Parasite-Style Basement Apartments Will Be Banned in Seoul After Flood Deaths

Intense rains and overwhelming floods killed at least 11 people in South Korea's capital this week.

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Soldiers clear out debris after waters drained from a banjiha in Seoul, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022
Soldiers clear out debris after waters drained from a banjiha in Seoul, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022
Photo: Kiim In-chul/Newsis (AP)

South Korea’s capital city will ban basement apartments like the one depicted in the Oscar-winning movie Parasite after at least four people drowned in their homes during heavy rains earlier this week.

At least 11 people in Seoul are dead following devastating floods, which occurred after the heaviest rains in the city in 80 years. As of Wednesday, CNN reported, seven people were still missing and 17 had been hospitalized; Axios reported that more than 800 were evacuated during the floods.

The BBC reported that three of the deaths happened in a basement flat, a type of home known as a “banjiha. Two sisters in their 40s and a 13-year-old girl reportedly became trapped during the floods. The three women were found dead on Monday evening, after reportedly attempting to call for help, and another woman living in a separate apartment also drowned in the floods, authorities said.

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City officials said Wednesday that they would no longer give out construction permits for banjiha homes, and that owners would have 20 years to convert current flats into non-residential uses. Official statistics reported by the South China Morning Post show that as of 2020, 200,000 homes in Seoul—around 5% of total homes—were classified as banjiha.

More than 20 inches of rain (52 centimeters) fell on parts of Seoul over the span of three days; parts of the city saw a record-breaking 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) of rain per hour. Intense rainfall is a symptom of climate change, since warmer air can hold more moisture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found last year that that heavy rains have become around 30% more common around the world as the planet has heated up, and storms contain 7% more rain on average.

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“We condemn the government’s negligence on those marginalized in housing for this tragedy,” Citizens Coalitions for Economic Justice, a civic rights group, said in a statement to the Korea Herald on Wednesday. “As rainfall becomes stronger and more frequent under the influence of climate change, it must embark on a fundamental change of its approach to semi-basement residents.”

The 2019 movie Parasite, whose darkly comedic focus on wealth disparities in Seoul won the 2020 Best Picture Oscar, follows the twisted relationship between the Kims, a poor family living in a banjiha apartment, and the Parks, a wealthy family living in a mansion elsewhere in the city. In one pivotal scene, the Kims rush back to their apartment from the Parks’s mansion during a heavy rainstorm to find it flooded with sewer water, and they have to shelter with others from banjiha apartments in a local gymnasium.

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Banjiha apartments, which were originally designed as underground bunkers in the 1970s and later converted to apartments as demand for housing rose, have become a symbol for many Koreans of the widening gap between rich and poor. Housing prices have skyrocketed in Seoul in recent years, and the lack of affordable housing became a key issue in the Korean presidential election earlier this year.

Reacting to the ban, some banjiha residents told the Korea Herald that they “wouldn’t know where to go” if their housing option was taken away.

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Sohn Mal-nyeon, 77, told the paper that the floods caused her banjiha home of 50 years to flood with knee-deep, foul-smelling water. “I can’t seem to get the smell out,” she said. “The power is back but my refrigerator broke down. All the food is spoiled. The floor and furniture are still wet. I don’t think I can use them again.

“Well, what do you expect people to do?” she said of the proposed ban. “They live here because it’s cheaper, you know.”