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Business trends

South Korea stands on shaky ground against earthquakes

Ignorance, shoddy construction seen behind extensive building damage

SEOUL -- An unusually strong earthquake last month rattled citizens and caused significant destruction in South Korea, but the impact could have been far smaller if locals faced up to the fact that occasional temblors are part of daily life in this East Asian country.

The South Korean public was literally rocked by an earthquake on Nov. 15 at around 2:30 p.m. local time. Because its epicenter, in an area about 10km north of the city of Pohang, was rather shallow, the quake was felt in the capital of Seoul and many other areas, from Gangwon Province in the north to Jeju Province in the south.

The tremor provoked strong reaction among residents. The number of mobile phone calls in the country surged to triple the normal level. The internet went down temporarily. University entrance exams that were due to be held the next day were postponed by a week. And many people called emergency services.

Directly or indirectly, almost all South Koreans lived with the fear of earthquakes all day, the JoongAng Ilbo daily newspaper reported, summarizing the psychological impact.

To be fair, quakes big enough to be felt by people do not happen often in South Korea -- just once in several years or so. And last month's 5.4-magnitude tremor was its second largest on record, following the one in September last year. That quake, which originated in the area around the southeastern city of Gyeongju, measured 5.8 in magnitude.

On Nov. 16, the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo dailies splashed their front pages with photos depicting the latest earthquake's devastation. The images included three parked cars flattened by collapsed building walls and roof tiles. Liquefaction of soil in the farming area outside Pohang was also reported.

The temblor left particularly severe scars on buildings in the city. A school where the college entrance exam was to be held was closed due to damage to its concrete structures. Cracks appeared on the outer walls at a relatively new high-rise condominium building -- despite its sales ads promoting a first-class anti-quake design.

Ill-prepared

Many South Korean buildings employ piloti architecture, in which a structure's ground floor is devoid of outer walls and its upper floors are supported only by pillars. The design creates an expansive atmosphere on the ground level, but it makes the property as a whole less resistant to quakes than ordinary buildings. Not surprisingly, many buildings featuring the architecture were damaged or tilted by the 5.4-magnitude quake.

According to the Chosun Ilbo, just 20%, or about 540,000, of the 2.64 million or so privately owned buildings in South Korea were built with quake-proofing in mind. The figure is higher -- but still at a mere 40% -- for public buildings. Anti-quake designs are said to be particularly lacking among buildings that house kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools.

South Korea is still defenseless against earthquakes, the newspaper noted, arguing that the public and private sectors should work together to urgently promote anti-quake measures.

Inconvenient truth

Such calls by the mass media should be music to the ears of the country's construction industry, but builders do not seem to be excited. This is because South Koreans lack the awareness that they live in an earthquake-prone country, posits Lee Jong-woo of IBK Investment & Securities.

Since people are unwilling to spend large sums to better protect themselves from earthquakes, it is difficult for businesses offering anti-quake buildings to thrive, Lee says.

One South Korean economic expert is more blunt, claiming that shoddy construction work is a major reason why quake-proofing buildings has not gained traction in the country.

The Pohang earthquake probably registered at no more than 4 on the Japanese seismic scale, according to some estimates. If so, the fact that pillars in homes were bent, and roof tiles and outer walls fell down strongly suggests the possibility of inadequate construction work.

"Anti-quake measures won't mean anything if builders do not carry out their jobs properly," one industry insider said.

Some argue that South Korea could use Japanese anti-quake technologies, which have been refined over the years due to the serious need for them in a country where major earthquakes are not a rarity.

Hyundai Motor is said to have consulted with Japanese automakers in compiling an earthquake manual for its local factories. But it will likely take time for South Korea's construction industry to turn to Japan's expertise. The fact that the industry is tightly controlled by the Samsung group and other conglomerates will not help, since the closed market environment means that just a small number of Japanese builders, including Fujita Engineering, have expanded into the country so far.

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