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[Editorial] Quake preparedness

The devastation in Japan unleashed by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake last Friday has heightened awareness of quake risks in Korea, creating an environment conducive to boosting disaster preparedness.

On Wednesday, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said he would make it mandatory for all new public buildings in Seoul to adopt earthquake-resistant design regardless of their size. For this, he said he would ask the central government to seek revision of the relevant law.

Under the current Building Act, quake-proof design is required for structures that have at least three stories or a minimum floor space of 1,000 square meters.

On Thursday, Rep. Kim Ki-hyun of the ruling Grand National Party said he would soon submit a bill to the National Assembly to extend the requirement to all buildings, private or public.

We hope these and other moves shake off the blithe disregard that policymakers and the public have so far shown toward building designs that can cope with earthquakes.

A press report Thursday illustrated the prevalent indifference to quake-resistant design. According to Rep. Park Young-ah, another GNP lawmaker, nearly nine out of 10 school buildings in Korea are vulnerable to temblors. To address this problem, the central government launched a seismic retrofitting program for school buildings in 2008.

For the past three years, the government provided some 300 billion won for education offices in cities and provinces. However, most of these funds were found to have been used for other purposes. The lawmaker said she would promote amendment of the relevant law to prevent diversion of the funds.

Disregard for earthquake risks can no longer be justified given the growing frequency of earthquakes in Korea. According to the National Emergency Management Agency, the frequency of earthquakes in the nation increased from 16 a year between 1978 and 1996 to 41 between 1997 and 2010. In 2009, a total of 60 temblors occurred, the largest number since records began to be kept in 1978.

According to the Korean Structural Engineers Association, of all buildings in Korea, earthquake-resistant ones account for a mere 2.3 percent. This means Korea faces a huge challenge to retrofit existing buildings.

The government has drafted a seismic retrofitting plan for the public sector but not yet for the private sector. According to a NEMA report, among the nation’s public buildings subject to the seismic design requirement, only 16.3 are quake proof. The government plans to raise the ratio to 43 percent by 2015 and 80 percent by 2030.

Retrofitting, however, is more needed for private-sector buildings, especially one-story or two-story structures constructed with bricks and mortar alone. Many buildings were set up in this method in the 1970s and 1980s as it takes less time and money. But these structures are most vulnerable to quakes, as shown by the recent disasters in Haiti and Chile.

As retrofitting takes money, the government needs to come up with incentives for building owners. It could lower taxes or provide low-cost loans for them.

For new buildings, the adoption of an earthquake-resistant design is known to increase the construction costs by up to 5 percent. For building owners, however, this is an investment worth making because it enhances not just the quake resistance of their buildings but extends their lifespan and can even boost their commercial value.

Making seismic design mandatory for all buildings is the way we need to go. Policymakers have thus far put their heads in the sand concerning this issue, hoping no big earthquakes occur in Korea. The disaster in Japan has provided the momentum necessary for a big push toward it. They should grab the opportunity.
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