The Korean conundrum

Demand management is better for both the environment and the economy. The sooner South Korea realises this, the easier it would be for the nation to get out of the IMF shackles unhurt

Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- (Credit: Graphic simulation: Suparna Da)TWO directions of thinking about environmental problems are prominent in the wake of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) intervention in South Korea. On the one hand, the priority is to save the economy and, therefore, environmental issues should be put aside for the time being or treated as secondary. The other takes the environment into consideration. It points at the sharp decrease in road traffic, cleaner air and recycling of goods since the IMF measures came into effect. It asks whether there is any need to talk about the matter at all, considering that the environment is already improving.

The first assertion fails to grasp the essence of the South Korean economic problem and the second misunderstands its environmental problems.

The point that must be made with regard to the first assertion is that the chief element in the destruction of the Korean economy is at the same time the chief cause of the environmental destruction. Basically, this element is the high-cost, low-efficiency pattern that pervades the Korean society. How has the situation come to be like this? There are many reasons but the main one is probably the supply-centred thinking and policy. When the Korean society, back in the 1960s, yielded to the desire for compressed growth, it likewise accepted the rationale that whatever was in short supply must be replenished. And the government policy was focused in this direction. When energy sources were insufficient, they were quickly restored through imports bought with foreign currency; when more water was needed, dams were constructed without delay; when land was needed, it was busily dug up in large areas. All of this was Justified in the name of rapid growth. But what happened was that, in the process, people did not use resources such as energy, water and land frugally or efficiently, and this attitude became a chronic pattern.

Laws and systems also were decided according to the supply-centred way of thinking. When a social problem emerged, new laws and systems were created to solve it. During the 1990s, for example, about 20 environment-related laws were enacted. However, it failed to follow the wisdom of maintaining and developing existing laws and systems. It promoted distrust of the basic social order and gave rise to social chaos. The fact is that such supply-centred thinking and policy not only created difficulties for the economy and society, but also made it impossible to guard the environment.

The inability to use energy efficiently leads to national economic loss, trash disposal problems, air pollution and many others extending to the global level as well.
Demand management We must wake up to the reality that demand management is more economical and environment-friendly. The focus should be on using energy and other natural resources frugally and efficiently rather than building nuclear power plants and dams. In other words, to change from high-cost, low-efficiency to low-cost, high-efficiency methods is the way to save both the economy and the environment. And the IMF era makes it all the more urgent to change over to a demand management rationale and policy emphasising frugal and efficient use of resources.

Now let us look at the second assertion. The assumption that since the Korean environment is improving following the IMF measures there is no need for policy research or investment in environmental issues is truly a short-sighted view. It's true to say that the nation cannot expect to develop as a sustainable society without environment-friendly social and economic structures. It is true that since the beginning of the IMF regime the amount of traffic has decreased. So have traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Excessive consumption has been somewhat suppressed, and there is more popular interest in recycling. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether these practices will continue.

It could be that when the IMF "cold wave" abates and the economy takes a turn for the better, traffic congestion and air pollution will once again become serious problems. Excessive consumption habits will be resumed and recycling concerns will quietly fade away. In this suppressed situation, we must take care not to fall into the inertia of the past and let the IMF be used as the excuse to resurrect the growth-first, development-first logic of "saving only the economy".

Therefore, the important thing is constitutional reform to realise a completely environment-friendly economy and society. Various kinds of mechanisms should be established to ensure this. The IMF measures demand that Korea draws up a completely new basic framework for the society as well as the economy. The reforms demanded by the IMF agreement are, for the most part, things Korea should have carried out earlier. This experience has brought the nation the vivid revelation that the economy and society that was built during the past 20 to 30 years is not a strong structure that the citizens can rely on. The emphasis should be on putting aside the selfish desires and work towards building a sustainable society where Koreans can feet at ease.

Related to this point, last November in Kobe, Japan, there was a memorial event marking the 1,000th day of the Kobe earthquake. Citizens' and environmental groups attending the event expressed their disappointment that the city had not kept its firm promise to use the opportunity provided by the tragic earthquake to reconstruct Kobe into an environment-friendly city. This story contains definite wisdom for us.

Based on the above perspective, the CCEJ Center for Environment and Development, South Korea, is carrying out three kinds of work: solving the trash problem, forest conservation programmes and pressing for a change in the national policy.

WAR ON TRASH: The Citizens' Movement Council for Solution of the Trash Problem was formed in 1997, at the time when the government declared a "war on trash". The forum is a vehicle by which citizens can present alternatives and carry out practical work to solve the trash problem. The council now has 300 member organisations nationwide and five co-representatives, including CCE) secretary-general You Jong-Sung. Additionally, 30-plus local CCFI branches are engaged in this movement through their own regional networks.

FORESTS FOR LIFE: The CCEJ in the midst of organising a "Forests for Life" citizens' movement which will serve a dual purpose. Efficient promotion of South Korea's distinctive forests in the 65 per cent mountainous country. This will lead to progressive restoration of the natural environment through other kinds of environment-friendly development such as "green dams" for the supply of clean water. Another very important purpose of the movement is to help Korean citizens survive the IMF era. Unemployed persons will be hired for tree-pianting and transplanting work. About 100,000 workers per day will be needed for a period of about 10 years. Their main task will be to thin out areas where trees have previously been planted too close together. And also trans-shifting about half the trees to new locations where it will be grown as timber for economic purposes. At present, CCEJ serves as the planning office for this movement.

RECONSIDERING NATIONAL POLICY: The CCEI is also engaged in a movement demanding reconsideration of all aspects of national policy. Korea has promoted many kinds of unreasonable national policy projects in the course of national land development. These projects are typical of the erroneous methods used in the process of economic development. Such unreasonable national policy projects are not only destroying the environment but fail to contribute anything beneficial to the economy. In particular, the CCEJ is demanding reconsideration and adjustment of the type of development represented by the construction of the Seoul-Pusan high-speed railway, the new airport, the Seoul-lnchon canal, the Saemangum land reclamation project and Shihwa Lake. All these projects are only misusing the taxpayers' money and, in the process, destroying the environment.

Jeoung Chang-Soo is a researcher at the CCEG Centre for Environment and Development, South Korea

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