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

Modern Korea was shaped as much by its disasters as its achievements. The 1990s were known as “The Disaster Republic.” The earlier decade’s rush to build the country resulted in horrific building and bridge collapses.

  • (October 28, 1992) Murder of Yoon Geum-yi
  • (Jan 7, 1993) Wooam Shopping Arcade Collapse – 28 killed
  • (March 28, 1993) Gupo Mugunghwa Train – 78 killed
  • (July 26, 1993) Asiana Airlines Flight 733 – 69 killed
  • (Oct 10, 1993) Sinking of MV Seohae – 292 killed
  • (October 21, 1994) Seongsu Bridge collapse – 32 killed
  • (1995) Sampoong Department Store Collapse – 502 killed

Part of the Korean Disasters Series:

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

Disasters that Shaped Modern Korea (1980s)

Disasters that Shaped Modern Korea (21st Century)

NEXT WEEK:

We wrap up our disaster series by covering the 21st century. Fires, serial killers, and the Sewol Ferry. Subscribe to get it as soon as it’s published.

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NOTES

(October 28, 1992) Murder of Yoon Geum-yi

  • Yoon (26) was a sex worker at Dongducheon; she worked at a bar at a camptown (kijichon)
    • Camptowns surround USKF bases
    • Poor women were often recruited as sex workers in kichijon; they were stigmatized by classism, then more so as sex workers
  • She had a dispute with Private Ken Markle
    • Markle hit Yoon repeatedly over the head with a bottle
    • Markle violated Yoon with a bottle and umbrella both vaginally and anally; he stuffed her mouth with matches and covered her body in laundry detergent
  • Yoon’s murder infuriated some of the Korean public
    • Kim Hyun-sook: ‘Yoon is material evidence of imperialist violence against the bodies of Korean women.’
    • New dialogue about gender and sex crimes
      • Previous murders of camptown sex workers happened
        • Woman named Park was murdered and mutilated in 1960s by US serviceman; no legal action was taken, no apology was made; residents of camptown had to raise funds for funeral 
        • Proper funerals often didn’t happen because money couldn’t be raised or bodies were never found 
        • Camptown sex workers were looked down upon, their murders not considered worthwhile
      • Images of Yoon’s body were circulated by activists
        • Goal was to highlight the class differences between camptown workers and other Koreans, and show the violence that exists in camptowns by military personnel 
        • Grace M. Cho: ‘(Yoon) would serve as a haunting reminder to those who tried to distinguish themselves from her by making her presence felt as the excluded outsider that threatens the boundary.’
      • Committee on the Murder of Yoon Geum-yi was formed; this became the National Campaign for Eradication of Crime by US Troops in Korea
      • Korean government compensated Yoon’s family $70,000 
  • Markle convicted of rape and murder in ‘93; initially sentenced to life, reduced to 15 years because Yoon’s family received compensation from US gov
    • Served sentence in Cheonan
    • Given parole in August ‘06, left for US the next day
    • Judiciary committee granted parole because Markle was deemed ‘unlikely to commit another crime’; financial agreement was reached with Yoon’s family

(Jan 7, 1993) Wooam Shopping Arcade Collapse – 28 killed

Wooam Shopping Arcade
  • Presidency of Kim Young-sam 
    • Before inauguration ceremony (Feb 25)
    • Considered the starting point of “The Accident Republic”
  • Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province
  • Accident
    • (1:10 a.m.) Fire from short circuit in underground shopping mall 
    • Spread to 2nd floor
    • Residents went to the roof
    • (2 a.m.) Fire almost extinguished
    • Gas leaked through melted vinyl tubes on first floor
    • (2:10 a.m.) 10 gas cylinders exploded
    • Collapsed
  • Cause
    • Fire was the straw that broke the camel’s back
    • Poor construction
      • Extensions on the 4th floor caused load problems
      • Foundation used poor aggregates
      • Rebars not properly laid out
      • Wood chips in the concrete
  • Aftermath
    • Rebuilt (1995) as Pyeonghwa Shopping Center

(March 28, 1993) Gupo Mugunghwa Train – 78 killed

  • Traveling from Seoul to Busan
  • 85 km/hr (within limits)
  • Engineer saw that the ground had collapsed and tried to brake
    • Survived. 
  • 276 on board
    • 78 people died, 198 people were injured (54 seriously injured, 144 minor injured)
  • Cause
    • Samsung Engineering & Construction was tunneling under the tracks to lay down some electrical cable
    • Was violating laws to work with Korea Railroad Authority
  • Aftermath
    • Railroad bed itself had to be repaired, which took a long time
      • Cut off transportation in main Seoul-Busan artery
      • Trains still pass that way
    • Engineer was not punished because it wasn’t his fault. He tried his best to prevent the disaster.
    • Executives were given light punishments
      • Pattern of judicial leniency towards chaebol execs, angering the public
      • CEO was merely transferred to Samsung Credit Card
    • Samsung Engineering & Construction was punished
      • 25.5 million won penalty
      • suspended domestically for six months (lost 1 trillion won)
        • Had trouble getting domestic contracts for ten years
        • Used this time to extend into Southeast Asia
      • Changed its name to Samsung E&C and was absorbed by Samsung C&T (1996) – Samsung C&T Construction Division (not even trying to hide it)
        • These days builds apartments, like Raemian
        • Built Everland
        • Currently #1 in domestic contracts
    • Ghost train
      • Story of a woman asking for rescue
      • Cry heard with the sound of wheels
      • Subject of the movie Red Eye (2005)

(July 26, 1993) Asiana Airlines Flight 733 – 69 killed

News story

Flight recorder

  • Gimpo to Mokpo
  • 116 passengers
  • Accident
    • Bad weather
    • Made two unsuccessful landing attempts
    • Crashed into Mt. Ungeo, 10 km southwest of Mokpo Airport
    • Two passengers ran to the village at the base of mountain
      • Villagers raced to help the passengers
      • Made stretchers out of sticks and clothing
  • Cause
    • Airport didn’t have instrument landing system (ILS) & runway was narrow for civilian planes, so caused the multiple landing attempts
    • Veered off course and told the tower that it was
    • Had not received permission to land
    • Captain irritated that he kept missing the runway and decided to start approach at a lower altitude
      • Was not aware of the mountain in his way
    • Began descent when still passing over mountain peak
      • Safe altitude 490m (1600ft)
      • Mountain is 827 ft
      • Last thing the captain said, “Okay, 800 [feet].”
        • Not really, it was “오맙…”
        • Co-pilot “Hey!”
        • Engines increase. Got up to 762 ft. Crash.
  • Other causes
    • Asiana promoted itself as always being on time
    • Co-pilot was under-experienced (only 24 hours of civilian airliner flying time)
  • Aftermath
    • The rain prevented more explosions
    • Anti-submarine helicopter rescued the survivors
      • Ill-equipped, so transported the injured using cables
    • Unprofessional Media
      • Showed a women’s underwear without pixelating while being rescued–repeatedly
        • Jokes were being made
          • Some were transported to small hospitals or university hospitals based on the brands of their underwear
        • Broadcasters received warnings and apologized
      • KBS broadcasted names and addresses of the women
      • Held a microphone to a child trembling in shock
    • Asiana’s first and deadliest crash
      • Crashes in July 2011 and July 2013 — The Curse of Seven (July)
      • Deadliest air crash in Korea at the time
      • Deadliest of Boeing 737-500 at the time
      • Asiana still uses the number 733 for the Incheon-Hanoi route
    • Suspended Gimpo-Mokpo route
    • Paid compensation to families
    • Muan Int’l was built
      • When commissioned in 2007, decommissioned Mokpo
    • Residents of Macheon Village aided in the rescue
      • Villagers traumatized
      • Performed a gut to comfort them

(Oct 10, 1993) Sinking of MV Seohae – 292 killed

Seohae
  • Wido, Buan County, North Jeolla
    • Started to become a popular tourism/fishing spot in the ‘80s
  • 362 on board. Max capacity 221 and crew was under minimum
    • Mostly Wido residents and military
  • Largest since Namyoung in 1970
  • Factors
    • Harsh conditions
    • Overloading (in bow) and overboarding
      • Fish sauce and gravel
    • Thick rope wrapped around propellor shafts, left by fishing operations
  • Rescue
    • Only 2 of 9 lifeboats were operational
      • Survivors divided between lifeboats and others hung on from the outside and used boxes
    • Local fishing boats reported and rescued 40 survivors
    • Military boats and helicopters
      • 30 more rescued; 51 bodies recovered
  • Salvage
    Raising the Seohae
    • Lifted but ropes snapped. Got it on the second try.
    • 292 bodies recovered
      • Captain, chief engineer, deck chief in communications room
      • Rare that all bodies recovered–because the ship capsized so quickly, people trapped inside
  • Investigation conclusions
    • Forced to operate under harsh conditions
      • This time it was the passengers who forced it to go
        • Sunday and many had to go to work
    • Announcement to stay in cabins after strong wave hit
    • Steering was too strong–from inexperience
    • Company demanded to take a more dangerous route
    • Overloaded because the company was considered too small for state subsidies, incentivizing to go on less excursions
    • Coast Guard responded too late
  • Aftermath
    • 99.1 million won per family (22.8 billion won)
      • Ferry company was only worth 1 billions won
      • 7.3 paid by the Shipping Mutual Aid Association
      • The rest came from donations and the pension fund
      • BUT…
        • MBC PD Notebook reported that a gov’t official threatened the families if they sued
          • “If you go to court, your family will lose, and if you go to the Supreme Court, it will take 3-4 years. Why should that be?”
        • 10 families succeeded won state compensation in court, claiming lots of state neglect in supplying proper personnel and equipment
    • 38 Transportation officials reprimanded
    • Chairman of shipping union dismissed
    • Media unprofessionalism
      • Claimed people saw the captain leave and return home
        • Mistook one captain for another
      • Captain secretly escaped to Japan
        • Media company was raided by the gov’t
      • Prosecution and police were following the wrong captain based on those reports
      • When captain was found, media posted apologies
      • This was a pattern that was parodied in the 2014 drama Pinnocchio
    • Number of routes increased
    • Stronger practices for keeping track of who’s on board
      • no longer selling boarding passes after boarding
      • Must fill out more info when getting a boarding pass
      • All passenger ships informed of # before departing
    • BUT–National Assembly did nothing to strengthen the safety of ships themselves
    • Comment on Namu Wiki that the government and media learned nothing from this, and repeated the same mistakes after Sewol
    • Memorial tower in Wido

(October 21, 1994) Seongsu Bridge collapse – 32 killed

Seongsu Bridge Collapse
  • Links Seong-dong and Gangnam (built 1977)
  • Accident
    • (12:20-2:30 a.m.) 1.3x2m steel plate laid on seams of the bridge to cover a gap opening on the bridge
    • Crack kept growing
    • (6 a.m.) Driver reports the growing gap to the Seoul gov’t
    • (7:38 a.m.) Section broke off
      • One van and two cars fell along with it
        • Kia Vesta van basically was unharmed 
          • was carrying police, who helped with recovery
      • Bus then fell when driver couldn’t brake in time, landed upside down
      • Total six vehicles and 49 passengers, 32 deaths
        • Muhak Girls’ Middle & High School students
    • Response was late because responders thought they were being pranked
  • Cause
    • Dong-A E&C
      • Supporting truss had a faulty weld
        • So bad that afterward MBC report showed the bolt could be removed by hand
      • Maintained the bridge for five years
    • Seoul Gov’t
      • Took over maintenance
        • Insufficient inspections & maintenance
      • Didn’t prepare for explosive growth of traffic when new arterial roads were opened, so excessive congestion
      • Didn’t enforce restrictions on heavy vehicles
        • Concrete factory next to the northern end of the bridges
        • Regulations only considered the weight of empty trucks
  • Aftermath
    • MBC brought up that it had reported on the bridge the year before, and the Seoul Metro Gov’t brushed it off
      • Re-aired the report after the disaster
    • Dong-A E&C
      • Apologized to the public in newspaper ads
      • Offered to pay for the rebuilding and for maintenance
      • Gave up on repairing
        • Dismantled and replaced by Hyundai E&C
          • Supervised by a foreign firm (High Point Rendel)
            • First time
            • Why? 
              • Didn’t trust domestic companies because of corruption and collusion/bribery
          • Finished July 1997, looking about the same as the old bridge
      • Dong-A E&C dismantled in 2001 and became a subsidiary of SM Group
    • This is one of the reasons there are so many bridges today on the Han River–to reduce congestion
    • Muhak Girls’ Middle and High Schools still have memorial periods
      • Controversy over bussing
    • One SNU student who died had wanted to donate his organs
      • But the timeline passed before his body was recovered
      • Used for dissection practice at Korea University College of Medicine
    • Memorial on the north side of the bridge
      • toward the entrance/exit road of Gangbyeonbuk-ro toward Hannam-ro
      • Hard to get to 
    • Seoul Mayors
      • Mayors were appointed, not elected
      • Lee Won-jong was in office
        • Was praised for his handling of Wooam Shopping Arcade incident when governor of North Chungcheong Province
      • Woo Myeong-gyu
        • But then everyone remembered he was mayor when the Seongsu Bridge was erected
        • Resigned 11 days later
      • Choi Byeong-ryeol (the last appointed mayor)
        • Made construction safety his priority
        • The day before he left office…

(1995) Sampoong Department Store Collapse – 502 killed

Movie with Sharknado level effects but still horrific

Seconds from Disaster

  • Background
    • Seocho-gu, Gangnam
      • Was a landfill
      • Was designated a residential district
        • But… bribes
      • The building was supposed to be a 4-story apartment building but the chairman turned it into a department store
        • Cut away support pillars for escalators
        • Added fifth floor
      • Woosung Construction refused, Sampoong E&C chairman Lee Joon fired them and had Sampoong E&C do it
    • Unconventional when built
      • Started 1987. Finished 1989. Opened July 1990.
      • Pink
      • Second largest store in Korea
      • Considered the most luxurious
        • Known for attracting foreign brands
        • Even held foreign culture exhibitions
        • Even had a Wendy’s
      • Flat-slab structure
        • no steel skeleton
          • Couldn’t transfer the load across floors
      • Maximized floor space by reducing the size of the columns and spreading them further apart
      • Fifth floor
        • Originally a roller rink to comply with zoning regulations that it couldn’t ALL be a department store
        • Lee Joon changed it to hold eight restaurants
          • Ondol heating
            • Water increased weight
      • Columns supporting 4x maximum weight
        • Were not lined up on each floor
      • Three 15-ton air cons on the roof
        • Neighbors complained of noise
        • (1993) they were dragged across the roof instead of using a crane, resulting in cracks
  • Accident
    • (April 1995) Cracks appear on ceiling of fifth floor
      • Lee moved merchandise to the basement
    • (Morning, June 29, 1995) Number of cracks increased dramatically
      • Near the column supporting all those air conditioners
      • Managers closed parts of the top floor
    • Unusually high number of customers that day, so management didn’t close the store
    • Civil engineering experts were examining the cracks 
      • Said building was on the verge of collapse
    • (Around 1 p.m.) First of several loud bangs from top floors
      • Air conditioning vibration causing cracks to widen 10 cm wide
      • Turned off
    • Collapse was inevitable
    • Emergency board meeting
      • Directors said customers should be evacuated
      • Lee refused before he himself left the building
        • Didn’t even inform his own daughter-in-law, who was an employee
    • (5 p.m.) Fifth floor began to sink
      • Workers closed off access to fifth floor
    • (5:52 p.m.) Cracking sounds
      • Employees tell customers to evacuate
      • Air cons crashed through the floors
      • Columns that were weakened to make way for escalators followed
      • Floors pancaked
    • (20 seconds later)
      • 502 people killed
      • 1,500 trapped
  • Rescue
    • Mayor Choi Byeong-ryeol announced rescue would be called off for fear of causing further collapse
      • PROTESTS!!!!!
      • Continued search while using cables to stabilize
      • Korea Telecom transmitted signals every half hour to set off phones and pagers
      • Officials claimed that after two days, it would be more of a recovery effort
      • Nearly a week later that’s what happened
      • Last to be rescued: 19-year-old Park Seung-hyun, 17 days later
        • Had a few scratches
      • One survivor reported that others had drowned from rain water and the water used for fire suppression
  • Aftermath
    • Initial proposed causes
      • Gas explosion
      • North Korea
      • Poor foundation
      • Substandard concrete (mixed with seawater) and poorly reinforced
        • True but not the main culprit
    • Concluded it was poorly designed flat slab construction
      • Was supposed to use stout, aligned columns to carry the main load
      • Instead, thin columns that were staggered in different parts on each floor
        • Half the number of steel reinforcement bars
      • Fire shields installed around the escalators contributed to the collapse (the irony, considering the 1971 Daeyeongak fire)
      • Fifth floor was overkill
        • More overkill with restaurants using heavy equipment
      • The moving of the air conditioners was the seed event
    • Lee Joon stated that the collapse not only harmed customers, it inflicted financial harm to his company
      • (Dec 27, 1995) Found guilty of criminal negligence
      • 10.5 years in prison
      • Prosecutors wanted 20 years
      • Reduced to 7.5 years on appeal
      • (Oct 4, 2003) Died months after release from diabetes/blood pressure/kidney disease–and evil
    • Lee Joon’s son, Lee Han-Sang, received seven years for accidental homicide and corruption
      • Released in 2002
      • Worked as an evangelist in Mongolia
    • City official Lee Chung-Woo sentenced to three years for bribery
      • Was chief administrator for that area
    • Former administrator Hwang Chol-Min got 10 years
      • For accepting 12 million won bribe from Lee Joon
    • Other officials and store executives received punishments
    • Lee Joon & Son offered all their wealth to compensate families, thus dissolving their company
    • Today
      • Remains of the store were swept under the rug
      • Remained vacant until 2000
      • Families requested a memorial, but Seocho gov’t refused
        • Memorial built in Yangjae Citizen’s Forest
        • Land sold to private developer
      • Now Acrovista Apartments
    • Because of Seongsu, Sampoong, and other disasters, the Korean government conducted a safety assessment
    • People were scared of anything built in the 1980s and 1990s
    • Results
      • 1/7 (14.3%) of all tall buildings were in need of renovation.
      • 80% of all buildings had major repairs.
      • Only 2% of all buildings were in safe condition.
    • Other notes
      • Dangsan Rail Bridge (western bridge of Subway Line 2) likely would have collapsed if Seongsu hadn’t collapsed first
        • Transformed into 2-platform bridge
        • Collapsed on its own during demolition work

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