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Many question whether Seoul's promised reforms will stop basement apartment drownings

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This month, South Korea's capital had its worst flooding in 80 years. Around a dozen people were killed in Seoul, some drowning in basement apartments. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports many are questioning whether the government's promised reforms will keep it from happening again.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: For days after the floods, residents emptied their basement apartments of their ruined possessions.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: There are teams of soldiers, workers and volunteers going through the neighborhood, loading trucks up with household debris, furniture, electronics, food. Everything covered in mud and mold is being thrown onto trucks. And the smell is pretty rank.

One resident, surnamed Hwang, said that returning home on the day of the floods, raging torrents of water nearly swept her away. She waded back to her apartment to find it flooded and the sewage backed up.

HWANG: (Through interpreter) It's only because the landlord's pumped out the water that it didn't rise too high and we survived.

KUHN: Hwang is an ethnic Korean from China, a minority that sometimes faces discrimination in South Korea. She asked that we only use her last name, as she didn't want family and friends to know what she had been through. She says that until recently, she had always lived in cramped, temporary accommodations.

HWANG: (Through interpreter) In South Korea, I was living in boarding houses in between trips back to China for medical treatment. This is the first house I've ever rented under my name.

KUHN: Hwang says she's lucky to be alive and will just have to earn enough money to find a new home.

It's hard to think about Seoul's recent floods without being reminded of a famous Korean movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARASITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: The Academy Award-winning 2019 film "Parasite" focuses on the Kim family. They live in an easily flooded Seoul basement apartment. They scam their way into working for a wealthy family. The story is fictional, but the vast disparities in Seoul residents' income and quality of housing it describes are not.

CHOI EUN-YOUNG: (Through interpreter) As this flood reveal, the reality turned out to be even more tragic than the movie.

KUHN: Choi Eun-young is head of the Seoul-based Korea Center for City and Environment Research, an independent research institute. Choi explains that Seoul's basement apartments were built as shelters in case of a war with North Korea, not as housing. But they now accommodate about 200,000 households. She notes that after the flood, Seoul's city government promised to start shutting down basement apartments. But Choi says that it will simply drive residents into other unsafe, unregulated dwellings.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) When there's a fire in a boarding house, they come up with measures for boarding houses. When there is flooding in basement apartments, they come up with basement measures.

KUHN: Choi says that what Seoul lacks is not housing - it's affordable housing. Another thing it lacks, she says, is empathy. She notes that President Yoon Suk-yeol paid a visit to a basement apartment where a family drowned in the floods.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) The president was there watching like an onlooker. He had no understanding whatsoever about basement spaces. He was asking why they couldn't get out.

KUHN: The Seoul city government insists that its housing policy reforms are not just cosmetic, but Choi disagrees. She says that the gap between haves and have-nots in South Korea has become so huge that policymakers cannot understand how the capital's poor and vulnerable are living. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.