Seoul to phase out Parasite-style semi-basement flats after storm deaths

Authorities in Seoul will phase out semi-basement flats after three people drowned inside one of the cramped properties during record rainfall in the South Korean capital this week.

Banjiha, which gained global recognition in the 2020 Oscar-winning film Parasite, are usually occupied by people on low incomes and have come to symbolise the growing inequality in South Korea, Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.

But anger over the dangers facing banjiha residents in the capital has prompted a rethink among officials, who said the city would no longer grant permits to build the homes and existing apartments would be converted over time.

Two sisters in their 40s and a girl identified as the younger sister’s 13-year-old daughter drowned on Monday as the heaviest rainfall to hit Seoul for 115 years sent torrents of water along streets, inundating apartments and subway stations. A fourth person living in a banjiha also died in the flooding, media reports said.

The three victims, who lived in the city’s Gwanak district, pleaded for help as water surged into their flat, but emergency workers were unable to reach them, the Yonhap news agency said. Their bodies were found after police and firefighters had finished draining the apartment, it added.

The Seoul government had already promised help for families living in banjiha after the flats featured in Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s film about the Kims, a poor family whose mouldy basement flat contrasts with the sprawling mansion owned by their employers, the Parks. In one scene, the Kims’ toilet spews filthy sludge during a flood.

Speaking before Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win best picture, Bong spoke of the “subtle nuances” found in banjiha. “People live underground but want to believe that they are above the ground because they have a moment when sunlight comes into their room,” he said.

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“But at the same time, they are afraid of falling into a complete underground situation if things get worse.”

Under the new proposals, landlords will be given 10-20 years to covert banjiha for non-residential use.

According to official data, Seoul was home to about 200,000 semi-basement flats in 2020, comprising 5% of all households in the city. Well over half of the country’s banjiha are in the capital, where soaring property prices were a key issue in this year’s presidential election.

The South Korean president, Yoon Suk-yeol, apologised to residents during a visit to the flat where the three victims lived, and promised to help them recover from the disaster, which killed at least 11 people and left eight others missing.

Civic groups demanded an overhaul of housing policy and called on the government to help residents of semi-basement flats move out.

“We condemn the government’s negligence on those marginalised in housing for this tragedy,” the Citizens Coalitions for Economic Justice said in a statement published in the Korea Herald.

“As rainfall becomes stronger and more frequent as a result of climate change, it must embark on a fundamental change of its approach to semi-basement residents.”

Another group urged the government to build affordable housing so people on low incomes no longer needed to live in dangerous semi-basement flats.

Ha In-sik was among the banjiha residents taking stock of the damage to their homes in Sillim, a deprived district of south-western Seoul.

“I’ve got no money, nothing,” said Ha, 50, who used a plastic bowl to scoop the water from his lower-ground apartment. “I had come here to live in this basement as it was the only way I could live with my daughter.”

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“But I’m hopeless now,” he said, adding that it would take about 10 days to make the flat habitable again. “Everything is gone, there’s no help and I don’t even have a spoon to eat with.”

Banjiha appeared in 1970 after the government made basement floors mandatory in new construction projects. Although it was illegal to live below ground, the subterranean spaces attracted residents as the city’s population swelled during a period of rapid growth in the South Korean economy.

Building regulations were relaxed in 1984 to allow developers to build flats higher up, with half of the property located below ground and half above ground, according to Yonhap.

Reuters contributed, reporting from Seoul