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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Korean Greens

Air Date: Week of

The price of South Korea’s huge post-war development binge has been high: a massive pollution hangover. Increasingly, South Koreans find rising incomes don’t mean much if the quality of life is poorer, and they are starting to speak out. Lucie McNeill reports on the country’s budding environmental movement.


CURWOOD: Forty years ago, South Korea was a desperately poor country still ravaged by years of war. But since then, like Japan and Taiwan, South Korea has had phenomenal economic growth. It has also had some serious growing pains, as illustrated by the latest allegations of high-level corruption. But behind the current headlines there has been another rude awakening from South Korea's huge development binge: a massive pollution hangover. Most of its rivers are dead, and its capital Seoul has some of the highest pollution levels in the world. Increasingly, South Koreans are finding rising incomes don't mean much if the quality of life is poorer, and they're starting to speak out. Lucie McNeill filed this report on the country's budding environmental movement.

(Traffic sounds)

MCNEILL: From the top of his 15-floor apartment building, Jin Yong-keun surveys a scene that seems straight out of a science fiction horror movie. This is Shindorim, a neighborhood in southwest Seoul. A thousand families live in this apartment complex surrounded by hundreds of refineries, belching smokestacks, and rusty, noisy factories that stretch as far as the eye can see. As the sun goes down the whole scene swims in a witches' brew of acrid, yellow smog.

(A man and woman speak in Korean. One English word: "Chemicals.")

MCNEILL: When this apartment compound and 2 schools were built in the late 80s, the city plan was to move the factories further out. But companies lobbied the government, arguing it would be too expensive to relocate. Jin Yong-keun is a stockbroker who lives quietly with his wife and their young son. He's always been on the side of business and economic growth, but what happened here last summer galvanized him into action.

YONG-KEUN: [Speaks in Korean]
TRANSLATOR: There was a big accident at the chemical plant over there. They produce sacharin, and 2 of the lines exploded. There was no fire, but a lot of smoke drifted this way. We all inhaled some of it, and 10 residents had to go to the hospital.

MCNEILL: That's when Jin Yong-keun started the Emergency Committee Against Pollution at Shindorim. All his neighbors joined the group, and somehow they've been able to make a difference.

YONG-KEUN: [Speaks in Korean]
TRANSLATOR: After the second explosion, we rushed over to the factory and demanded to see the plant manager. The company agreed to put filters on the smokestacks to reduce the foul smells, and they've shut down 2 of the chemical lines they produce. So the air is a little better now.

MCNEILL: For Jin Yong-keun and his neighbors, the explosion was a watershed. It showed them they had to put people's health first before economic growth.

YONG-KEUN: [Speaks in Korean]
TRANSLATOR: Korea is clamoring to become part of the global market, so I think it's time to switch to non-polluting industries. We should become a country where the environment is considered as important as the production and profits. I'm working on this because I remember when this country was beautiful.

MCNEILL: South Korea has come a long way. Twenty years ago, when Choi Yul started campaigning against pollution he was called a traitor. A slight, unassuming man in his late 40s, Choi YuI is the founder of South Korea's environmental movement. In 1994 he was given the United Nations Global 500 Medal for his work, and this year he's won the prestigious Goldman Award for environmental protection.

CHOI: [Speaks in Korean]
TRANSLATOR: Twenty years ago, Korea was so poor people were willing to put up with the pollution just to make ends meet. In fact, when the authorities found out I was starting an environmental group, they accused me of being against the system. But I just felt Korea had to face up to this problem.

MCNEILL: Choi YuI now heads the Korean Action Federation for the Environment. They have offices in most urban centers, and 22,000 active volunteers who stage protests, lobby government, and educate the public. Choi Yui says public opinion is on his side.

CHOI: [Speaks in Korean]
TRANSLATOR: Ninety percent of the people I meet tell me we are doing the right thing. The economy can't grow at this pace any longer. That's because pollution is actually slowing down growth. If industry can't get clean water, production costs will rise and our exports can't stay competitive.

(Traffic sounds)

MCNEILL: South Korea began heeding Choi Yui's message after 1988. That's when the country's military ruler stepped down, and Koreans elected their first civilian government in 30 years. An environment ministry was established, and the legislature passed various laws and regulations to control toxic emissions and protect natural habitats. That's also when the country's largest and most influential pressure group was formed.

(An office: a phone rings, a woman speaks in Korean)

MCNEILL: This bustling office is home to the Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice. One of its main platforms is fighting pollution. Dr. Yoo Jae-hyum is Secretary General of the Coalition. He says South Korea's corporations started to get the message in 1991, after a near-catastrophic chemical spill. For once, South Korea's courts swung into action. The chairman of the conglomerate that owned the plant was arrested and top managers were convicted and put in jail. Yoo Jae-hyum says this was a real wake-up call.

HYUM: Nowadays when I meet with the chairmen or the presidents of the big companies, they always say that. You know, from 1991, we suddenly saw that even the chairmen, the big guys, the owner, the God right? Even the chairman could be arrested and put in jail. So they just -- wow. We have to do something about this.

MCNEILL: In fact, some of South Korea's industries have realized it's in their interest to become good corporate citizens. Instead of fighting rear guard actions against government regulations, some are now taking the lead in designing environmentally friendly factories and products. Lee Hangul is president of the Daewoo Research Institute, an arm of the giant Daewoo Corporation.

LEE: If we introduce equipment which can save more energy than before, or more resources than before, that makes some new markets or so, and also prepares for the environmental issue, be very good for Korean manufacturers to be more competitive.

(An office setting)

MCNEILL: But despite significant progress, Yoo Jae-hyum of the Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice says South Korea still has a long way to go. He says everybody in the country is addicted to rapid economic growth and the rising incomes that go with it.

HYUM: For example, our national economy planning board is now the 15-year economic trend. According to that, after 15 years our general per capita will be $30,000, like Canada and Switzerland. Then we will have 24 million cars in our country, that's a prediction.

MCNEILL: So they're talking about tripling the number of cars and tripling the GNP in 15 years.

YU: That's right. That's right.

(Many voices at once)

MCNEILL: In Korea as everywhere else, it's the children who are most keenly aware of environmental problems. At this girl's high school in central Seoul, the students all know about their country's pollution problems.

GIRL: [Speaks in Korean]
TRANSLATOR: I worry most about water pollution and the destruction of the ozone layer. Of course the government has to act, but I think we all have to make some efforts by reducing the amount of garbage we throw out.

GIRL: [Speaks in Korean]
TRANSLATOR: I think of the country as a whole is not interested enough in environment. Big companies especially, and they should be. I feel the problem really started with my parents' generation. They only care about economic development. I wish they'd care more about environment.

MCNEILL: It's this kind of growing awareness that's pushing the government into action. Starting this year, Korean households will have to pay for every bag of garbage they throw out. And the authorities are also following up on a 5-year-old promise to create an environmental police corps, which would investigate polluters and bring them to justice. For South Korea, it would seem the days of feverish economic growth at all costs are coming to an end. People want better quality of life, and they're demanding that some of the country's growing wealth be spent on cleaning up the environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Lucie McNeill in Seoul, South Korea.



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