Environmental Justice in South Korea
Expert meeting of EJI and KEITI
By Götz Kaufmann, 2020-01-12

Approached by Dr. Jeong-Hi Go from Thirdspace Berlin who kindly served also as perfect translator between the two languages, the Environmental Justice Institute (EJI) convened with chief researcher Won Hui Cho and researcher Jae Ho Im from the Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute for an expert talk on "Environmental Justice in Korea" at Environmental Policy Research Centre (FFU) of Freie Universität Berlin on November 15, 2019.

Based upon a detailed presentation outlining the state of environmental justice (EJ) as a research and policy concept in South Korea, it became clear that KEITI's analysis of environmental problems in South Korea prompted environmental justice as a necessessity to follow if problems are to be understood. KEITI itself works on behalf, not so much at the direction, of the federal Ministry of the Environment, and thus is both technocraticly oriented towards policy- making and focusses on an academic, system analytical understanding of the challenges.

The presentation showed remarkable progress made by South Korean policy makers with reference to corrective justice and its liability regime. Like in many countries, first and foremost in today's Germany, governments tend to be easily excited by the progress they made either compared to how it was before (South Korea) or by having achieved 'the only thing possible given societal or party-political constraints' (Germany). (An example for both could also be seen by "everyone's desire to see the success at work" at the COP 21 that established the Paris Accord.)

Despite many efforts and successes to reduce Korea's income inequality and relative poverty, however, access to environmental goods and services is not equally shared: "The rate of relative poverty among the elderly is the highest in the OECD" as our guests stated in their presentation which can be downloaded here. Moreover, public spending - as if to prove the initial claim - "as a share of GDP is less than half the OECD average."

We discussed in length relevant intersections of inequality that drive environmental injustice in South Korea. We agreed that the concept of 'environmental racism' - contrary to the EJ's origin in the USA - is not the main driving force of inequality in South Korea, as it also isn't in Germany (cf. Elvers 2007). For our related discussion, the following graph from the above named (and linked) presentation was key:

Environmental quality of life varies between regions

Regional disparities appear to be more relevant to spark environmental inequality in South Korea than other intersections. Urban hotspots like major cities as South Korea's capital Seoul, Busan, Incheon, Daejeon, and Gwangju have highest rates when it comes to access to environmental goods like water and sanitation. Urban areas are at the same time hotspots of air polution.

However, we made the point that social inequality drives the distribution of toxic output and this is, as in Germany, a want-to-be covered topic by the government.

The EJI offered assistance to strengthen the development of a critical environmental justice discourse for better environmental policy-making.

Both parties discussed possible collaboration in the future such as the participation of an EJI representative at a conference in Korea.

Elvers, H.-D. (2007), Umweltgerechtigkeit als Forschungsparadigma der Soziologie, in: Soziologie 36, 21–44
Image: © KEITI and Kaufmann