Central heating is pretty standard in most UK homes and as temperatures drop to the single digits, it’s a lifesaver for elderly folks. Most of Korea is the same, using gas or electricity to heat the home, but a small percentage of elderly Koreans still rely on a more traditional way, burning coal briquettes.
Anthracite coal briquettes, known as yeontan (연탄) were introduced to Korea from Japan in the 1920s, though only accessible by the upper classes and Japanese families until after the occupation ended. Locally produced and inexpensive compared to other fuels, in the 1970s they were so popular that they were temporarily rationed as the government tried to control demand. Also, incidents involving people who died from asphyxiation from inhaling coal gas or carbon dioxide overnight frequently made headlines, as proper ventilation is needed to burn the yeontan safely. By 1988, 78% of Korean households used them as their main way of cooking, and heating the home.
In 1993 many people switched to oil and gas boilers, and these days an estimated 2% of households still use yeontan only. According to Channel News Asia, that’s still around 200,000 mostly low-income families.
One to three briquettes per day in winter is a typical amount for one household, as they burn for around seven hours. The typical briquette used for homes weighs 3.5 kg, so stocking up on enough briquettes to stay warm through winter is no easy task. Many volunteers help deliver the briquettes to people in need in their neighbourhood this month. Volunteers including Amber from f(x), who has posted pics of herself and other volunteers loading up with yeontan deliveries on Instagram.
With other easier ways to heat the house around, why has the demand for yeontan not abated? Steady rises in international oil prices, and the government subsidies towards their manufacture may be factors. Boiler company Kiturami Boiler told the Korean media that even in metropolitan areas (where they expect more middle-class families to live) an increasing number of households and restaurants are installing coal briquette boilers. Read more about it here.