Quantity does not equal quality. Can't happen, won't happen, will never happen, that's the way it is. South Korea got a lesson in that one June afternoon in 1995.

Create a time-lapse film of South Korea from far overhead. Have a satellite snap a picture once every month, starting from the end of the Korean War, up to modern times. When you play back this film, you will see urbanization blossom like fungus on a rotten apple, shooting out and covering the landscape with unmatched speed and virulence. You see, in Korea, Construction is King. The industry had massive leeway to build whatever whenever and however they so desired. And they desired quick and easy profits. As a result, as time wore on and the emphasis stayed on mass quantity, the quality of the buildings reached an all-time low.

The Sampoong Department Store was a new pink edifice of commercialization. Once strictly an office building, it gained a five-story tall department-store section, complete with a swimming pool and water tank on the roof. Luxuries of every stripe were hawked inside, and middle-class wives began spending their mornings and afternoons shopping without dropping. Banners urged shoppers to 'Think Pink'. And they did - the store went like gangbusters.

But soon, cracks appeared in the ceiling of the fifth floor. The weight of the water tank was too much. The store simply moved much of its merchandise to the basement. No further action was taken, nothing that would get in the way of business.

In the rush to construct the building, a few details were glossed over. The building was built on a former trash dump - not the most sound ground for a foundation. The structure beams were meant only to support four floors - not the added weight of a fifth floor, or a swimming pool, or a water tank. The concrete was mixed with saltwater, speeding the deterioration of the steel rebars used to strengthen the building. The rebars themselves were centimeters thinner than regulations would allow.

The bill finally came due on June 30, 1995, the day that the Sampoong Department Store featured a basement-wide clearance sale. As more shoppers than usual strolled throughout the palisades, thinking pink, the fifth floor collapsed under the weight of the swimming pool and water tank, and the four stories below then collapsed. Those not crushed were trapped, especially those in the basement. A massive and wholly effective rescue operation commenced, saving hundreds from death by starvation. 640 people died, over 900 were injured.

This is often considered the worst disaster in South Korea's (admittedly short) history. The government, already gutted in recent elections, were called out by angry citizens; action was promised, but I don't know how much was taken. The store's owner got 10 years in jail, and 25 other people involved in the construction were assigned jail time or levied with large fines. All over Korea, a sudden wave of improvements to the disaster infrastructure took place; hospitals were upgraded and emergency services strenghened. The large laundry list of wrongs above are not unfamiliar to the average South Korean - it is assumed that a disaster on this scale will once again happen one day, a consequence of the rapid urbanization of the country. Too many buildings, too short a time. No one enforced quality.

I'm told that construction has slowed down appreciably, not due to safety concerns, but due to the Asian economic crisis, so quantity may have dropped without the expected uptick in quality. We'll see if they start 'thinking pink' again.

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