The Floods in Seoul
My earliest memories of Korea revolve around rain. As a college student visiting for the summer, I stood up a guy waiting at the main entrance of Yonsei University because the rain coming down as hard as dog food pellets prevented my bus from making much progress. When I moved to Seoul after graduate school, a dark wet patch grew and spread along the ceiling during the rainy season. It was a new condo and the landlord would have the roof waterproofed, only to witness the patch grow again the following year. More recently, I met a university colleague for the first time, an Italian literature professor and novelist. Within five minutes of our encounter in Gongdeok-dong, a business district, the heavy rains split the soles of my new open-toe sandals and left me walking embarrassed and barefoot alongside my stylish colleague.
But the rain this summer was something else again. On 8 August, in the middle of the busiest holiday period of the year, when people normally escape to the beaches and mountains to get away from the oppressive heat, the rain came down so heavily that the view through our car windscreen was like the white noise of poor television reception. My partner and I were near home, thankfully, and steered the car at a crawl through the empty street to our garage. Under the merciless rains and shrill winds, our apartment walls shook and the lights flickered. From the safety of my couch, despite the rain coming down like sleet and the heavy cumulonimbus clouds that swallowed up my view of Bukhansan National Park, the possibility of disaster felt far away. I later learned that just ten minutes’ walk from my apartment, around the Yadang Station area, where I usually catch the subway, the flooding was so intense that men had swum away from their floating cars.
The area around Gangnam Station in southern Seoul, made famous internationally by the K-pop song ‘Gangnam Style’, is shaped like a basin. There are gleaming office buildings and underground shopping arcades, and the streets are normally packed with crowds like shoals of anchovies. On 8 August the Gangnam Severance Hospital and the COEX shopping mall were flooded. Streets became canals. The rain came so hard and fast that a brother and sister in their fifties were sucked into a manhole and died. A forty-year-old man checking on his car in a basement parking lot was swept up by a sudden torrent and drowned. Three people died trapped in their semi-basement flat in Sillim-dong, a neighbourhood west of Gangnam, when it abruptly filled with water.
A woman climbed onto a bus bench in Gyeonggi Province and clung to the rail as the water level rose until she was finally swept away by the roaring current. People waded through streets of waist-high muddy waters between gleaming skyscrapers. A man sat on the windscreen of his submerged car in the deserted intersection of Gangnam Station with only his cell phone and other floating cars for company.
The intensity of rain on the Korean peninsula has steadily increased since 2000 because of climate change, and the rains last month were the heaviest in 115 years of record keeping. Even as the rain has got worse, we have become more vulnerable to it. Gangnam was once paddy fields and fruit plantations, the city’s rice bowl throughout the Joseon dynasty, but it became the target of city planning and real estate speculation from the 1960s onwards. The flooding was not only a natural disaster; it was also a consequence of poor engineering, and of a sewer system blocked by rubbish and cigarette butts, as well as much-criticised municipal budget cuts. Korea has widespread 5G and makes refrigerators that talk to you, but couldn’t keep its drains from clogging.
The rains continued relentlessly for two more days. Watching the news I was disconcerted by the extensive coverage of BMWs lodged between bike racks and submerged Teslas, as if luxury cars rather than people were the main victims. YouTube was filled with videos showing potential buyers how to detect and avoid flood-damaged cars.
After Gangnam was hit by less severe flooding in 2010, the sewer capacity was expanded but a move to create a flood map of the area was blocked by people worried about the effect it might have on property prices. When I first moved to Seoul, Gangnam looked to me like a grim district of endless rows of grey apartment complexes. I soon learned those apartments cost millions of dollars. But Gangnam is more than expensive real estate: it represents wealth, education and high status. The name means ‘south of the river’ and the Han river was for many years an imagined line between the haves and have-nots. The economic reality is far more mixed and blurred, but the popular perception persists. There was no shortage of online comments taking satisfaction in Gangnam’s flooding: ‘Since water stands for prosperity, it’s only right that it floods the region where people are crazy about money’; ‘It is a cursed town after all … The planned city of the privileged, please be doomed.’ The feedback was controversial enough for many newspapers to shut down their comments section.
If a Gangman apartment is a symbol of wealth, a semi-basement flat is a symbol of poverty (as in the movie Parasite). On 10 August, the president of South Korea visited the semi-basement in Sillim-dong where the family had died. He inspected the dim, mildewed corridor and crouched down to peer through the low-lying window. As an editorial in Hankook Ilbo observed, the semi-basement home was continuing its role as a political photo-op. In reality, the average lease price for a semi-basement in Seoul now runs to nearly a hundred thousand US dollars, and many of the tenants are young professionals. Conversely, many of those worst affected by the flooding in Gangnam were not especially wealthy. They commuted to work there or ran small businesses in rented retail space. Internet cafés and song rooms incurred enormous damage in the rains, having already endured two years of Covid lockdowns. Even so, the weather is a formidable equaliser. Just as the rising sea level affects Florida’s multi-million-dollar condos as well as ordinary people, the rains in Seoul left no one unscathed.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.