SEOUL, Jan 20 (Reuters) – A fire ripped through a shanty town in the South Korean capital Seoul on Friday, destroying 60 homes, many made of cardboard and wood, and forcing the evacuation of around 500 people.
It took emergency services five hours to put out the blaze that broke out before daylight in the village of Guriong, located across a highway from Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district. Officials said no casualties have been reported so far.
Kuryong, home to about 1,000 people, is one of the capital’s last remaining shantytowns and has become a symbol of inequality in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Ten helicopters and hundreds of firefighters, police and troops joined the effort to put out the blaze, which authorities said had destroyed about a tenth of the more than 600 houses in Kuryong.
“I saw a flash from the kitchen, opened the door, and flames were coming from the houses next door,” said Shin, a 72-year-old woman whose house was completely gutted.
“So I knocked on every door nearby and shouted, ‘Fire!’ Then called 119,” she said, giving only her last name.
Kim Doo-chun, 60, said his family was not affected by the fire, but he told Reuters the village was constantly at risk of disaster because of its cardboard houses and narrow alleys.
“If there’s a fire in this area, if we don’t respond quickly, the whole village is at risk. So we’ve been responding together for decades,” said Kim, who has lived in the area for 30 years.
The slum has long suffered from fires and floods, and safety and health issues abound.
The government unveiled plans for redevelopment and relocation after a major fire in late 2014, but those efforts have made little progress amid a decades-long tug-of-war between landowners, residents and officials.
Civic officials in Seoul and Gangnam district and state-run developers are at odds over how to compensate private landowners in Kuryong.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, who was informed of the fire in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, ordered all efforts to prevent a major disaster, his spokesman Kim Yoon-hye said.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon visited the still-smoldering village and asked officials to prepare to relocate affected families.
Reported by Hyeonhee Shin; Editing: Christian Schmollinger, Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore
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