An Overview of Korean Environmental Law

Article excerpt


The United States and Korea(1) have maintained a close relationship with each other for the last fifty years, since the United States participated in the Korean War to prevent communists from occupying the Korean peninsula. During this period, Korea has achieved miraculous economic development. At the moment, Korea and the United States are interdependent in terms of economy and security. Korea is one of the countries with which the United States has a large trade volume. In 1997, the value of Korea's worldwide exports and imports reached $136.16 billion and $144.62 billion respectively, totaling a combined foreign trade volume of $280.78 billion.(2) Korea is thus the twelfth largest trading nation in the world. Naturally, the United States is Korea's largest trade partner.(3) In 1997, Korea imported $30.12 billion from the United States in exchange for $21.63 billion in exports, making it the fifth largest trading partner of the United States.(4)

There are four important reasons to be aware of Korean environmental law. First, Korean environmental law can be a barrier for exports from the United States to Korea. Second, while United States investment in Korea, whether direct or through other means, is expanding, environmental liability will be a crucial consideration for United States investors. Third, the United States has a number of military bases within Korea, all of which are considered a source of water pollution and soil contamination.(5) Finally and most importantly, Korean environmental law can be a model for developing and less-developed countries, just as Korea became a model for rapid economic growth.

Focusing on the fourth issue, I will overview the past history, the present statutory structure, and the future challenges of Korean environmental law. Because Korea is one of "the incumbent economic leaders of developing Asia," its development efforts are illustrative of "the pitfalls and tradeoffs awaiting developing nations as they attempt to nurture a growing economy without poisoning the environment."(6) Lessons from Korea's experience may help prevent developing countries from repeating the same mistakes Korea has made.


Korea's first national environmental law, the Pollution Prevention Act (PPA)(7) was enacted in 1963. That year was the first year of Korea's initial five-year economic plan initiated by then President Park Chung Hee, a symbolic hero of the Korean economic miracle.(8) As with most developing countries, Korea put first priority on economic development over environmental protection. In the middle of Ulsan City, a mecca of Korean industrialization, a monument tower displays the following inscription: "Dark smoke arising from factories are symbols of our nation's growth and prosperity.(9)

Korea has accomplished tremendous economic growth, as evidenced by its average annual gross national product (GNP) growth rate of over eight percent--more than double that of most other countries.(10) However, this success came at a cost and gave rise to a number of social ills. Korean people thought everything had to be done "faster and faster."(11) In other words, "[t]he Korean government and people ignored the [deteriorating environment] until [the 1980s] despite worldwide concern for pollution because they were too busy concentrating on developing the economy and meeting basic needs."(12) Korea concentrated on heavy industries (such as automobiles, steel, and shipbuilding) and petrochemicals, resulting in serious deterioration of the environment.(13) Rapid urbanization made the situation much worse. More than twenty-five percent of Korea's population lives within the city limits of Seoul.(14) Indeed, Korea was plagued by industrialization and urbanization along with limited land availability and population increases.(15)

Because of the severe environmental degradation that resulted from Korea's "poisoned prosperity,"(16) the people of Korea have reassessed the feasibility of the "faster and faster" idea. …