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South Korea’s Unequal Flood Disaster

The record downpours highlight not only the challenges of climate change, but also a housing crisis without end.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A man looks into a banjiha where South Koreans died in the floods
A man looks into a banjiha where South Koreans died in the floods
A man kneels down to look into a basement apartment known as banjiha where three tenants died after they became trapped by floodwaters, in Seoul on Aug. 11, 2022. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at South Korea’s record floods, Argentina’s interest rate hike, and what the FBI was searching for at Mar-a-Lago.

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After South Korea’s Floods

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at South Korea’s record floods, Argentina’s interest rate hike, and what the FBI was searching for at Mar-a-Lago.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


After South Korea’s Floods

The floods that engulfed South Korea this week have provided the first major emergency for new President Yoon Suk-yeol—and one where the enemy isn’t missiles coming down from the sky, but torrential rain.

At least 11 people—including one child—have died in the floods, which came after the worst rainfall the capital, Seoul, has seen in more than a century.

South Korea is the latest to experience a particularly intense monsoon season in Asia. Earlier this summer, record floods in Bangladesh severely affected more than 7.2 million people, while in China, thousands were evacuated amid flash flooding in the southwest and northwest of the country.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon warned that the city would need to improve its ability to handle such intense rainfall now that climate change makes the weather events more frequent. On Wednesday, Oh announced plans to spend more than $1 billion building infrastructure to increase the city’s resilience, including a vast underground tunnel system first proposed after heavy rains in 2011.

That four of those killed in the flooding lived in banjiha semi-basement dwellings—the kind popularized in the Oscar-winning movie Parasite, which featured a catastrophic flood scene—has thrown a spotlight on the country’s housing crisis, where home ownership is becoming out of reach for the middle classes, let alone those further down the economic scale. Roughly 5 percent of households in Seoul are believed to live in banjiha properties across the city.

The housing market was a major issue in March’s presidential election, and outgoing President Moon Jae-in was repeatedly criticized for his government’s failure to tame it. The winner of that election, Yoon, has pledged to reverse Moon’s housing policies. During his campaign, Yoon promised to build 2.5 million new homes, with half of them to be built with private sector funds.

Despite a raft of policy interventions, prices in metropolitan Seoul, where almost half the country’s population lives, remain stubbornly high, and the price of an average apartment there has doubled in the past five years. Rising interest rates have recently helped cool the market, but the knock-on effect of higher mortgage rates has increased fears of defaults among those who have managed to take a step onto the property ladder.

In response to this week’s floods, Oh on Thursday announced the phasing out of banjiha basements over the next two decades. Where the approximately 200,000 families who count on them for shelter will go is a problem yet to be solved. Civic groups immediately called for more affordable housing to address the new need.

Sohn Mal-nyeon, a banjiha resident in her 70s, told the Korea Herald that the new announcement was unlikely to lead to real change: “Well, what do you expect people to do? They live here because it’s cheaper, you know.”


Keep an Eye On

Argentina’s inflation battle. Argentina’s central bank hiked interest rates 9.5 percentage points on Thursday, bringing the overall benchmark rate to 69.5 percent, as it seeks to tame ever-increasing inflation. Inflation so far this year stands at 71 percent, the highest in almost three decades. A central bank survey of economists predicted that the country would see annual inflation rise to 90 percent by the end of the year.

Dry Germany. Water levels on Germany’s Rhine River are set to fall even lower over the coming days, according to local officials, potentially bringing shipping traffic supplying critical industries to a standstill. At 1 foot, shallow barges are still able to pass along the river, but any lower would make such a journey untenable. The warning from Germany’s Federal Institute of Hydrology comes as countries across Europe face challenges in the stifling heat, from sputtering hydroelectric plants to damaged crop yields, as FP’s Christina Lu and Anusha Rathi reported earlier this month.

The Florida Files. The Monday FBI raid on former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence was spurred by concerns over improper handling of documents relating to nuclear weapons, according to a Washington Post report. Additional reporting by the New York Times suggests that there were documents relating to “special access programs,” which usually pertain to U.S. operations abroad or technologies classified above “top secret.” In a statement on Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said that “upholding the rule of law means applying the law evenly, without fear or favor.”

The Department of Justice has moved to unseal the warrant for the search; Trump has also called for the “immediate release” of documents related to the raid.


Odds and Ends

How far would you go for the correct change? An Indian lawyer had to wait almost 22 years, but he eventually won his case in consumer court over being overcharged 20 rupees (25 U.S. cents at current exchange rates—and closer to 50 cents at the time of purchase) when buying a railway ticket in 1999.

Tungnath Chaturvedi, in a story worthy of Larry David, began his grudge after he handed over 100 rupees for a 70 rupee ticket, only to receive just 10 rupees in return.

More than 100 court hearings later, he found justice last week, as a court awarded him 15,000 rupees ($189) and asked the railway company to refund him his 20 rupees at 12 percent annual interest for each year since 1999.

“It’s not the money that matters. This was always about a fight for justice and a fight against corruption, so it was worth it,” Chaturvedi told the BBC.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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