South Korea: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology

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

After the Second World War, the society of South Korea began a massive shift from agrarian to industrial, which was only accelerated by the Korean War. Prior to the war between North and South Korea, 75% of the population was living in rural areas, which is drastically different than the current state of South Korea in which 82% of the population lives in urban areas. Most South Koreans have settled around major population centers in the northwest city of Seoul-Incheon and southeast city of Daegu-Busan.

Once a fledgling industrial nation, South Korea’s economy grew 10% each year through the 1980s and 1990s. Today, South Korea is a manufacturing and export powerhouse, as it is the world’s 11th largest gross domestic producer. The country is comprised mainly of a large peninsula and numerous islands located off the peninsula’s western and southern coasts. The ecosystems of South Korea include mountainous regions, coastline, tropical forests and deciduous forests.

Environmental Issues of South Korea

Industry and manufacturing in South Korea skyrocketed in the 1970s under the rule of dictator Park Chunhee. Unfortunately, during this time, maintaining an adequate protection of the country's ecosystems was a remote second priority as compared to improving the economic development of the nation. In particular, air quality in Seoul and the surrounding province significantly deteriorated throughout this period of rapid industrialization.

As South Korea became a developed economy on the world stage, the country’s priorities have changed. In fact, the South Korean government has passed numerous environmental laws, of which include restrictions on both green belts and emission that have dramatically improved Seoul’s air quality. Despite this improvement, South Korea remains one of the most polluted countries in the world in terms of air quality. In fact, a study conducted in February of 2017 found that South Korea had the second worst air quality of all advanced nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development1. One of the biggest problems South Korea faces is understanding whether this air pollution is a result of their own production or is carried by the wind from neighboring countries. A recent study by NASA has found that over half of the air pollution in South Korea is a result of emissions from both industrial sites and power plants present within the country; however, the rest of this air pollution was found to originate from other countries.

To address these concerns, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is currently overseeing a find dust task force in an effort to alert residents of Seoul of fine dust particle levels to remain indoors.

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 Credits: 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% of South Korea’s nuclear waste, which amounts to nearly 9,000 tonnes, is currently being held in storage pools intended to be temporary, according to a report from Reuters.

As a result of the rapid rise of industrialization in South Korea, water challenges including shortages and quality degradation have been serious problems that have plagued this country since the 1990s. While various water policies have been implemented by the South Korean government, of which included an additional water use charge for lowland water users to pay for highland residents in an effort to reduce highland agricultural intensification, the country continues to struggle with water pollution problems2. 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. Under this law, various projects were implemented in an effort to reduce exhaust gas production from vehicles, as well as the administration of emission facilities and controls that were placed around multiple energy utilities and cities across the country. 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

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; however, the country is now facing a significant nuclear waste storage problem. Rather than back down on this nuclear bet, the government appears 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 of South Korea is the $18 billion Four Rivers Project. By connecting four of South Korea most polluted and largest rivers of which include the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan, as well as hundreds of miles of tributary streams, this project has several aims:

  • Securing abundant water resources to protect against water scarcity
  • Gain better and comprehensive control of flooding
  • Improve water quality
  • Restore river ecosystems
  • Create multi-use open spaces for populations living along rivers and tributaries
  • Increase shipping and transportation3  

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% of the global clean energy market by 2030. Additionally, by 2030 South Korea also plans to meet 20% of its total electricity consumption with renewable resources. In an effort to get closer to this goal, South Korea’s energy ministry called for 30.8 GW of solar power generating capacity and 16.5 GW of wind power capacity to be added to the country’s energy market4. 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

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

Furthermore, South Korea recently took an even bigger leap towards improving their renewable energy generation by beginning construction of a 4-gigawat high-voltage DC (HVDC) transmission link to connect the east of the country to the capital city of Seoul that is located in the northwestern region of the country. This $320 million contract will further increase the ability of the Korean electrical transmission grid to operate in a stable and reliable manner5. As a result of these efforts, a 2015 report by the United Nations Climate Change Conference determined South Korea to be among one of the world’s leading producers of clean technology patents, along with the United States, European Union, Japan and Germany.

A Clean Future?

South Korea’s aggressive embrace of both clean technology and environmental policies 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; however, a lack of disposal sites and the potential threat of a nuclear disaster could reverse some of that environmental advantage. While the government has stated some intentions on decoupling nuclear energy from the notion of ‘green’ energy, many still do not expect South Korea to distance itself from nuclear power any time soon.


  1. “Armed with NASA Data, South Korea confronts its choking smog” – NPR
  2. Choi, I., Shin, H., Nguyen, T. T., & Tenhunen, J. (2017). Water policy reforms in South Korea: A historical review and ongoing challenges for sustainable water governance and management. Water 9(717), 1-20. DOI: 10.3390/w909717.
  3. “South Korea’s four rivers restoration – Hard engineering to restore soft nature” – Waste & Wastewater International
  4. “South Korea finalizes energy plan to boost renewable power generation” – Reuters
  5. “South Korea strengthens grid to take on more renewables” – Green Tech Media

This article was updated on the 7th July, 2018.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Brett Smith

Written by

Brett Smith

Brett Smith is an American freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Buffalo State College and has 8 years of experience working in a professional laboratory.


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