Preparing for the unlikelyIs Korea a safe place to live? In terms of the crime rate and the general living environment, most people would probably agree that it is. But the recent devastation from the tsunamis in southern Asia raises the question from a different perspective: How safe is Korea from natural disasters, such as earthquakes?
Geologically, Korea is less prone to earthquakes than some other Asian countries, including nearby Japan. But that doesn’t mean they never happen here. In the past few decades, Korea has had several earthquakes of a magnitude of 5.0 or higher on the Richter scale ― generally speaking, a moderate earthquake unlikely to cause much damage to well-designed buildings.
The most recent such quake occurred last May, in Uljin, North Gyeongsang province; it measured 5.2 on the Richter scale. There were no casualties, but it still raised concerns, because its epicenter was only 10 kilometers (six miles) from a nuclear power plant.
Jang Gwang-yun, a director of the Korea Structural Engineering Association, estimates that Seoul could suffer as many as half a million casualties in the unlikely event that it were struck by a quake as powerful as the one that devastated Kobe, Japan 10 years ago. That quake was roughly 7.0 on the Richter scale, or 20 times more powerful than a 5.0 quake.
“Seoul has no experience with earthquakes,” Mr. Jang said. “So it has no adequate countermeasures. In an earthquake, casualties often double if proper measures are not taken within the first six to 12 hours.”
Falling buildings and fires are the two main dangers in an urban earthquake, Mr. Jang said. And Korea has experienced some painful episodes in recent years that exposed problems in its construction standards. In 1994, Seongsu Bridge over the Han River partially collapsed, killing 30 people. Faulty construction was found to be the cause. The following year, Sampung Department Store in southern Seoul collapsed; casualties were in the hundreds.
Laws regulating construction were toughened after the bridge disaster. Nevertheless, in the years since, there have been a number of cases in which buildings fell apart during construction or remodeling. Three years ago in Gwangju, a four-story villa collapsed a month before residents were due to move in; Korean media dubbed it “The Tower of Pisa.”
The Ministry of Construction and Transportation recently announced that in April, standards for designing buildings to withstand earthquakes will be tightened. Buildings of more than three stories will be required to undergo inspections to ensure they have sufficient load capacity. Previously, this was required only of buildings with six stories or more.
But Mr. Jang contends that this measure isn’t good enough. Under current law, he says, structural engineering tests can be conducted by people who aren’t certified in structural engineering, provided that the building has fewer than 15 stories. (A Seoul city official acknowledged that this was true, but said that most of the uncertified inspectors are skilled enough to do the job.)
“It often comes down to the question of what should come first, architecture or safety?” Mr. Jang said.
“In Korea, much of the architectural concern is focused on how you can maximize the space. Many building owners in Korea don’t even keep track of their architectural blueprints in case of future accidents,” Mr. Jang said. “The holes in the system often lead to a lack of responsibility among individuals who are involved in the field. That eventually results in shoddy construction.”
According to some experts, another potential problem is that the government doesn’t have enough geological data pertaining to Korea’s susceptibility to quakes. Ji Hyeon-cheol, a geologist at the Korea Earthquake Research Center, says the government lacks a thorough seismological map of the country.
“Such research just hasn’t been done yet,” Mr. Ji says. “So the current earthquake-proofing system for buildings is based on general standards. In countries like Japan, every building is built based on the seismicity in each region.”
Five years ago, Seoul National University developed a model of Seoul for purposes of predicting earthquake damage. In 2002, the government agreed to fund research in the city of Hongseong, South Chungcheong province, which is on a fault line.
Lee Gyeong-hee, of the Ministry of Construction and Transportation’s policy department, says the government is working on new earthquake engineering facilities and updated geophysical maps for major cities in Korea.
Mr. Jang cites other problems facing Seoul should a major quake ever strike here. One is the city streets, which have no emergency lanes and are often jammed with traffic. Another is the lack of safety guidelines for signboards, canopies and other such building attachments in local construction regulations.
“Theoretically, it’s highly unlikely that Korea will have a major natural disaster like an earthquake,” says Mr. Ji, a geologist. “But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to prepare. Given the scale of a city like Seoul, it’s important that we plan ahead for potential damages, even for the sake of our national reputation. It’s like insurance. If it doesn’t happen, it’s good. But we are doing it because it’s possible.”
by Park Soo-mee