In all her 76 years, Seoul resident Kang Soon-hee has lived through plenty of trials and tribulations. She was a child during the brutal Korean War of the early 1950s; she came of age under a series of military dictatorships; and as an adult, she has seen her fortunes tumble and rise through more than one economic crisis.
But now, in her twilight years, Kang feels as though she is witnessing a phenomenon that even her country’s famed can-do spirit might not be enough to overcome.
“When I was young, the summers weren’t like this at all,” Kang said while seated with two friends in a shady corner of her sweltering Seoul neighborhood – a treeless district of narrow alleyways called Changsin. “But nowadays, every summer, the heat waves are more and more severe.”
Indeed. South Korea is in the midst of a record-breaking summer, with the mercury rising to near 40 degrees Celsius during the day and easing only several degrees overnight. A heat wave that has lasted for weeks has been a factor in the deaths of at least 27 people, and more than 2,000 have sought medical treatment for heat-related ailments, according to data from the Korea Center for Disease Control & Prevention.
And it is not over yet. Temperatures appeared to peak in early August, with daily highs in the high 30s, and daytime temperatures stabilizing in the mid-thirties in the second week of the month. But the heat is expected to stick around until late this month; the national meteorological body issued a one-month forecast on August 2, saying that temperatures will remain in the 30s almost until the end of August.
Mayor sweating it out
This summer, the main topic of conversation in the country’s media and online is not peace with North Korea or the latest corporate corruption scandals. Instead, public discourse centers on how to endure the torrid weather – a subject very much on the mind of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.
While Seoul has plenty of ritzy areas glinting with skyscrapers, much of the city is still composed of ramshackle districts like Changsin. It is this kind of neighborhood that Park is experiencing: He has relocated to a similarly down-at-heels area in the city’s north for a month.
Amid the hottest summer since records began, Park has made camp in a simple rooftop unit without air-conditioning, in an effort to understand the living conditions of the city’s most vulnerable residents. For Park, known for his down-to-earth image, this is good politics; others sniff that it is a publicity stunt.
Still, Park has identified preparing the city for a hotter future as a priority and is working to implement a system where staff will visit the elderly and infirm to check on their health and provide any emergency assistance. The city also manages a network of “heat shelters” – public, air-conditioned spaces where anyone can go during the day to cool off.
“Along with global warming and climate change, heat waves are a disaster that will go on for years to come,” Park said in a statement released by his office.
National politicians are also mulling how to address extreme heat going forward. The ruling Democratic Party has said it will put forth a motion in the legislature to officially designate extreme heat as a “national disaster.” That would require the government to devise policy and allocate support for people suffering from the heat in the same way as it does for victims of floods or typhoons.
Good for business, bad for mosquitoes
In some quarters, the heat wave spells booming business. Convenience store sales figures show that the most immediate form of relief is “cup-ice drinks” – fruit-flavored beverages sold in plastic cups filled with ice. Monthly sales of the sugary drinks hit an all-time high in July. Department stores reported a 92% increase in sales of sun-blocking items such as hats, parasols and sunglasses.
According to The Chosun Ilbo, Korea’s top-selling newspaper, there are some unexpected benefits of extreme heat. In a story, it quoted a police spokesperson who reported that incidents of alcohol-related violence were down 30% in July. The drop was attributed to more people opting to stay home near their air-conditioners and fewer people gathering in busy public drinking spots.
The same article claimed that the high temperatures have also caused a reduction in Seoul’s notoriously annoying population of mosquitoes. The Chosun cited data from the city’s central Mapo District, showing that calls complaining about the buzzing pests were down 20% on-year, apparently because the hot weather was not amenable to mosquito breeding.
Media outlets have also depicted quaint scenarios of the heat offering a chance for this habitually busy country to take a breather. With it being too hot to venture out, multiple generations of the same family can end up all at home in the evenings, enjoying chilled fruit, ice-cream – even each other’s company.
If you think it’s bad here …
A reckoning is also taking place in North Korea. In the power-deprived country, most people have less access to comforts like air-conditioning and cold beverages than the residents of even the poorest Seoul neighborhoods. In early August, the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper published a front-page editorial. In typical fashion, it called upon the public to mobilize to overcome the challenges presented by increasingly hot weather.
The editorial honed in on ongoing drought conditions and the threat that poses to a country that relies on agriculture and is prone to food shortages. “Our crops are suffering due to the high temperatures and drought conditions. We should focus all our efforts on struggling against the drought,” the editorial read.
Perhaps Northerners would find some comfort in a recent column in South Korea’s left-wing Kyunghyang newspaper. In it novelist Kim In-suk resurrects a stoic tradition South Koreans such as 76-year-old Kang were once familiar with – and which North Koreans are still subject to.
“This summer’s heat wave could last for more than a month. It’s a matter to handle with firm resolution,” Kim sternly advised. “Swat away the discomforts like gnats! And when the heat is enough to have you tossing and turning, that is time to think about life’s small joys.”