is given to privacy and quiet. Others prefer to live in luxury penthouses with security cameras everywhere and well-trained security guards 24/7. Living in a dry area, such as apartment buildings built by the country's leading conglomerates Samsung and Hyundai, has become a status symbol in Seoul, where house prices are sky-high.
The height at which people live is used to determine wealth. The higher the apartment tower and floor you live on, the higher the price of your apartment, meaning the richer you are when compared to others.
The poor, like the Kim family in “Parasite”, are frequently housed in cheap, damp, and moldy “banjiha” apartments. They struggle every day to find work, save money, and teach their children how to survive the rat race.
Semi-basements were mentioned as an example of inequality in a 2019 NPR podcast about the movie “Parasite”, which starred Bong Joon-ho, the film’s director, and Gina Kim, a Korean professor currently teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“It was illegal for a long time to rent such semi-basements as housing,” the professor explained, “They are prone to flooding and are infested with mold and pests. The residents suffer from chronic coughs and skin diseases. Outsiders are able to see inside the house. Some even pee through the windows. Others park their cars (in front of the window), obstructing the house’s rare sunlight,” Kim said.
Furthermore, she stated that the fact that Korea has gone from one of the poorest economies in the world to the 11th largest economy in just a few decades has forced the government to legalize those “banjiha” apartments to provide more accommodation as more workers arrive.
Viewers must recall a scene from “Parasite” that occurred the following day after heavy rain fell on Seoul. While CEO Park’s wife was talking to her friend on the phone, she was pleased because the rain had made the weather cooler, which led her to the idea of holding her son’s birthday party outside. “What a blessing,” she then said. Rain was a blessing for rich people like the Park family because it washed away the heat and brought coolness, however, it was a disaster for the Kim family. They had to go to work with a damp and unpleasant sewer smell still lingering on their clothes after a failed attempt to save what was left of the house, not to mention the fact that the water had submerged his home.
Many students and young couples who come to Seoul have rented such basements in the hope that, after their hard work and sacrifices, they will own a place in tall residential buildings one day.
However, according to statistics from two years ago, an average worker in Korea will need to save for 63 years to buy an apartment.
Even so, young people living in underground houses can still fantasize about escaping, whereas the elderly or unemployed have given up hope of ever leaving. They struggle every day, barely making ends meet, and are on the verge of becoming homeless.
Although the government has stated several times that semi-basement flats will be prohibited from being used as living quarters, this situation appears to have not been completely resolved over the years. The tragedy of residents of "banjiha" apartments dying as a result of the recent massive flood appears to be a wake-up call for those living, that they must act quickly before similar tragedies take place.
However, the Korean government must address more than just prohibiting semi-basement apartments. They will also need to find a way to provide low-income people with housing that they can afford while also ensuring their security and safety.
Edited by: Tom Culf
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