Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Highly Localized Earthquakes Plague Korean Buildings

Hundreds of people evacuated a high-rise shopping mall in Seoul today after it began shaking due to a highly localized earthquake, and definitely not poor construction. It is the latest in a series of highly localized earthquakes which have plagued high-profile Korean buildings and infrastructure in recent years. The tremor, which only affected the shopping mall's top floors, and no neighboring buildings, comes at a time when some ill-informed populists outside Korea's government and construction industry have suggested that the nation's buildings could be vulnerable in the event of more widespread seismic activity on the Korean Peninsula.

The Ministry of Land said that Korea generally does not suffer from earthquakes, unlike Japan, due to the stronger and superior nature of Korean soil. The Korean Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources also initially said there was no need to worry about earthquakes because South Korea, which sits on the Eurasian tectonic plate, has no major fault lines running under it, apart from the undiscovered ones. However, the Institute later admitted that, having checked some historical data, in future tremors of 6.5 to 7 in magnitude cannot be ruled out.

Currently, nuclear power stations in Korea - which are perfectly safe - are required to withstand quakes up to 6.5 in magnitude, although in future the government says new plants will be built to withstand quakes up to a magnitude of 7, just to be "extra careful". In the event of a 6.5 or greater the government admit that - apart from the nuclear plants - a 'small amount' of buildings and infrastructure will be vulnerable to collapse, including schools, all houses, most military buildings, public buildings, dams, bridges, overpasses, subway tunnels, airports, and hospitals. However, this would probably only result in the complete destruction of around 27,000 buildings and partial destruction of 550,000 buildings, in Seoul.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government said that while the risks of damage may be limited, it will urgently address any misplaced safety concerns, by making subway tunnels earthquake resistant by 2014, and public buildings by 2026. Outside Seoul, according to reports from Korea's second-class city Busan, only 5 of the city's 22 earthquake shelters have actually been built using an earthquake-resistant design. Officials in the city said they would reject a populist approach and deal with the question of whether to make the earthquake shelters earthquake proof quietly.

The relatively low number of damaged buildings projected in the event of a 6.5 earthquake comes despite the fact that 80% of Korean buildings were not constructed with quake-proof designs since under the current law, only buildings or structures taller than three stories with floor space of more than 1,000 square meters are required to follow "seismic designs to better withstand strong tremors".

The general safety of most buildings, whether they have been built to resist earthquakes or not, is said to be a testimony to the quality of the local construction industry, which has continued to produce perfectly safe buildings despite extensive corruption coupled with the 16-hour work-days and alcohol consumption of many of its employees. Some construction bosses have said though that this year's Japanese earthquake, which moved Korea 5 centimeters east, may have weakened some of their buildings, and compensation should be sought from Tokyo if buildings have been weakened because of it.

As a result of the initial earthquake survey in the capital, "Trauma House 5" in Seoul's Seocho-dong has been identified as the the capital's most earthquake-proof building. The apartment block, home to many of the nation's construction bosses, features a 200-person underground bunker capable of resisting tremors of 7 or higher on the Richter Scale.

While "Trauma House 5" may provide a model for all Koreans to follow, The National Emergency Management Agency cautioned people to be aware of the possibility of further highly localized tremors hitting individual buildings, as well as more extensive earthquakes, in the future.

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