06-21-2007 15:34
(455) At Coalface of Heating

Volunteers distribute coal briquettes, or yeontan, to low-income house-holds in Seoul in this file photo. Yeontan had long been used as fuel for heating and cooking in Korea. It has become almost extinct, replac-ed by oil and gas. / Korea Times
By Andrei Lankov

In February 2003, a small factory closed down in Seoul; the demand for its product had dropped below the level which made production economically viable. Stories like this are common in Korea and they are seldom seen as newsworthy.

But the closure of the Samchully factory attracted the attention of the major media. The reason was simple: the factory was the last in Seoul to produce coal briquettes, known as yeontan. For decades, these briquettes kept Korean houses warm in winter. They were seen as a valuable commodity and, at some point, an embodiment of technical progress.

Heating has always been a major problem in Korea. In the cold winters one had to keep the house warm. Since times immemorial Koreans used a very efficient system of heated floors, known as ondol, but the ondol hearth had to be fed with fuel. For centuries, it was firewood, but by the early 1900s the use of firewood was increasingly inconvenient.

This was due to two major problems. First of all, population growth meant that most mountains around towns were virtually stripped barren (this is still the case in North Korea). Firewood was in short supply, and expensive.

Second, the available low-quality firewood was a capricious fuel. It was very time-consuming to feed the hearth. Thus, Korean housewives welcomed the arrival of yeontan with great relief.

What does a yeontan look like? I am pretty sure that many readers have seen these briquettes somewhere on Seoul¡¯s streets. They are cylindrical and about the size of a paint can, with a number of drilled holes _ the standard yeontan had 22 holes. The holes are necessary to make it burn steadily and efficiently.

The standard briquette weighs 3.5 kg. Yeontan were produced from a mixture of coal dust and a special gluing agent which kept the dust particles together.

It was the standard weight and size that made yeontan so hugely popular. Unlike ``natural¡¯¡¯ coal and firewood, yeontan came in a predictable shape.

One could easily stack a few briquettes on top of each other in a stove and leave them burning slowly for hours. In addition, the technology of their composition made it possible to utilize low-quality coal and coal dust.

When did the history of yeontan begin? Despite my labors, I could not find a definite answer. These briquettes are not unique to Korea and their close cousins are widely used in China and Japan as well. This makes me suspect that the yeontan was invented in the early 1900s, but where and by whom I know not.

The first yeontan were introduced to Korea by the Japanese in the late 1920s, but for a long time these briquettes remained an expensive luxury. The spread of yeontan began only after the 1950-53 Korean War when the price went down just as firewood became prohibitively expensive.

Korean households enthusiastically took up the new fuel which _ as they soon discovered _ was so much more convenient than firewood. In a poll conducted in 1970, Koreans even chose yeontan as ``the most important product of our time¡¯¡¯ (in a 2000 poll, the same significance was ascribed to the mobile phone).

The government also supported the switch to yeontan _ it helped to protect the then dwindling forests.

However, yeontan was not without its dangers. The most serious one was the ever-present danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.

This odorless and colorless gas could filter through the cracks of a damaged ondol floor and suffocate the victims while they were sleeping. Strict precautions were always taken, but gas poisoning remained a major case of death in Korea until quite recently.

In 1988, 77.8 percent of all Korean households used yeontan briquettes for heating and/or cooking. By 1993, that percentage had dropped to 32.8 percent. The 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and high oil prices of the late 1990s briefly reversed the trend, but soon the retreat of the venerable coal briquettes continued.

In 2001 a mere 1.5 percent of families were still using yeontan. People were switching to oil and gas boilers, generally more expensive but also more convenient and safe (no danger of gas poisoning: the floor was heated not by fumes, but by hot water).

Thus, the good old yeontan is going to soon become extinct. New, automated and computerized heating systems are replacing the coal briquettes. The introduction of these systems has greatly changed the daily lives of Koreans.

Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.