Seoul floods highlight dangers of 'Parasite'-style semi-basement housing

Our Observer's "banjiha" after the August 8 floods in Seoul, South Korea, during which water rose from the sewers and flooded his entire apartment.
Our Observer's "banjiha" after the August 8 floods in Seoul, South Korea, during which water rose from the sewers and flooded his entire apartment. © Twitter / @Lookie_Clover02

The deadly floods that swept through South Korea on August 8 and 9 have shed light on the dangers of living in "banjiha", semi-underground basement dwellings common in Seoul. Four people died in their banjiha after being trapped by the rising waters. Our Observer, who like more than 200,000 families in Seoul lives in a banjiha, told us about the experience.

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Street-level windows that barely let in daylight, high levels of humidity and mould, and virtually no cellular service: these are the defining characteristics of banjiha – literally meaning "half-buried" in Korean. 

The dangers of these lodgings were highlighted in the 2019 film "Parasite" by Bong Joon-ho, particularly in a scene showing a flood that impacted the main characters' banjiha. 

@happy_cycling___

반지하에 사시는분들은 어떡하지?이걸보면 기생충 생각 나는데...

♬ 오리지널 사운드 - 왕자님
"What about the people who live in the banjihas? It makes me think of 'Parasite,'" said this user on TikTok.
This user drew a parallel between the recent Seoul floods and a scene in Bong Joon-ho's film 'Parasite'.

Many banjiha have raised toilets built on platforms to avoid overflowing in the case of floods. These homes were on the front line on August 8 and 9, when floods hit Seoul and its surroundings

Many underground places such as parking lots and subway stations were completely filled with water. A family of three died in a banjiha in the Sillim-dong district of Seoul, trapped by rising water. 

The government of Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who visited the trapped family's banjiha on August 10, announced that it would seek to implement measures to improve housing conditions for Seoul's poorest residents. The Seoul government said it would stop issuing permits to build banjiha.

Authorities had already stated they would restrict banjiha after significant floods in 2010. 

On social media, residents filmed the extensive damage in their banjiha: toilets overflowing with murky water, electrical wiring half submerged and water completely covering the narrow windows overlooking the street.

Il est écrit en coréen: “Je suis chez ma tante désormais, je n’habiterai plus jamais dans une banjiha”
@lucky_girl029

오늘 밤새 비올거 같은데 밤 새 물 푸게 생겼어요. 서울 지하방은 다 잠길듯 싶어요 . 가난의 서러움 ㅠㅠ

♬ 신비송(ㅅㅂㅅ) - 신비(여자친구), 신비아파트

Sung-Joon Kim (not his real name) is a student at Seoul University. He lives in a banjiha in the Sadang district, in the southeast of the capital, in an area heavily affected by floods. 

I get off work around 8pm. On my way home from work, I only thought it was heavy rain, but I didn't know there would be a flood. When I got off the subway at Isu Station, the cleaning ladies were strangely busy. I heard them saying that it was raining so hard that the water was heavy on the ceiling and the manhole outside was about to overflow. I quickly climbed up from the station and saw that the manhole was already flowing like a fountain. 

Video filmed by Sung-Joon Kim on his way home the evening of august 8.

I tried to get home quickly when I saw that. I was worried that my house would be flooded. However, the road to my house was already full of water. The water came up to my thighs. I was very scared because I could have been swept away by the rapids – I am light, at 46 kg.

When I got home, all the homes on my floor were flooded. The sewer was overflowing and full of filth. 

The road outside of Sung-Joon Kim's home on August 9 at midnight, as the water levels were beginning to lower.
The road outside of Sung-Joon Kim's home on August 9 at midnight, as the water levels were beginning to lower. © Twitter / @Lookie_Clover02

The road was flooded, so I could not go anywhere. So, I was homeless that night. I just slept on the stairs of the building. The next morning, I moved to my parents' house. 

Photos showing Sung-Joon Kim's room before and after the flooding.
Photos showing Sung-Joon Kim's room before and after the flooding. ©Observers

Now all the water has been pumped out. However, many items such as beds, clothes, school materials, and school supplies were contaminated with the mess. My computer was completely broken. I majored in beauty so I had a lot of makeup and hair tools that were ruined. The road outside is stacked with useless furniture taken from the underground apartments. 

Now, you can't stay home with the first and the smell. I have to wait 3 to 5 weeks. 

'We know living in banjiha is dangerous'

Sung-Joon Kim was fired from his job after he explained that he could not come to work for several weeks. He says his landlord will cover the cost of some of the damage, but he will have to pay for some of it himself. 

He doesn't know yet if he will benefit from the aid authorities said would be dispersed to help cover the cost of the damage.

I come from Suwon [Editor's note: 50 km south of Seoul] and go to university in Seoul. I have to live in Seoul alone, apart from my parents. And my family is not rich. That's why I had to work on my own and early my tuition and living expenses and live in a semi-basement that is relatively cheaper, to reduce the burden of living expenses. 

My apartment has a bit of sunlight in the morning, but it's very humid. I have to use my phone close to the ceiling because there is not much network. I bought some equipment to have a better connection with WiFi. 

We know living in banjiha is dangerous. But young people like us and the socially vulnerable have no choice but to live there because they have no money. If the banjiha were not there, housing would be more expensive and we would have no place to live. 

However, the problem is the reality of a society where this type of housing exists and there is no choice but to live there. And the politicians or rich people who ignore or denigrate the people who live there are the real problems.