Various Issues

A Nationโ€™s Scar: Disasters in Modern Korea Part I

Peacetime disasters are disasters that are unrelated to war and terrorism. South Korea lives in the shadow of 3 significant peacetime disasters in recent history: the Sampoong Department Store Collapse (1995), Daegu Subway Fire (2003) and the Sinking of Sewol Ferry (2014). Unfortunately, the death tolls of these disasters were heightened by poor emergency protocols, incompetence and/or corruption of high ranking officials. These disasters represent the dark side to modern Korea and the endemic โ€œculture of obedience.โ€ However, the globalisation of Korean culture and open-mindedness of younger generations may see modern Korea recover and learn from these disasters.

Sampoong Department Store Collapse (1995)


Following the Korean war, Seoul underwent a period of rapid expansion and rebuild. What was a broken city was now a front runner on the global financial stage. Seoul was bathing in the glow of financial hubs like London, Zurich and Shanghai. Furthermore, Seoul stole the spotlight as host of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. However, the cityโ€™s new-found success placed high pressure on domestic property developers. Many construction firms cut safety corners in the name of speed and profit, and the consequences were lethal. Several building collapses claimed lives in Korea in the 90s, but none more devastating than the Sampoong Department Store Collapse.

Sampoong Department Store

A pink symbol of Koreaโ€™s economic boom, Sampoong was a luxury department store in Seoulโ€™s affluent Seocho district. It was originally designed as a 4-story apartment building. However, chairman of Sampoong group Lee Joon changed the plans to build a mall. His changes included the addition of a 5th floor, removal of support columns to make room for escalators and reduction in column width. Although his changes violated several building safety codes, Lee Joon used bribery to see his plans through, firing those who refused him. Eventually, the illustrious Sampoong Department Store was built in 1989.

The Disaster

  • Ahead of the store opening in 1990, 3 15-tonne air conditioner units were placed on the roof. With addition of these units, the few support columns were now supporting 4x their maximum load. Whatโ€™s more, the units were dragged across the roof instead of lowered by crane, causing cracks to appear over 2 years prior to the collapse.
  • In the morning of June 29th 1995, large cracks formed near support columns on the top floor. Senior management were aware of the cracks, but kept the store open because of the higher-than-usual amount of customers.
  • Around 1pm loud noises were heard from the top floor. Customers complained of vibrations from the air conditioners and so they were switched off. The loud noises were the sounds of the air conditioner vibrations widening the cracks.
  • Engineers informed chairman Lee Joon and his executives that Sampoong was on the brink of collapse. Lee refused to evacuate the building out of fear of revenue loss, but left the building himself.
  • Late afternoon, the top floor ceiling began to sink and violent cracking sounds were heard. At 5:52pm, store clerks sounded the alarm and began evacuating customers. Shortly after, the roof gave way and the air conditioner units fell through. Within 20 seconds, all major support columns collapsed and the floors โ€œpancakedโ€ into the basement. 502 people were killed and over 1,500 were trapped inside.

The Aftermath

As of 2021, the Sampoong Dept. Store Collapse is the largest peacetime disaster in Korean history. It was the deadliest building collapse in the world before the collapse of the World Trade Centres in 2001.

  • An arduous rescue effort was carried out, where workers grappled with heavy debris, fires and toxic fumes, as well as public outrage. The final survivor, 19 year old Park Seung Hyun, was rescued 17 days after the disaster. She had survived by drinking rain water.
  • Rumours circled of the city government supressing data on the real number of victims, and protesters called for Lee Joon and his executives to be charged with murder. After trial and appeal, Lee Joon was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison.
  • The disaster exposed public safety issues within Korea as well as corruption of city officials. Victimsโ€™ families were given financial compensation but their request to erect a memorial at the site of the collapse was rejected. Furthermore, Seoul Metropolitan Government sold it to a private property developer, who built โ€œAcrovista Apartmentsโ€ on the site. It remains to this day.
Acrovista Apartments, Seocho-dong (2018)

โ€œIn foreign countries, company chairmen take the lead in holding fire and disaster drillsโ€ฆ Korea has experience the Sampoong and Seongsu Bridge collapses, but itโ€™s still hard to find such practices.โ€

Gyeong Gwang Suk, rescue worker at Sampoong Department Store Collapse [interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, 2005]

Dyrud, MA (2011) Familiarizing the Unknown: Three Unusual Engineering Cases, p22.710.1 - 22.710.16, ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver BC

Kong, K (2014) South Korea's History of Building Collapses, The Wall Street Journal, (Access date: 20/07/21)

[3] Ser, MJ and Sohn, HY (2005) Department store disaster remembered 10 years later, Korea JoongAng Daily, (Access date: 20/07/21)

๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ง Laura Simons

Senior writer and editor @ KoreabyMe. Lover of Korean language, milk tea, going to jjimjilbang with friends, gopchang and cheesy grilled clams. Tell me what *you* love about Korea!