Tragedy reinforces a sense of doom

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The Independent Online
Tokyo - Koreans, as much as their neighbours in Japan, have felt themselves to be living in doom-laden times: yesterday's disaster at the Sampoong department store in Seoul is the latest to strike South Korea in the last 18 months, writes Richard Lloyd Parry.

Several have involved gas and faulty construction, and grief has given way to intense anger at the carelessness of politicians and big businesses, which are accused of sacrificing safety standards in the relentless pursuit of economic growth.

In February, 18 men were killed in a fire in the boiler room of a docked ship; 29 people drowned in a pleasure boat accident in Chungju lake in October. Last year saw a run of gas accidents, ominously similar to yesterday's. In December, an underground gas reservoir exploded, killing 12 and destroying hundreds of homes in western Seoul; in August a propane explosion flattened a two-storey office building, killing five.

But these have been dwarfed by two notorious disasters, shocking both in their loss of life and their symbolism. Last October, a bridge linking the southern and northern parts of Seoul collapsed under rush-hour traffic, pitching commuters into the waters of the Han River below. And in April there was rioting in the city of Taegu after 101 people were killed and 125 injured in the country's worst peacetime explosion.

Workers building a new subway line had accidentally punctured a pipeline carrying liquefied petroleum gas.Half an hour later a welding torch ignited the gas at the height of the morning rush-hour. Dozens of people in cars and bicycles passing the subway site were killed, including many schoolchildren.

The ensuing public outrage is said to have contributed to the humiliating defeat of President Kim Young Sam's Democratic Liberal Party in local elections on Tuesday. Mr Kim denied his government's responsibility, cryptically blaming "people who occupy important positions whose ideas are 10 years, perhaps 100 years behind".

Following the Taegu blast, a Korean daily newspaper published front- page photographs of underground gas pipes below Seoul, rusted and rotten- looking. By the time the government gave emergency funds of 80bn won (pounds 65m) the political damage had been done. Five of the construction workers were arrested, and manslaughter charges are pending.

The sites of the disasters - subways, bridges, and now a glossy department store - have had a sinister appropriateness, being symbols of the breakneck growth which has transformed South Korea from a nation torn by civil war to the fifth-largest producer of cars in the world, with an average rate of growth of 8.4 per cent per year.

Despite this success, the government has failed to create a supporting infrastructure. South Korea's roads, railways and airports are clogged and 18 million people now live in the Seoul metropolitan area, out of a population of 44 million.

The government has pledged infrastructure spending of around pounds 7.6bn, but the suspicion is that bureaucrats, in their rush to attract private- sector funding for the projects, may have overlooked safety standards, and that other Taegus and Sampoongs may be lying ahead, like undetected time-bombs.