South Korea: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology

Welcome to South Korea

Formally known as the Republic of Korea, modern South Korea was formed as a consequence of agreements between the Soviet Union, which controlled North Korea, and the United States after World War II.

After the Second World War, South Korea society began a massive shift from agrarian to industrial, a process that was accelerated by the Korean War. Before the war between North and South Korea, 75 percent of the population was living in rural areas. Today, 82 percent lives in urban areas. Most South Koreans have settled around major population centers in the northwest (Seoul-Incheon) and southeast (Daegu-Busan).

Once a fledgling industrial nation, South Korea’s economy grew 10 percent each year through the 1980s and 90s. Today, the country is a manufacturing and export powerhouse with the world’s 11th largest gross domestic product.

The country is comprised mainly of a large peninsula and includes numerous islands off the peninsula’s western and southern coasts. Ecosystems in South Korea include mountainous regions, coastline, tropical forests and deciduous forests.

Environmental Issues of South Korea

Industry and manufacturing in South Korea truly took off in the 1970s under dictator Park Chunhee. Unfortunately, protection of the country's ecosystems was a remote second priority to economic development. In particular, air quality in Seoul and the surrounding province deteriorated significantly throughout this period of rapid industrialization.

As South Korea became a developed economy on the world stage, the country’s priorities have changed and the South Korean government has passed a number of environmental laws. Green belts and emission restrictions have markedly improved Seoul’s air quality. In fact, South Korea’s biggest air quality problem is dust blown from expanding deserts in China.

Yellow dust (Asian dust) sweeps across urban cities of Korea. The micro-fine dust from China & Mongolia carry pollutants, posing health concerns to the public.
Image credit: Jina K /

South Korea is the world’s fifth largest user of nuclear power and this reliance has created a need for safe places to dispose of nuclear waste materials. Approximately 70 percent of South Korea’s nuclear waste is currently being held in storage pools intended to be temporary, according to a report from Reuters.

While water quality is considered acceptable in many locations, South Koreans tend to boil or filter their tap water. Pollution from sewage and industrial sources has harmed some coastal and river ecosystems.

Environmental Policies of South Korea

In pursuit of better air quality around its capital, the South Korean government launched its “1st Seoul Metropolitan Air Quality Control Master Plan (2005-2014)” in 2005. Measures under this law included projects to lessen exhaust gases from vehicles, administration of emission facilities and controls over energy utilities and cities.

The follow up to this plan was formulated in 2013 and spans from 2015 to 2024. South Korea’s Minister of Environment also has numerous measures for dealing with air pollution outside of Seoul.

Seoul Highlights Environmental Investments at Climate Change Conference
Video credit: VOA News /

South Korea heavily adopted nuclear power in a kind of Faustian bargain to reduce emissions from fossil fuel power plants, but now the country is facing a significant nuclear waste storage problem. Rather than back down on this nuclear bet, the government appear to be doubling down. Currently, the South Korean government is waging a massive public relations campaign in an attempt to convince its citizens of the need for more nuclear waste storage sites.

One of the most prominent and controversial water-focused environmental projects is the Four Rivers Project. This project aims to connect four of South Korea most polluted rivers, clean them up and increase shipping and transportation in the process. While people living near the rivers supported the project, critics said the project’s construction of canals and dams would only further harm the rivers’ ecosystems.

Clean Technology in South Korea

Over the past five years, the South Korean government has made a massive push for clean energy.

In 2010, Seoul invested $8.2 billion into a 2,500 MW wind farm. In 2011, the government introduced a plan to produce 1.5 million jobs from clean energy and grab 18 percent of the global clean energy market by 2030. In 2014, the government pledged over $1.9 billion to create six clean energy-related businesses.

Solar panel at Hallasan mountain on the Jeju island of South Korea
Image credit: Maxim Tupikov /

All of this emphasis on clean technology seems to be having an effect as a 2015 report from the United Nations Climate Change Conference found South Korea among the world leaders for clean technology patents, along with the United States, European Union, Japan and Germany.

A Clean Future?

South Korea’s aggressive embrace of clean technology and environmental measure appear to foreshadow a clean future for the country. Arguably the biggest question hanging over South Korea is one regarding nuclear waste disposal.

The South Korean government has pursed nuclear power as a green alternative to coal-fired power plants, but a lack of disposal sites and threat of a nuclear disaster could undo some of that environmental advantage.

While the government has put out some signals about decoupling nuclear energy from the notion of ‘green’ energy, observers aren’t expecting South Korea to distance itself from nuclear power any time soon.

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