SEOUL (Reuters) – A fire ripped through part of a shantytown in the South Korean capital, Seoul, on Friday, destroying 60 homes, many made of cardboard and wood, and forcing the evacuation of about 500 people.
It took emergency services five hours to put out the fire, which broke out before dawn in the village of Koryeong, a poor neighborhood just across a highway from Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district. Officials said there were no reports of casualties so far.
Home to about 1,000 people, Koryeong is one of the last remaining shantytowns in the capital and has become a symbol of inequality in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Ten helicopters and hundreds of firefighters, police and troops joined the effort to put out the blaze which, according to officials, has destroyed nearly one in ten of the 600 homes in Koryeong.
“I saw a flash from the kitchen, I opened the door and flames erupted from the neighboring houses,” said Chen, 72, whose house was completely burned in hell.
So I knocked on every nearby door and shouted ‘Fire! Then I called 119,” she says, just giving it her nickname.
Kim Do-chun, 60, said his family was not affected by the fire, but he told Reuters the village was constantly at risk of disasters because of its cardboard houses and narrow alleys.
“If a fire breaks out in this neighborhood, the whole village could be in danger if we don’t respond quickly. So we’ve been responding together for decades,” said Kim, who has lived in the area for 30 years.
Slums have long been prone to fires and floods, and safety and health issues abound.
The government unveiled plans for redevelopment and resettlement after a wildfire in late 2014, but those efforts have made little progress amid the decades-old tug-of-war between landowners, residents and authorities.
Civil authorities in Seoul and the Gangnam District, and state-run developers have been at odds over how to compensate private landowners in Goryong and have yet to agree on whether the residents, who are mostly occupiers, deserve government subsidies for resettlement and housing.
After being briefed on the fire while in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, said his spokeswoman Kim Eun Hee, President Yoon Sok Yul ordered all-out efforts to prevent an even greater catastrophe.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon visited the still-burning village and asked officials to prepare to relocate affected families.
Reporting from Hyonhee Shin. Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Jerry Doyle and Simon Cameron Moore
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