Modern Korea was shaped as much by its disasters as its achievements. The 21st century started with fires and serial killers as disasters went from a macro to a human level. 

  • (1999) Sealand Youth Training Centre – 23 killed
  • (1999) Inchon bar fire – 65 killed
  • (2003) Daegu subway fire – 192 killed
  • (2003-2004) Yu Yeong-cheol – 20 killed
  • (2008) Fire in refrigeration distribution warehouse under construction – 40/57 killed
  • (2008) Namdaemun fire
  • (2008) Nonhyeon-dong massacre – 6 killed
  • (2014) Sewol Ferry – 304 killed
  • (2016) Gangnam bathroom murder
  • (2017) Jecheon fire – electrical fire in a gym “Noble Fitness and Spa” – 29 killed

Part of the Korean Disasters Series:

Disasters that Shaped Modern Korea (1950s-70s)

Disasters that Shaped Modern Korea (1980s)

“The Disaster Republic”: Disasters that Shaped Modern Korea (1990s)

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We’re not going to cover them all.


(June 30, 1999) Sealand Youth Training Centre – 23 killed

  • Background
    • Hwaseong
    • Steel-framed, reinforced concrete
    • Additional space – stacked cargo containers covered with wood and corrugated iron with flammable styrofoam ceilings
    • No fire safety measures
      • No sprinkler system
      • Most extinguishers not working
      • No fire alarm
      • Bad exits
        • Two with narrow stairways
      • BUT–had passed fire safety inspections twice
  • Disaster
    • Lit mosquito coil shortly after midnight
    • Late responders – 12:30 a.m. fire / 1:30 a.m. alarm at fire station / arrived 2:00 a.m.
    • Took 50 hours to get under control
    • 19 children, 4 adults died
      • 18 children from Somang Kindergarten
        • Most sleeping in room 301
      • Took two weeks to identify all the bodies
  • Aftermath
    • Sealand Park owner and six Hawseong officials charged with involuntary manslaughter & violation of building laws PLUS bribery charges
      • Also borrowed a construction designer’s construction license
      • Four architects and builders were also arrested
    • Somang Kindergarten officials arrested
      • Were off drinking rather than watching their children
    • Outcry – Greater enforcement of safety standards

(Oct 30, 1999) Incheon bar fire – 65 killed

Incheon Bar

    • Background
      • 3rd worst fire in modern history
      • 3-story wood and brick building
      • Restaurant on first floor
      • Illegal hof on second floor (Live 2 Hof House)
      • Eight days prior – police had ordered it shut down
        • No license
        • Spot check – thought it was closed
          • Likely tipped off
          • “Every time the police had a surprise inspection, the owner kicked the children out and shut down the bar,” Ko Kyung Mi said. “But I am sure that the police knew about the situation.”
      • Many under aged (97 of 129 known victims)
        • Youngest killed was 13
        • High school students coming from a high school festival
          • Many still had on their uniforms
    • Disaster
      • Cause – Basement noraebang
        • Undergoing renovation
        • Two teenage part-time students playing with fire
          • Extinguished in the room, but inter-wall materials spread the fire throughout the building
      • Door locked from outside
        • Overheard owner told staff to lock the doors and not let anyone out until they paid for their drinks
          • Then left
          • Similarities to Sampoong?
        • More than 100 trapped inside
      • Most deaths from smoke inhalation on 2nd floor beer hall and 3rd floor billiard room (NBA Billiards)
      • Poor fire codes
        • Windows couldn’t open and were almost indestructible 
          • 3rd floor was able to break the windows
        • Narrow corridors and stairs
          • Stairs were a chimney
        • One small exit
        • No sprinklers
          • Removed during renovation
      • Fire extinguishers, but happened so fast that people couldn’t use them
    • Aftermath
      • Worst fire since the ‘70s
        • Building owner jumped from the 3rd floor and survived with injuries
      • Pub owner and four workers arrested
        • Owner tried to run away but turned himself in
          • Five years in prison
          • Went into ministry and tried to become a Christian singer
      • Busted in March for violation of codes but bribed officials (arrested)
      • “There was no place to play”
        • Prevalence of adult-friendly entertainment districts and no place for teens to go
        • Commercial district (Inhyeon-dong) collapsed
      • Memorial – Incheon Student Education and Culture Center (near site)

(Feb 18, 2003) Daegu subway fire – 192 killed

Daegu Subway Fire aftermath

  • Arsonist set fire to a train
    • Fire spread across two trains within minutes
  • Largest peacetime deliberate human disaster
  • Kim Dae-han
    • 56-year-old unemployed taxi driver
    • (2001) Had a stroke and wasn’t satisfied with medical treatment
    • Wanted to kill himself and take others with him
  • Disaster
    • Was opening cartons and fumbling with a lighter
      • Passengers tried to stop him
      • Spilled one of the cartons, which caught fire
      • Kim escaped with injuries
    • Insulation made fire spread, along with vinyl and plastic on seat cushions and strap handles
    • Train operator didn’t notify officials of fire
    • Another train entered the station and stopped
      • Automatic fire detector SHUT DOWN THE POWER, trapping the train
      • Operator told passengers to REMAIN SEATED
      • Was told by officials to kill the engine and leave
      • Took the master key and escaped, but in doing so kept the doors shut
    • Unprepared
      • No fire extinguishers
      • No sprinklers or emergency lighting
      • Poor emergency ventilation systems 
    • Late responders
      • Because smoked prevented them from entering for 3.5 hours
  • Aftermath
    • Attempted cover-up
      • Escaped operator couldn’t be found for 10 hours
      • Transcript omissions
    • Better fire safety equipment in subway stations
      • Interiors sprayed with fire-resistant chemicals
      • Six Daegu stations refurbished
      • This is why there are instruction with a cartoon man with a defined butt crack showing how to open subway doors
    • Operators of both trains charged with negligence
      • Sentenced 4-5 years in prison
    • Kim Dae-han convicted of arson and homicide
      • Sentenced to life (though prosecutors pushed for death)
      • Died in 2004
    • (2008) Daegu Safety Theme Park opened


(2003-2004) Yu Yeong-cheol – 20 killed

  • One of the better known murderers
  • Father was a Vietnam War vet
    • Alcoholic
    • Gambler
    • Left family*
  • Yoo was violent when young, but athletic 
  • Artistic, wanted to be an artist
  • Dropped out of school
  • Aug.23, 1988 committed first known crime – theft
    • Exempt from military service
  • 1991, got married, had a son
  • Throughout 90s, committed 14 counts of theft and rape, total 7 years in prison
  • March, 2000, sentenced 3.5 years in prison for raping a teenage girl (sent to Jeonju Prison)
  • Wife filed for divorce
  • September, 2003, released from prison
    • Lived with mother in Seoul
    • Became fascinated with murder
    • Killed a dog to experiment
      • Stabbed the dog
      • Was put off by the blood, dog’s hollering, and squirming
      • Decided it was best to hit victims in the head first
  • Later that month, first murder
  • Most victims were bludgeoned (usually with a hammer or similar tool) then stabbed
    • He started killing wealthy elderly (men and women), often in their homes, before moving on to raping and murdering women (often masseuses/prostitutes, usually in their 20s)
    • Victims were bludgeoned or raped or both before being murdered; several were dismembered and cannibalised 
    • Victims ranged between early 20s and mid-80s 
  • July 2004, captured
    • Convicted of 20 murders
    • Rape was later added to convictions
  • December 2004, sentenced to death
    • June 2005, death sentence was lowered to life by Supreme Court
  • Currently in Seoul Detention Centre
  • 2010, reestablishing the death penalty was reviewed by Minister of Justice
    • Violent serial killers were the key focus; Yoo was the key example for ministry’s review
    • Review was abandoned


(Jan 7, 2008) Fire in refrigeration distribution warehouse under construction – 40/57 killed

  • Cause – Sparks from welding landed on chemicals
  • Safety issues
    • Fire dept issued safety inspection certificate WITHOUT INSPECTING
    • Workers not given safety training
    • Bballi Bballi pressure to finish
    • Fire suppression wasn’t operational–locked down
  • Aftermath
    • Building owners sentenced 20 million won
      • Avoided prison

(Feb 10, 2008) Namdaemun fire

Namdaemun Fire

  • Chae Jong-gi (69 years old)
    • Upset he hadn’t been paid in full for land sold to developers
    • (2006) Had also tried to set Changgyeonggung on fire
  • Namdaemun targeted because
    • Lax security
    • Didn’t want to cause casualties (so no trains or buses–thanks, dude)
  • Aftermath
    • Now has fire suppression systems and CCTVs
    • Other sites got the same treatment

(Oct 20, 2008) Nonhyeon-dong massacre – 6 killed

  • Goshiwon 3rd floor, Jeong Sang-jin (30) set his room on fire and slashed several women with a sushi knife while wearing all black and a headlamp and goggles
    • One woman died when she jumped out of a window
    • Jeong was thought to be a victim and was rescued from a storage room, where he was hiding
  • Jeong Sang-jin
    • Financial hardships
    • Was picked on his whole life
    • Skipped reservist training
    • Wanted to target the rich and high authorities, but went for who was convenient
  • Aftermath
    • Sentenced to death

(July 6, 2013) Asiana Airlines Flight 214 – 3 killed

Asiana flight 214: Crew 'over-relied' on automation - BBC News

  • Bumped the runway while landing at SFO
  • Cause – Pilot error
    • Official: Over-reliance on automation and lack of understanding of systems operation
    • Unofficial: Miscommunication – Other crew members who saw an error didn’t object because of hierarchy 

(April 16, 2014) Sewol Ferry – 304 killed

South Korea ferry 'sank due to negligence, corruption' - BBC News

  • Incident
    • Capsized while third mate and helmsman made too sharp a turn
      • Captain Lee Joon-seok and crew were drinking beer
    • Ordered passengers to stay put
      • Those who disobeyed survived
      • Captain and crew abandoned ship
      • Three crew members stayed on to help and died
    • Rescue operations delayed and botched
  • Causes
    • Sudden turn
      • Off-duty captain complained about steering problems
    • Overloading and improperly secured cargo
      • Off-duty captain and first mate warned about it
      • Owners brushed it off
      • Not carrying enough ballast water
      • Miscommunication between agencies about what the maximums should be
    • Addition of extra passenger cabins (similar to Sampoong’s extra floor)
    • Cozy relationship between agencies and shipping business
  • Aftermath
    • Media was an embarrassment
    • Perpetrators 
      • Former owner Yoo Byung-eun fled
        • Nationwide manhunt
        • Body was found in a field
      • Captain and two other crew indicted with homicide
        • Captain – 36 years
          • Judgement: Negligence but not intent to kill
        • Chief Engineer – Murder – 30 years
        • 11 other crew members indicted on lesser charges
      • Chonghaejin CEO Kim Han-sik – 10 years
        • Six other employees and a Korean Shipping Association officials received sentences
    •  Led to downfall of Park Geun-hye
      • Negligence
      • Caring more about the optics
      • Made blacklist of artists who portrayed Sewol in their artwork
        • Members of administration were imprisoned for four years for this
    • Lax regulations under spotlight

(May 17, 2016) Gangnam bathroom murder 

A woman's slaying in Seoul's tony Gangnam district stirs emotions in South  Korea - Los Angeles Times

  • Women in White Raincoats Gather at Gangnam Station in the Rain, "We're Here  to Change the World, Which Remains Misogynist" | Women in White Raincoats  Gather at Gangnam Station in the Rain, "
  • Kim Sung-min stabbed a woman to death
  • Reason – Hated women
    • Also mental illness – schizophrenia
  • Korea’s #MeToo movement
    • The uber-culture
      • Men feeling more and more displaced as their dominance is challenged as Korea modernizes
      • Men who aren’t as powerful lash out

(Dec 21, 2017) Jecheon fire – electrical fire in a gym “Noble Fitness and Spa” – 29 killed

Jecheon Fire

  • Incident
    • Smoke inhalation main culprit
      • Rapid spread
      • New paint and decorations from remodeling
    • 20 trapped in sauna
    • ~20 rescued from roof of eight-story building
    • Owner didn’t abandon this time
      • Tried to put out fire with extinguisher
      • But didn’t enter sauna because–naked women
    • Fire truck delayed
      • Illegally parked cars blocking way
      • Private truck from a cleaning company with ladder started rescue
      • Elderly man rescued 15 people before being taken to hospital
  • Cause
    • Installation of electric heating wires on first floor ceiling of the parking lot
  • To make things worse
    • Emergency exit was being used as a warehouse–blocked door
    • Power outage
    • Automatic door at entrance was broken – People didn’t know how to open it
    • No staff to help evacuate
    • Alarm not installed
    • Sprinkler system didn’t work
    • Elevators acted as chimneys
  • Aftermath
    • Fire department and local government accused of ineptitude by public
    • Fire preparedness was improved for public facilities after Daegu subway fire, but not private facilities

(Jan 26, 2018) Miryang hospital fire – 41 killed

  • Sejong Hospital
  • Cause – Still unknown
    • Started in Emergency Room, maybe the ceiling
      • Likely wires above ceiling in the bathroom
  • Incident
    • Many intensive care patients were tied to their beds
    • Sprinklers not installed (not required)
  • Aftermath
    • Bills stuck in parliament to fix this


What have been the patterns?

  • 빨리 빨리
  • Disassociation of cause & effect
    • Bad at strategic thinking, good at tactical thinking
      • Stubborn refusal to anticipate disaster
      • Quick to fix disasters after they happen
  • Angry older men commit arson
  • Slow response of responders
  • Miscommunication
  • People being told to remain where they are–to follow authority
  • People in charge fled the scene (captains, subway operators, pub and building owners)
  • Greed & corruption
    • Paternal view of the masses
    • Regulators in bed with industry – bribes

What has changed?

  • Air and building safety
  • Things don’t change until there’s public outcry
    • Driving/drunk driving rules
  • More of a safety mindset/conscientiousness
    • Expanding of one’s bubble to go beyond tribalism (immediate family) to community mindset
    • Driving has gotten better
  • Some fluidity in Confucian hierarchy
    • Air crews are required to speak up if the captain is wrong
  • Consciousness of social disasters (serial killers, sex crimes, child abuse)
  • Those who are responsible are being punished
  • Less corruption
    • Maybe because it’s a richer society. Gov’t officials don’t need to be bribed to stay afloat
      • This had been going on ever since the Joseon era when kings kept expanding the numbers of Merit Subjects

What directions are we heading?

  • More consciousness of social disasters
    • Moving from structural to personal — human level
  • More responsibility being taken by those with responsibility
  • May see more helicopter parenting regarding safety
    • Note how Korean children have more freedom of movement than their western counterparts these days
      • America went through the child abduction scares of the ‘80s and ‘90s, causing paranoid parenting
      • Korea may be about to go through that
  • The looming iceberg: Mental Illness
    • Ignoring of mental illness and making it shameful
    • Social pressures amplifying them