Seoul's new Lotte super-skyscraper attracts controversy

Measuring 555m tall, the Lotte World Tower (left) is expected to be the tallest building on the Korean Peninsula when it is completed.
Measuring 555m tall, the Lotte World Tower is expected to be the tallest building on the Korean Peninsula when it is completed.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

South Korea's upcoming landmark skyscraper is dogged by controversy

SEOUL • For people hiking in the hills around Seoul, it is an unmistakable sight: the Lotte World Tower taking shape like a gigantic bamboo shoot.

If it is completed as expected by the end of next year, it will be a sorely needed international landmark for South Koreans, who like to measure their country on global scales: At 555m, it will be Seoul's first supertall skyscraper and the sixth-tallest building in the world.

But in South Korea, where many people fret about safety standards and the ever-expanding power of chaebol, or family-controlled business conglomerates that dominate the economy and the skyline, people are also gazing up at the tower's soaring height with fear.

Since 2013, a string of accidents has plagued the 3.7-trillion won (S$4.4-billion) project, including three construction worker fatalities.

Some of the construction problems, such as water seepage or a door coming loose that fell on a visitor, had little to do with the building's overall structural safety, according to independent engineers who reviewed the project and said the incidents would have gone unreported by the news media if they had happened at other building sites.

But the way the construction accidents unsettled the public and officials speaks volumes about a society that is still deeply sceptical about the government's ability to ensure safety.

"Public trust is at rock bottom," said Mr Lee Deuk Hyung, a leader in Weerye Citizens' Alliance, a civic watchdog on municipal projects. "Experts may say all the problems are minor, but they give people so much worry, the tower is going up like a monumental headache."

The tower is being built by Lotte, South Korea's fifth-largest conglomerate, with annual revenue of more than US$73 billion (S$100 billion). Its founder Shin Kyuk Ho started as a seller of chewing gum and has amassed a business empire that spans Japan and his native country, South Korea, where it is best known for its hotel, shopping mall and amusement park chains.

Mr Shin, 92, and his son Dong Bin, 60, wanted to create a more distinguished legacy for the company founder: an 87,000 sq m Lotte World complex in southern Seoul, with a shopping and leisure World Mall, which opened in October, and the 123-storey World Tower, which will include an ultra-luxury hotel, office space and an observatory.

When completed, the Lotte tower, which reached the 103rd floor this month, will give South Korea the bragging rights to having the tallest building on the Korean Peninsula. It will be higher than the current tallest building in South Korea, the 305m Northeast Asia Trade Tower in Incheon, west of Seoul, and the tallest building in North Korea, the unfinished 330m Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang.

But the project stirred controversy from Day One.

It took Lotte 15 years to win a building permit, obtaining it only after agreeing to shoulder the cost of changing the angle of a military runway south of Seoul, so that the tower would not stand in the way of fighter jets approaching the airfield. The deal was criticised as the latest reminder of the chaebol influence, so powerful that detractors said it could even sway the military in a country still technically at war with North Korea.

Construction began in 2010. But doubts developed about the project, especially after the South Korean ferry Sewol sank in April last year, killing 304 people and deepening public mistrust in the government's safety policies.

When small sinkholes, some less than 30cm deep, appeared in neighbouring districts, residents wondered if the tower was to blame.

People also expressed concern over the decreasing water level at a nearby lake, with some arguing that the drop might be caused by the building, even though the city had had to refill the lake regularly before the construction began, a task since taken over by Lotte.

And other problems at the mall, even the most seemingly minor ones, caused more public concern.

People were trapped in malfunctioning lifts. Shallow cracks developed in floor paint. In December, spectators rushed to evacuate when the screen of a multiplex movie theatre vibrated (it turned out a woofer did the trick).

Water seeped from an aquarium containing 5,200 tonnes of water, which had been built above an electric substation. A worker fell to his death at a construction site for a concert hall that is part of the mall.

The Ministry of Public Safety and Security and Seoul city officials ordered special inspections of the building site that included non- governmental experts to help ensure public trust in their findings.

Mr Jin Hee Sun, a senior building policy official for the city government, said while the episodes did not disprove the complex's overall structural safety, Lotte's tardiness, lack of transparency and outside peer reviews in dealing with them "helped fan mistrust".

"We are under such different criteria of safety that it makes news even when a person trips over and hurts his leg," said Lotte spokesman Lee Seul Ki. "Much of our problem is because the country has never built a building this tall."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2015, with the headline 'Lotte of scepticism'. Print Edition | Subscribe