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Shoddy construction plagues Korea

The Sampoong Department Store was a mecca for pricey foreign goods, a playground where the rich and famous of South Korea's capital shopped and dined in a sprawling complex of nine levels, an exclusive health club and more than 550 stores.

But after collapsing Thursday in a fearsome rain of concrete and steel that killed at least 79, injured 855 and left 320 missing, the 6-year-old store is a stunning testament to problems that have long plagued this nation's domestic construction industry: shoddy workmanship, substandard materials, inadequate inspection systems and blatant building code violations. And as in other countries, bribery often plays a role in construction debacles.

As authorities intensified their investigation Friday, arresting five people on charges of manslaughter, construction officials scrambled to explain how a nation that builds so well abroad can have so many problems at home.

From Singapore to Saudi Arabia, South Korean firms have built pipelines and roads, chemical plants and ports _ 3,000 projects all told and not one single accident, says Dai Young Kim, president of the Overseas Construction Association of Korea.

"The collapse of the Sampoong Department Store will damage the image of Korea's construction industry," said Moon Kwi Hoon, a senior analyst with Ssangyong Securities Corp. "But the domestic industry does not reflect the technology level or honesty of overseas construction projects."

What the industry does reflect, critics say, is a tragedy of errors.

The Sampoong disaster is the most sensational example in a recent series of high-profile accidents, including the rush-hour collapse of the Songsu Bridge in Seoul last year. But problems of faulty construction, reflected in what one Korean described as an attitude of "build now, repair later," stretch back for decades, analysts say.

Longtime visitors to Seoul recall the fronts and backs of buildings simply dropping off 20 or 30 years ago, and despite South Korea's tremendous economic progress, such incidents are not uncommon today. In the last few years alone, hundreds of Koreans have been killed by falling bridges, collapsing tunnels and gas explosions.

"In Korea, people's sense of responsibility toward work has been lacking since the old days, especially in the construction industry," said Seo Sang Kyo, a Korean professor.

The tremendous gap between the safety records at home and abroad reflects sharp differences in the environments in which South Korean firms operate, construction experts say.

Overseas, Korean firms must adhere to highly sophisticated standards of quality control and accountability _ systems almost entirely lacking at home.

Sampoong hired Woosung Construction both to lay the foundation in 1987 and serve as project supervisor, a common arrangement that critics say invites abuse.

Authorities charge that Sampoong officials blatantly violated the law by building well beyond the approved blueprint. They improperly added an entire fifth floor and added twice as much floor space as allowed in a recent expansion, authorities charged.

Officials also charge that Sampoong used substandard steel reinforcing rods that were thinner than required by law. And the apparent softness of the concrete exposed by the disaster has drawn fire.

Quality of domestic projects is also compromised by what analysts here say is rampant bribery. Kickbacks rumored at 10 percent to 15 percent of the project cost are used to win contracts, avoid inspections and deviate from approved building plans, according to analysts.