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South Korea flood death toll hits 40, prompting president to vow climate change prep "overhaul"

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Seoul — South Korea's president vowed Monday to "completely overhaul" the country's approach to extreme weather from climate change after at least 40 people were killed by recent flooding and landslides during monsoon rains. Rescue workers waded through thick mud as they drained a flooded underpass in central Cheongju, searching for more victims after vehicles were trapped in the tunnel by flash floods, the interior ministry said, with nine people still missing nationwide.

South Korea is at the peak of its summer monsoon season, and days of torrential rain have caused widespread flooding and landslides, with rivers bursting their banks, and reservoirs and dams overflowing. More rain is forecast in the coming days.

"Climate change is happening... deal with it"

"This kind of extreme weather event will become commonplace — we must accept climate change is happening, and deal with it," President Yoon Suk Yeol said during an emergency response meeting Monday.

The idea that extreme weather linked to climate change "is an anomaly and can't be helped needs to be completely overhauled", he said, calling for "extraordinary determination" to improve the country's preparedness and response.

Rescue workers take part in a search and rescue operation inside an underpass that has been submerged by a flooded river caused by torrential rain in Cheongju
Rescue workers take part in a search and rescue operation inside an underpass that was submerged by a flooded river caused by torrential rain in Cheongju, South Korea, July 17, 2023. Yonhap via REUTERS

South Korea will "mobilize all available resources" including the military and police to help with rescue efforts, he said.

"The rainy season is not over yet, and the forecast is now that there will be torrential rain again tomorrow," he added.

Following the meeting, Yoon, who returned from an overseas trip early Monday, traveled to Yecheon in North Gyeongsang province — one of the hardest hit villages, where more than a third of houses were damaged in landslides and two people remain missing.

Dressed in a green jacket, often donned by top officials during public emergencies, Yoon was briefed by officials as he walked past piles of fallen trees and relief workers shoveling mud.

South Korea landslides, floods kill 7, over 1,000 evacuated
People take part in a search and rescue operation after a landslide caused by torrential rain in Yecheon, South Korea, July 15, 2023. YONHAP via REUTERS

"I've never seen something like this in my life, hundreds of tons of rocks rolling down from the mountain," Yoon told the villagers. "I'll do everything I can to restore the village."

The majority of the casualties — including 19 of the dead and eight of the missing — were from North Gyeongsang province and were largely due to massive landslides in the mountainous area that engulfed houses with people inside.

Deadly flood of highway underpass

On Monday, the South Korean government and police launched separate enquiries into the fatal flooding of the underpass in Cheongju, some 70 miles south of Seoul. It flooded early Saturday when a nearby river overflowed and an embankment collapsed, leaving more than 10 vehicles, including a bus, trapped inside.

At least 13 people were killed and rescue workers have warned the toll could rise as they search the area.

A South Korean emergency services vehicle is seen inside a highway underpass tunnel that was inundated during flash flooding, leaving 10 vehicles trapped and killing at least 13 people, in Cheongju, south of Seoul, South Korea, amid clean-up and recovery efforts on July 17, 2023. REuters/KOREA POOL

The Prime Minister's Secretariat said there had been reports of calls to police requesting an emergency evacuation order for nearby residents as well as emergency closure of the tunnel an hour before the disaster struck.

"This investigation is to find out the cause of the failure to protect the precious life of the people," it said in a statement.

Yoon said Monday that the mismanagement of danger zones had led to the accident. Preemptive evacuations and road closures were the "basic principles of preventing the loss of lives in disaster response," he added.

Bracing for a new normal

The Korea Meteorological Administration forecast more heavy rain through Wednesday and urged the public to "refrain from going outside."

South Korea is regularly hit by flooding during the summer monsoon period, but the country is typically well-prepared and the death toll is usually relatively low.

Scientists say climate change has made weather events around the world more extreme and more frequent.

Preliminary U.N. data showed the first week of July was the world's hottest week on record, which followed the hottest June on record.

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"We are in uncharted territory and we can expect more records to fall as El Niño develops further and these impacts will extend into 2024," said Christopher Hewitt, head of international climate services for the World Meteorological Organization. "This is worrying news for the planet." 

South Korea endured record-breaking rains and flooding last year, which left more than 11 people dead.

They included three people who died trapped in a Seoul basement apartment of the kind that became internationally known because of the Oscar-winning Korean film "Parasite."

The government said at the time that the 2022 flooding was the heaviest rainfall since Seoul weather records began 115 years ago, blaming climate change for the extreme weather.­­­­­

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