Events

Green Activism and Civil Society in South Korea

February 25, 2002 // 11:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Environmental Change and Security Program
Asia Program

Featureing: Mr. Seo Wang-Jin, Secretary General, Citizen Movement for Environmental Justice; Ms. Kim Je-Nam, Co-Secretary General, Green Korea United; Mr. Stephen Costello, The Atlantic Council (Commentator)

Editor's Note: Periodically, the China Environment Forum devotes meetings to environmental issues in other Asian countries that might offer insights into environmental developments in China. There are certainly great differences between the Korean environmental movement that began a decade before the Chinese environmental NGO community emerged—one striking difference is that the Korean green organizations have been much more protest and anti-industry oriented than any of their Chinese counterparts. Chinese and Korean environmental movements do, however, have some commonalities—today environmental activists in both countries appear to be searching for a clear mission for the future and the means to strengthen their influence in the political sphere. For more in-depth information on the Chinese NGO movement, see the Wilson Center's Green NGO and Environmental Journalist Forum.

By Yon-ho Kim (Atlantic Council)

The environmental movement in Korea is characterized by grassroots activists seeking to influence policy and challenge powerful polluting industries. In response to the environmental degradation caused by South Korea's high-speed industrialization, small anti-pollution groups arose in the early 1980s. In the 1990s as more "green" groups emerged, Korean environmental activists created larger umbrella organizations to empower themselves.

This meeting held at the Wilson Center and cosponsored by the Atlantic Council's Program on Korea in Transition brought Korean environmental activists together to discuss the strength of the environmental movement in South Korea and the challenges they face in carrying out their work. The discussion also addressed the broader role of green organizations and other civic groups in Korea and their potential influence in the upcoming elections.

Fighting Development Forces and Raising Public Awareness
Seo Wang-jin started his remarks with an introduction of his organization, Citizen Movement for Environmental Justice (CMEJ). In 1999, Mr. Seo founded the CMEJ, which has since become one of Korea's fastest growing NGOs focusing on environmental justice and the fair distribution of national resources. The group's activities have concentrated on promoting children's environmental rights and stemming the environmental degradation from large-scale construction projects initiated by the government. In describing the trends of the South Korean environmental movement, Mr. Seo pointed out his and other groups fight against the construction of dams, housing complexes, canals, and reclamation projects.

Since the 1960s these projects have been a stronghold of development-oriented bureaucracies—the Ministry of Construction and Transportation and Ministry of Agriculture—and government contracted private engineering and construction companies. Although there is not a desperate need for many of these large-scale construction projects, the government and business development-oriented "forces" keep pursuing the projects to serve vested interests. Mr. Seo noted, however, that growing concern for the environment in Korea has lead to severe frictions between these forces and environmental civic groups.

The campaign to save Dong River on Korea's east coast from dam construction in 1999 is an excellent example of this hostility. The government emphasized the necessity and importance of the project due to water shortages made worse by a short rainy season in that area of the country. The green civic groups opposed the project because the ecology in the Dong River area was exceptionally well preserved. Moreover, such a large-scale dam could threaten the safety of surrounding communities. Seo explained that the efforts of several civic groups to educate and mobilize citizens through the news media led President Kim Dae Jung to announced the cancellation of the project on World Environment Day in June 2000. The Dong River case proved to be a major turning point for the Korean environmental civic group movement, for it was one of the first times they succeeded in such a large public awareness and mobilization campaign. The case also illustrated the changing political environment in which sustainable development issues rose to the level where the Korean president became directly involved.

While the Dong River case was a battle environmental civic groups won, the Saemankeum wetland case was one they clearly lost. Despite protests, the Ministry of Agriculture proceeded with a large-scale reclamation project in Korea's southwest region, claiming the project would create 28,300 hectares of farmland. Farmland is a major concern, for 30,000 hectares of agricultural land disappear every year in Korea due to changes in land use. Despite the need for agricultural land, environmental civic groups pointed out that the Saemankeum area is one of the world's five most ecologically important mudflats and a crucial feeding ground for migratory birds. In 2001, the government decided to go ahead with the controversial project with strong support from the local government and residents who were seeking economic development benefits from the project.

With growing public awareness and strong vested interests of the development-oriented forces, conflicts over large-scale government-initiated construction projects should become even more pronounced and receive a greater amount of attention from the Korean public. In an effort to redirect government policies, Korean environmental civic groups are planning to influence the next administration's organization of the cabinet following its inauguration in February 2003.

Political Activism of Korean Green Groups
In 1994, Kim Je-nam joined Green Korea United (GKU), the second largest environmental NGO in Korea, which acts as an umbrella organization for many smaller green groups. In her work Ms. Kim coordinates every NGO's stance on currently debated environmental issues, mediates agreements among environmental NGOs, government agencies, and businesses, as well as informs the Korean President on the outcomes of these dialogues. Ms. Kim described GKU an example of environmental NGOs working at the intersection of environmental and political issues. Among this NGO's major activities is the environmental monitoring of U.S. military bases in Korea—GKU has collected data on noise, water, and soil pollution problems, which the Korean government has not previously tracked. Last year GKU exposed an incident in which Yongsan Base, located in the heart of Seoul, illegally discharged toxic chemicals into a river. As a result of GKU's publicizing of the pollution, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea apologized publicly for the illegal discharge—the first apology of its kind in fifty years of U.S. military presence in Korea.

GKU and other green groups have been involved in drafting laws and trying to influence legislation in the National Assembly. Such work is particularly challenging for most environmentalists believe the Kim Dae Jung government's "vision" is insufficient to protect natural resources. One positive action did occur in 2000 when the Kim government formed a "sustainable development committee," which brought together industry, government, and environmental group leaders for consultations. The Korean environmental ministry now holds these consultations four times per year with twenty leading green NGOs, but the committee is perceived to be a weak force within the government.

In addition to policy efforts and environmental campaigns directed at the national government, Korean environmental civic groups are involved in various grassroots political activities. For example, the Civil Action for the 2000 General Election (CAGE)—consisting of 423 civil organizations (including a number of green groups)—successfully launched a "blacklist" campaign in 2000. The blacklist campaign was established to single out politicians they felt were "not qualified to run" due to positions on environmental and social issues. Of 86 blacklisted candidates, more than 60 percent failed to win their election. In the upcoming 2002 local elections, environmental civic groups are planning to politicize green forces even further by establishing a Green Party and supporting green candidates—ostensibly creating a "white list" rather than a black list campaign.

While working locally is central to Korean environmental activists, Ms. Kim noted that their contacts with international organizations grew considerably in the late 1990s, due in part to the openness that accompanied the Kim Dae Jung government when NGOs were legalized and their political participation sanctioned. Ms. Kim also discussed how environmental degradation in North Korea is an increasingly important issue for the South Korean green movement, which supports current government efforts to plant trees in North Korea and protect the environment surrounding the DMZ. She believes the South Korean groups could best help the North by advocating the provision of small-scale, renewable technologies for industry. One challenge for such work, however, is the current lack of NGO counterparts in North Korea.

Korean green civic groups undertake activities beyond the environmental sphere. In fact, Ms. Kim noted that Korean environmental groups are sometimes criticized for being "department store" advocacy groups, because they attempt to address a large number of issues both within and outside the environmental sphere. While Ms. Kim agreed that Korean environmental NGOs need more focused missions, she was a strong supporter of how active some green groups are in the anti-war and peace movement. Some green groups joined other civic groups in the anti-war movement at the onset of the war in Afghanistan. Kim expressed the Korean civic groups' hope of seeing the Korean peninsula become part of an "axis of peace" as opposed to an "axis of evil."

Civic Groups and Korean Democratization
In a brief review of the role of environmental groups in the Korean democracy movement, Stephen Costello noted the connection between a lack of democratic institutions and environmental degradation that can be found in Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and other one-party states in transition. In Korea, the authoritarian structure and rapid industrialization of recent decades have created similar environmental problems as are occurring in other one-party states.

As the Korean government now becomes more accountable and more responsive to interest groups—on all sides of environmental questions—the civic leadership must try to organize and set priorities. The "department store" advocacy noted by Kim may serve to weaken the movement. Effective policy advocacy will also rely to a great extent on dialogue with the government and industry groups. How such a dialogue is conducted will often make the difference between having influence and just blowing off steam.

Added to this is the question of "green" involvement in party politics. As Ms. Kim Jae-nam noted, some Korean green groups do not want to become direct participants in the political system and instead wish to rely on public participation and support for their power and legitimacy. Costello noted, however, that the formation of a Green Party and the participation of individual activist leaders as candidates in other parties will be an essential element in keeping these issues on the public agenda in Korea.

The Atlantic Council of the United States and the Wilson Center's ECSP China Environment Forum and the Asia Program cosponsored this meeting. Funding for this meeting was provided by the Korea Foundation.

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