Disasters that Shaped Modern Korea (21st Century)

Modern Korea was shaped as much by its disasters as its achievements. The 21st century started with fires and serial killers as disasters went from a macro to a human level. 

  • (1999) Sealand Youth Training Centre – 23 killed
  • (1999) Inchon bar fire – 65 killed
  • (2003) Daegu subway fire – 192 killed
  • (2003-2004) Yu Yeong-cheol – 20 killed
  • (2008) Fire in refrigeration distribution warehouse under construction – 40/57 killed
  • (2008) Namdaemun fire
  • (2008) Nonhyeon-dong massacre – 6 killed
  • (2014) Sewol Ferry – 304 killed
  • (2016) Gangnam bathroom murder
  • (2017) Jecheon fire – electrical fire in a gym “Noble Fitness and Spa” – 29 killed

Part of the Korean Disasters Series:

Disasters that Shaped Modern Korea (1950s-70s)

Disasters that Shaped Modern Korea (1980s)

“The Disaster Republic”: Disasters that Shaped Modern Korea (1990s)

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NOTES

We’re not going to cover them all.

 

(June 30, 1999) Sealand Youth Training Centre – 23 killed

  • Background
    • Hwaseong
    • Steel-framed, reinforced concrete
    • Additional space – stacked cargo containers covered with wood and corrugated iron with flammable styrofoam ceilings
    • No fire safety measures
      • No sprinkler system
      • Most extinguishers not working
      • No fire alarm
      • Bad exits
        • Two with narrow stairways
      • BUT–had passed fire safety inspections twice
  • Disaster
    • Lit mosquito coil shortly after midnight
    • Late responders – 12:30 a.m. fire / 1:30 a.m. alarm at fire station / arrived 2:00 a.m.
    • Took 50 hours to get under control
    • 19 children, 4 adults died
      • 18 children from Somang Kindergarten
        • Most sleeping in room 301
      • Took two weeks to identify all the bodies
  • Aftermath
    • Sealand Park owner and six Hawseong officials charged with involuntary manslaughter & violation of building laws PLUS bribery charges
      • Also borrowed a construction designer’s construction license
      • Four architects and builders were also arrested
    • Somang Kindergarten officials arrested
      • Were off drinking rather than watching their children
    • Outcry – Greater enforcement of safety standards

(Oct 30, 1999) Incheon bar fire – 65 killed

Incheon Bar

    • Background
      • 3rd worst fire in modern history
      • 3-story wood and brick building
      • Restaurant on first floor
      • Illegal hof on second floor (Live 2 Hof House)
      • Eight days prior – police had ordered it shut down
        • No license
        • Spot check – thought it was closed
          • Likely tipped off
          • “Every time the police had a surprise inspection, the owner kicked the children out and shut down the bar,” Ko Kyung Mi said. “But I am sure that the police knew about the situation.”
      • Many under aged (97 of 129 known victims)
        • Youngest killed was 13
        • High school students coming from a high school festival
          • Many still had on their uniforms
    • Disaster
      • Cause – Basement noraebang
        • Undergoing renovation
        • Two teenage part-time students playing with fire
          • Extinguished in the room, but inter-wall materials spread the fire throughout the building
      • Door locked from outside
        • Overheard owner told staff to lock the doors and not let anyone out until they paid for their drinks
          • Then left
          • Similarities to Sampoong?
        •  
        • More than 100 trapped inside
      • Most deaths from smoke inhalation on 2nd floor beer hall and 3rd floor billiard room (NBA Billiards)
      • Poor fire codes
        • Windows couldn’t open and were almost indestructible 
          • 3rd floor was able to break the windows
        • Narrow corridors and stairs
          • Stairs were a chimney
        • One small exit
        • No sprinklers
          • Removed during renovation
      • Fire extinguishers, but happened so fast that people couldn’t use them
    • Aftermath
      • Worst fire since the ‘70s
        • Building owner jumped from the 3rd floor and survived with injuries
      • Pub owner and four workers arrested
        • Owner tried to run away but turned himself in
          • Five years in prison
          • Went into ministry and tried to become a Christian singer
      • Busted in March for violation of codes but bribed officials (arrested)
      • “There was no place to play”
        • Prevalence of adult-friendly entertainment districts and no place for teens to go
        • Commercial district (Inhyeon-dong) collapsed
      • Memorial – Incheon Student Education and Culture Center (near site)

(Feb 18, 2003) Daegu subway fire – 192 killed

Daegu Subway Fire aftermath

  • Arsonist set fire to a train
    • Fire spread across two trains within minutes
  • Largest peacetime deliberate human disaster
  • Kim Dae-han
    • 56-year-old unemployed taxi driver
    • (2001) Had a stroke and wasn’t satisfied with medical treatment
    • Wanted to kill himself and take others with him
  • Disaster
    • Was opening cartons and fumbling with a lighter
      • Passengers tried to stop him
      • Spilled one of the cartons, which caught fire
      • Kim escaped with injuries
    • Insulation made fire spread, along with vinyl and plastic on seat cushions and strap handles
    • Train operator didn’t notify officials of fire
    • Another train entered the station and stopped
      • Automatic fire detector SHUT DOWN THE POWER, trapping the train
      • Operator told passengers to REMAIN SEATED
      • Was told by officials to kill the engine and leave
      • Took the master key and escaped, but in doing so kept the doors shut
    • Unprepared
      • No fire extinguishers
      • No sprinklers or emergency lighting
      • Poor emergency ventilation systems 
    • Late responders
      • Because smoked prevented them from entering for 3.5 hours
  • Aftermath
    • Attempted cover-up
      • Escaped operator couldn’t be found for 10 hours
      • Transcript omissions
    • Better fire safety equipment in subway stations
      • Interiors sprayed with fire-resistant chemicals
      • Six Daegu stations refurbished
      • This is why there are instruction with a cartoon man with a defined butt crack showing how to open subway doors
    • Operators of both trains charged with negligence
      • Sentenced 4-5 years in prison
    • Kim Dae-han convicted of arson and homicide
      • Sentenced to life (though prosecutors pushed for death)
      • Died in 2004
    • (2008) Daegu Safety Theme Park opened

 

(2003-2004) Yu Yeong-cheol – 20 killed

  • One of the better known murderers
  • Father was a Vietnam War vet
    • Alcoholic
    • Gambler
    • Left family*
  • Yoo was violent when young, but athletic 
  • Artistic, wanted to be an artist
  • Dropped out of school
  • Aug.23, 1988 committed first known crime – theft
    • Exempt from military service
  • 1991, got married, had a son
  • Throughout 90s, committed 14 counts of theft and rape, total 7 years in prison
  • March, 2000, sentenced 3.5 years in prison for raping a teenage girl (sent to Jeonju Prison)
  • Wife filed for divorce
  • September, 2003, released from prison
    • Lived with mother in Seoul
    • Became fascinated with murder
    • Killed a dog to experiment
      • Stabbed the dog
      • Was put off by the blood, dog’s hollering, and squirming
      • Decided it was best to hit victims in the head first
  • Later that month, first murder
  • Most victims were bludgeoned (usually with a hammer or similar tool) then stabbed
    • He started killing wealthy elderly (men and women), often in their homes, before moving on to raping and murdering women (often masseuses/prostitutes, usually in their 20s)
    • Victims were bludgeoned or raped or both before being murdered; several were dismembered and cannibalised 
    • Victims ranged between early 20s and mid-80s 
  • July 2004, captured
    • Convicted of 20 murders
    • Rape was later added to convictions
  • December 2004, sentenced to death
    • June 2005, death sentence was lowered to life by Supreme Court
  • Currently in Seoul Detention Centre
  • 2010, reestablishing the death penalty was reviewed by Minister of Justice
    • Violent serial killers were the key focus; Yoo was the key example for ministry’s review
    • Review was abandoned

 

(Jan 7, 2008) Fire in refrigeration distribution warehouse under construction – 40/57 killed

  • Cause – Sparks from welding landed on chemicals
  • Safety issues
    • Fire dept issued safety inspection certificate WITHOUT INSPECTING
    • Workers not given safety training
    • Bballi Bballi pressure to finish
    • Fire suppression wasn’t operational–locked down
  • Aftermath
    • Building owners sentenced 20 million won
      • Avoided prison

(Feb 10, 2008) Namdaemun fire

Namdaemun Fire

  • Chae Jong-gi (69 years old)
    • Upset he hadn’t been paid in full for land sold to developers
    • (2006) Had also tried to set Changgyeonggung on fire
  • Namdaemun targeted because
    • Lax security
    • Didn’t want to cause casualties (so no trains or buses–thanks, dude)
  • Aftermath
    • Now has fire suppression systems and CCTVs
    • Other sites got the same treatment

(Oct 20, 2008) Nonhyeon-dong massacre – 6 killed

  • Goshiwon 3rd floor, Jeong Sang-jin (30) set his room on fire and slashed several women with a sushi knife while wearing all black and a headlamp and goggles
    • One woman died when she jumped out of a window
    • Jeong was thought to be a victim and was rescued from a storage room, where he was hiding
  • Jeong Sang-jin
    • Financial hardships
    • Was picked on his whole life
    • Skipped reservist training
    • Wanted to target the rich and high authorities, but went for who was convenient
  • Aftermath
    • Sentenced to death
  •  

(July 6, 2013) Asiana Airlines Flight 214 – 3 killed

Asiana flight 214: Crew 'over-relied' on automation - BBC News

  • Bumped the runway while landing at SFO
  • Cause – Pilot error
    • Official: Over-reliance on automation and lack of understanding of systems operation
    • Unofficial: Miscommunication – Other crew members who saw an error didn’t object because of hierarchy 

(April 16, 2014) Sewol Ferry – 304 killed

South Korea ferry 'sank due to negligence, corruption' - BBC News

  • Incident
    • Capsized while third mate and helmsman made too sharp a turn
      • Captain Lee Joon-seok and crew were drinking beer
    • Ordered passengers to stay put
      • Those who disobeyed survived
      • Captain and crew abandoned ship
      • Three crew members stayed on to help and died
    • Rescue operations delayed and botched
  • Causes
    • Sudden turn
      • Off-duty captain complained about steering problems
    • Overloading and improperly secured cargo
      • Off-duty captain and first mate warned about it
      • Owners brushed it off
      • Not carrying enough ballast water
      • Miscommunication between agencies about what the maximums should be
    • Addition of extra passenger cabins (similar to Sampoong’s extra floor)
    • Cozy relationship between agencies and shipping business
  • Aftermath
    • Media was an embarrassment
    • Perpetrators 
      • Former owner Yoo Byung-eun fled
        • Nationwide manhunt
        • Body was found in a field
      • Captain and two other crew indicted with homicide
        • Captain – 36 years
          • Judgement: Negligence but not intent to kill
        • Chief Engineer – Murder – 30 years
        • 11 other crew members indicted on lesser charges
      • Chonghaejin CEO Kim Han-sik – 10 years
        • Six other employees and a Korean Shipping Association officials received sentences
    •  Led to downfall of Park Geun-hye
      • Negligence
      • Caring more about the optics
      • Made blacklist of artists who portrayed Sewol in their artwork
        • Members of administration were imprisoned for four years for this
    • Lax regulations under spotlight

(May 17, 2016) Gangnam bathroom murder 

A woman's slaying in Seoul's tony Gangnam district stirs emotions in South  Korea - Los Angeles Times

  • Women in White Raincoats Gather at Gangnam Station in the Rain, "We're Here  to Change the World, Which Remains Misogynist" | Women in White Raincoats  Gather at Gangnam Station in the Rain, "
  • Kim Sung-min stabbed a woman to death
  • Reason – Hated women
    • Also mental illness – schizophrenia
  • Korea’s #MeToo movement
    • The uber-culture
      • Men feeling more and more displaced as their dominance is challenged as Korea modernizes
      • Men who aren’t as powerful lash out

(Dec 21, 2017) Jecheon fire – electrical fire in a gym “Noble Fitness and Spa” – 29 killed

Jecheon Fire

  • Incident
    • Smoke inhalation main culprit
      • Rapid spread
      • New paint and decorations from remodeling
    • 20 trapped in sauna
    • ~20 rescued from roof of eight-story building
    • Owner didn’t abandon this time
      • Tried to put out fire with extinguisher
      • But didn’t enter sauna because–naked women
    • Fire truck delayed
      • Illegally parked cars blocking way
      • Private truck from a cleaning company with ladder started rescue
      • Elderly man rescued 15 people before being taken to hospital
  • Cause
    • Installation of electric heating wires on first floor ceiling of the parking lot
  • To make things worse
    • Emergency exit was being used as a warehouse–blocked door
    • Power outage
    • Automatic door at entrance was broken – People didn’t know how to open it
    • No staff to help evacuate
    • Alarm not installed
    • Sprinkler system didn’t work
    • Elevators acted as chimneys
  • Aftermath
    • Fire department and local government accused of ineptitude by public
    • Fire preparedness was improved for public facilities after Daegu subway fire, but not private facilities

(Jan 26, 2018) Miryang hospital fire – 41 killed

  • Sejong Hospital
  • Cause – Still unknown
    • Started in Emergency Room, maybe the ceiling
      • Likely wires above ceiling in the bathroom
  • Incident
    • Many intensive care patients were tied to their beds
    • Sprinklers not installed (not required)
  • Aftermath
    • Bills stuck in parliament to fix this

Conclusion

What have been the patterns?

  • 빨리 빨리
  • Disassociation of cause & effect
    • Bad at strategic thinking, good at tactical thinking
      • Stubborn refusal to anticipate disaster
      • Quick to fix disasters after they happen
  • Angry older men commit arson
  • Slow response of responders
  • Miscommunication
  • People being told to remain where they are–to follow authority
  • People in charge fled the scene (captains, subway operators, pub and building owners)
  • Greed & corruption
    • Paternal view of the masses
    • Regulators in bed with industry – bribes

What has changed?

  • Air and building safety
  • Things don’t change until there’s public outcry
    • Driving/drunk driving rules
  • More of a safety mindset/conscientiousness
    • Expanding of one’s bubble to go beyond tribalism (immediate family) to community mindset
    • Driving has gotten better
  • Some fluidity in Confucian hierarchy
    • Air crews are required to speak up if the captain is wrong
  • Consciousness of social disasters (serial killers, sex crimes, child abuse)
  • Those who are responsible are being punished
  • Less corruption
    • Maybe because it’s a richer society. Gov’t officials don’t need to be bribed to stay afloat
      • This had been going on ever since the Joseon era when kings kept expanding the numbers of Merit Subjects

What directions are we heading?

  • More consciousness of social disasters
    • Moving from structural to personal — human level
  • More responsibility being taken by those with responsibility
  • May see more helicopter parenting regarding safety
    • Note how Korean children have more freedom of movement than their western counterparts these days
      • America went through the child abduction scares of the ‘80s and ‘90s, causing paranoid parenting
      • Korea may be about to go through that
  • The looming iceberg: Mental Illness
    • Ignoring of mental illness and making it shameful
    • Social pressures amplifying them

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