South Korea to double energy vouchers amid soaring bills, cold wave

SEOUL, Jan 26 (Reuters) - South Korea plans to double energy vouchers and a discount of gas prices for underprivileged families to cope with spiralling heating bills amid a prolonged cold wave, officials said on Thursday.

Countries around the world have faced rising energy costs in the face of a global surge in natural gas and heating fuel prices resulting from the conflict in Ukraine.

Many South Korean households began to feel the impact in recent weeks after turning up the heat amid a cold spell, with monthly gas bills up 34% last month from a year ago, according to Statistics Korea.

Choi Sang-mok, South Korea's top presidential economic secretary, said the increase in bills was inevitable, citing a near tenfold growth in global natural gas prices since 2021, but South Korean rates were still far lower than the levels in many other advanced countries.

The measures would benefit almost 1.2 million families receiving energy vouchers and around 1.6 million homes eligible for the gas discount this winter, in a country of 21.6 million households, Choi said.

"There is an inevitable aspect of realising energy prices under these difficult external circumstances," he told a briefing. "But we will make maximum policy efforts to minimise the burden on the people."

Many South Koreans expressed concerns over additional hikes in energy bills as freezing winter weather continued.

"Our heating bills have gone up about 50% from previous years," said Lim Jong-cheol, a Seoul resident who said he and his wife have fixed incomes and are trying to cut back on expenses like eating out.

Bang Myung-soon, 76, who has been running a small hardware store in Seoul, said she was "shocked" by the hike in heating bills and government subsidies would not her enough.

"At home, I wear many clothes, a hat, gloves and anything that can keep me warm but I can't turn down the heat here because of customers," she told Reuters from her store, sitting on a heated pad. "The government might have some policy to help people like us, but I have no hope."

The weather agency issued a heavy snow advisory on Thursday in the greater Seoul area and some eastern and central regions, prompting at least five flights to be called off and several national parks to shut down as of 11 a.m. (0200 GMT), according to the interior ministry.

The warning came just days after nearly 500 flights to and from the tourist island of Jeju were cancelled due to harsh weather, disrupting the Lunar New Year holiday for many.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Hanna Song and Daewoung Kim; Additional reporting by Choonsik Yoo; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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