Construction cartels – The Korea Times

Bomi Yoon

‘Boneless apartments’ resulted from total corruption

If one could compare industries to characters, Korea’s construction sector is like Jekyll & Hyde.

The nation’s building industry is among the top five worldwide in scale and skill. Korean contractors have built, entirely or partially, some of the global architectural landmarks, such as skyscrapers and bridges.

At home, however, the story could hardly be more different.

In 1970, a five-story hilltop apartment crumbled after just four months of completion, killing 33 people. In 1994, a part of a bridge across the Han River fell into the water, leaving 49 dead or injured. The following year, a luxury department store in Gangnam collapsed, causing a toll of 502. News media called it the “heaviest casualty since the Korean War.”

The cause of the “three major collapses” was the same ― a shoddy job to save time and cost. Corruption and collusion prevailed from design to construction and supervision. The recent collapse of an underground car park ceiling in an apartment complex shows very little has changed.

According to reports, 15 out of 91 apartment complexes awarded by Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) built basement garages using no or far fewer reinforcement bars required by contracts. It was perilous primarily because the contractors built them using the flat slab method, with no horizontal beams and only vertical pillars supporting the ceiling. The omission of rebar could cause fatal results.

It was not a coincidence that the construction period overlapped with a spike in international commodity prices. People deride that one in six apartments the state-run property developer built was a “boneless apartment” or “lean-meat flat.” The government must hurry to relieve residents’ anxiety. Most urgent is the prevention of possible tragedies by reinforcing or rebuilding these structures. Bureaucrats and politicians must also plunge a scalpel into the industry’s structural ills soon.

What policymakers and lawmakers are doing now is far from these.

President Yoon Suk Yeol did well to instruct expanding the investigation into hundreds of other residential complexes built by private planners. He was also right to propose offering financial compensation to residents.

However, Yoon made the same mistake of turning a social issue into fodder for a political dogfight. At a meeting Wednesday, the president declared that all of the shoddy construction happened “before this administration took office.” A ruling party leader called for parliamentary probes into the former government’s construction ministers and presidential aides. The previous governing party wasted no time hitting back, claiming most of the 15 problematic complexes started work in earnest after the incumbent administration began its job.

Fifteen months have passed since Yoon took office. Will the incumbent blame his predecessor for anything gone awry until his term ends? The construction industry’s chronic problems, such as excessive curtailing of the construction period and skimping on materials, have run deep for decades. The state-run LH has long been notorious for “corporate cronyism,” in which incumbent and retired officials benefit each other under a revolving-door employment structure.

The government can start by rectifying Korea’s unique apartment trading system, which allows developers to sell homes even before they build them. People also swarm to new projects seeking “lotto apartments” to gain several hundreds of millions of won by profiteering from the gap between pre-construction prices and market prices later. Most speculators don’t mind the apartments’ quality because they don’t live there. End consumers suffer damage when things go wrong. When these apartments remain unsold for various reasons, developers ask the government to buy them in this “contractors’ paradise.”

Contractors must know their contrasting behaviors at home and abroad will backfire if foreign clients take issue with their ethical and financial credibility, as experts pointed out in a Korea Times story.

Instead of wrangling for parliamentary polls next April, politicians must pass construction-safety laws that have gathered dust for years.

If all parties involved do their part, the garage collapse will prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Watching what the establishment does, however, Koreans can seldom be sure of such a reversal even four years from now.

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