Seoul, January 20 (Reuters) – A fire ravaged a shanty town in South Korea’s capital Seoul on Friday, destroying 60 homes, many made of cardboard and wood, and forcing the evacuation of about 500 people.
It took emergency services five hours to put out the blaze, which broke out before dawn in Guryong Village, a slum just off the highway from Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district. Officials said no casualties have been reported yet.
Home to about 1,000 people, Guryong is one of the last remaining slums in the capital and has become a symbol of inequality in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Ten helicopters and hundreds of firefighters, police and soldiers joined the effort to fight the blaze, which officials said had destroyed nearly one in ten of the more than 600 homes in Guryong.
“I saw a flash from the kitchen and opened the door and flames were coming from the house next door,” said Shin, 72, whose home was completely gutted in the inferno.
“So I knocked on every door nearby and shouted ‘fire!’ and then called 119,” she said, giving only her last name.
Kim Doo-chun, 60, said his family was spared the fire, but he told Reuters the village was in constant danger of disaster, partly because of the cardboard houses and narrow alleyways.
“If there was a fire in this neighborhood, the whole village could be at risk if we don’t respond quickly. So we’ve been responding together for decades,” said Kim, who has lived in the area for 30 years.
The slum has long been prone to fires and floods, and safety and health issues abound.
The government announced redevelopment and relocation plans following a major fire in 2014. at the end, but these efforts were little progress during decades of tug-of-war by landowners, residents, and the government.
Civic authorities in Seoul and the Gangnam district and state-run developers are at odds over how to compensate private landowners in Guryeong, and have yet to agree on whether residents, most of whom are squatters, are eligible for government relocation and housing support.
After being informed of the fire in Switzerland at the World Economic Forum, President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered all efforts to prevent a bigger disaster, said his spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon visited the still smoldering village and asked officials to prepare to relocate the affected families.
Report by Hyonhee Shin; Edited by Christian Schmollinger, Gerry Doyle and Simon Cameron-Moore
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