Guryong Village, South Korea: 500 evacuated as massive fire breaks out in one of Seoul’s last slums



Around 500 people were evacuated from their homes on Friday after a fire broke out in Guryong Village, one of the last remaining slums in South Korea’s capital Seoul, according to fire officials.

The fire broke out around 6:28 a.m. in the fourth district of the village, said Shin Yong-ho, an official with the Gangnam Fire Station, in a televised briefing. First responders arrived around five minutes later, he said.

It was extinguished around 11:50 a.m. local time and damaged an area of 2,700 square meters.

No deaths or injuries have been reported so far.

Around 60 homes are believed to have burned down, Shin said, adding most structures are made from vinyl plywood panels.

Videos on social media show the fire engulfing what looks like rows of homes, with huge plumes of thick black smoke hanging above the slum as sirens wail nearby.

More than 800 response personnel have been mobilized, including firefighters, police and governmental workers, while 10 helicopters have been deployed to assist with the response, Shin said.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is in Switzerland attending the World Economic Forum, has been notified of the fire and has ordered authorities to mobilize “all available personnel and equipment,” according to the presidential office.

Yoon also requested local governments to evacuate residents and ensure the safety of rescue workers, his office said.

Authorities have long warned that Guryong residents are at particular risk of disasters, with the Gangnam government saying on its website that the slum was “vulnerable to fires” in 2019.

It was also hit hard by flooding last August, when record rainfall killed at least 13 people in Seoul – including some residents trapped in the dingy “banjiha” basement homes depicted in the movie “Parasite.”

High-rise residential buildings in Gangnam tower over Guryong village in Seoul, South Korea, on November 24, 2020.

The Guryong slum has long been seen as a symbol of the gap between rich and poor in South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy. It’s part of the wealthy, glittering Gangnam district, made famous by Psy’s 2012 song “Gangnam Style” and sometimes called the Beverly Hills of Seoul.

Gangnam’s high-rise apartment buildings lie less than a kilometer from the shacks of Guryong, where many residents live in cramped makeshift housing built from materials like wood and corrugated iron.

Though plans to redevelop the area stretch back at least a decade, numerous proposals have faltered due to disagreements between local governing bodies and negotiations over land compensation.

These efforts are ongoing, with 406 households – more than a third of the slum’s population – relocated as of 2019, according to the Gangnam government website. More than 1,000 residents are still living there, Gangnam officials confirmed on Friday.

The district shared more redevelopment plans last May, with a local official saying the land would be turned into “an eco-friendly luxury residential complex.”

Authorities are working to help relocate about 1,500 households living in shacks across three major slums, including Guryong, into public housing instead, the Seoul government said in a news release last November.

It added that the city aims to eventually “eliminate abnormal residences such as shacks and vinyl houses.”

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