[VOICE] Is green growth working?
Published : Jul 2, 2012 - 20:10
Updated : Jul 2, 2012 - 20:13
After the Rio summit’s failure to adopt specific measures ...
Is green growth working?

“Green growth” has been an oft-used phrase in political, environmental and scientific circles in recent years. President Lee Myung-bak first announced his vision for environmentally sustainable, low-carbon economic growth in an address to the nation in August 2008. In July 2009, the government unveiled the Five Year Plan for Green Growth, which allocated some $84 billion for investment in growth drivers and infrastructure deemed environmentally sustainable.

Green growth, as defined by the Presidential Committee on Green Growth, aims to achieve “economic development and job creation, as well as efficient use of resources and environmental protection.”

With the country importing about 97 percent of its energy sources, Korea’s drive could be seen as a necessity. The country is also considered especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change: Average surface temperatures in Korea rose by 1.74 degrees Celsius between 1912 and 2008, according to the United Nation’s Environment Program, higher than the world average.

Aspirations and reality

But despite this and rhetoric about going green, Korea remains the world’s ninth biggest emitter of CO2. In a further mismatch between aspirations and reality, the June 20-22 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ended without a concrete plan for global action against climate change and environmental degradation. Korean Environment Minister Yoo Young-sook spoke after the summit of her disappointment that some countries had failed to embrace the idea of a “green economy.”

Despite pessimism surrounding the summit’s outcome, Park Hyun-jung a member of the Green Growth Planning Bureau at Presidential Committee on Green Growth, denies that little was achieved.

“There are critics saying that the outcome of Rio+20 Summit fell short of the highest expectations including the lack of a concrete action plan,” Park told the Korea Herald.

“However, the fact that U.N. member countries with various interests have reached for the first time an agreement on ‘green economy’ as a major tool to achieve sustainable development holds significance.”

If Korea’s success in encouraging other countries to follow its path is an open question, so too is the likelihood of it meeting its own targets.

“Targets are just indicators of where the government wants to lead the economy,” said Lee Ji-soon, an economics professor at Seoul National University. “And they are based on lots of assumptions. When situations turn out differently, targets will not be met.”

As part of its long-term strategy toward 2030, the government aims to reduce the nation’s energy intensity level by 46 percent, from the current 0.341 ton of oil equivalent per $1,000 to 0.185 TOE/$1,000, and reduce fossil fuel use from the current 83 percent of energy consumption to 61 percent. Energy intensity is a measure of energy efficiency, referring to the amount of energy, measured in units equivalent to that provided by a ton of oil, required to produce $1,000 of GDP.

Park, however, insists that these are achievable targets, pointing to measures implemented this year such as the emissions trading scheme and Green Building Act, and the fact that the rate of increase in energy consumption dropped from 2005-2010.

“The target energy intensity of 0.185 TOE/$1,000 in 2030 when Korea is expected to reach its GDP per capita of $30,000, is an average between 0.27 of the United States in 1994 and 0.11 of Japan in 1988 when their GDP per capita reached $30,000. The target will be met when Korea’s annual economic growth stands at 3.7 percent and the annual average rate of energy demand increase is limited to 1.2 percent (from 2.7 percent in 2010),” said Park.

“If Korea continues its efforts to rationalize the energy pricing system and transform into an industrial structure, those targets will be achieved.”

But selling the general public and businesses on some green growth solutions has proved difficult. While the government aims to have Korea producing 1.2 million electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles by 2015 ― 900,000 of them for export ― consumers here and abroad have yet to warm to the models produced so far.

Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors’ sales of hybrids have been a fraction of their gasoline equivalents, with Hyundai’s Avante, as one example, selling just 118 units domestically in May. In the U.S., General Motors suspended the production of its Volt electric car earlier this year due to poor sales, hitting LG Chem, the producer of the car’s lithium-ion batteries.

Private sector

Developing alternative-energy vehicles has cost the taxpayer, too. The Hyundai BlueOn, the country’s first full-speed electric car due to go on sale later this year, was developed with 9.4 billion won ($8.2 million) in government investment. The case of the BlueOn and other green growth projects also goes to the heart of philosophical questions about the role of government.

The concept of the government picking so-called winners and losers has been controversial in the U.S., as highlighted in the bankruptcy last year of Solyndra, a solar energy company that had received over $500 million in federal loans.

“There always exist dangers with any kind of industrial policy,” said Lee. “However, in the past Koreans engaged in many kinds of industrial policies, and several of them bore ample fruit. Perhaps policy makers think they can repeat the success stories.”

Even with the risk of unproductive investment, government support is necessary because of private sector reluctance to invest in new environmental projects and technologies, according to Lee.

“Due to failures arising from public goods aspects, severe externalities, short sightedness of market participants, coordination failures, and large risks involved, environmental and resource projects need public support, at least in the initial stage. These are new areas where private firms are very hesitant to move in.”

As far as Park is concerned, green growth investment is already seeing tangible results.

“(Between 2007 and 2010) new and renewable area employment increased by 3.7-fold, sales by 6.5-fold, exports by 7.3-fold,” said Park, who also cited the construction of the world’s largest tidal power plant at Shihwa Lake as an example of investment in action.

But for many in the environmental movement the current administration’s commitment to green growth is little more than window-dressing. Groups such as Green Korea United take issue with the government’s pursuit of nuclear energy and controversial infrastructure works such as the Four Major Rivers Project, and say its emission reduction targets do not go far enough.

“We are the No. 9 energy consuming country in the world and keep making CO2 emissions, so it means we need a more intensive demand control policy in our energy sector,” said Lee Yu-jin, a member of Green Party Korea and former member of Green Korea United.

“We need some localized energy system, an energy tax, and also the price of electricity compared with other countries is low in Korea, and especially in industry compared with ordinary people.”

Public services

For Lee and many other environmentalists, the government’s concept of green growth avoids the central issue: Korea uses too much energy and has come to expect too much economic growth.

“We need to consider: keep growing the economy, is it possible or not? … Now, I think we need to talk about less growth,” said Lee.

But to make this message palatable to the general public, the government must be willing to provide more public services, she said.

“If some services are provided by the government, and if we earn less money, then we can get similar services. Until now, government (has) invested money for construction, nuclear power plants, the four river dam project … If we change our policy from hardware to software ― meaning, investing money in the community and the people and social infrastructure ― then we can support … people’s lives.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

Readers' VOICE

Relationships with foreigners ...

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the episode “Shocking Report on Relationships with Foreigners,” aired by Korea’s MBC TV network in late May, caused a great deal of controversy among the expat community as well as some head-scratching with its portrayal of foreign men who date Korean women as opportunistic, lewd and diseased criminals. But putting the ridiculousness of the “report” aside for a moment, the segment made me think of something that happened a few weeks ago at my prep school in Seoul which may provide a glimpse of what Korea’s youth thinks about dating and mating.

One afternoon during the last precious minutes of breaktime before the class bell, a friend and I launched into a heated debate over our ideal type. According to her, brown-haired guys were the best and my own preference for sandy blondes was written off as the sad result of having watched one too many chick flicks. Just when I was about to retaliate, I could hear the guy next to me chuckling, obviously having overheard our not-so-private conversation. In defense, I asked whether he really liked plain black hair, expecting him to concede a weakness for wide blue eyes or blonde curls. Yet quickly and casually he responded, “She has to be Korean.” This was coming from a guy who had spent 11 years of his life in the U.S.


Baffled and curious, I bombarded him with a bunch of whispered follow-up questions throughout class to find out his reasoning. His opinion seemed more innate than contemplated, though, because he couldn’t seem to articulate a clear response: “Non-Koreans just can’t understand us,” and “Society seems to discourage international relationships” was the best I could get out of him.

Still bemused, and only half-believing him, I spent the next few days trying to gather whether my other male classmates had ever considered having a relationship with a non-Korean woman. But it didn’t matter how many I asked ― not one of them was completely comfortable with the idea of marrying, or, in some cases, even dating a foreigner. I was shocked given that my Global Leadership Program class is one specialized for students planning to study abroad, especially at high-ranking American universities. Many of us do volunteer work abroad, participate in international conferences, and take GLP classes ― which are basically intensive English composition and literature courses. On top of that, most of my classmates have already spent more years abroad than the average Korean.

Apparently, their past and planned future exposure to foreign culture has little influence on their conservative beliefs regarding international relationships. Taking this into account, I could begin to imagine what a person who had spent his entire life in conservative Korean society with zero foreign exposure would think about foreign men dating Korean women ― especially if he or she happened to be a scoop-hungry yellow journalist.

So perhaps this conservative guy mentality contributed to the making of the MBC “report.” But there are definitely other influences that led to such biased ― even xenophobic ― reporting, namely historical and Confucian factors. To begin with, it is important to recognize that it has only been about 60 years since Korea gained independence from Japanese colonial rule. From 1910 to 1945, Japanese imperialists tried to assimilate Koreans as “imperial subjects” by stripping Koreans of their national identity: they required Koreans to take on Japanese names, banned the use of Korean at school, and forced Shinto worship. Such oppressive policies were justified through a theory which claimed that Japanese and Koreans shared essentially the same roots, but that Koreans were comparatively inferior.

National unity

In retaliation against such propaganda, leaders of the Korean independence movement strived to preserve national unity by rallying around the idea that Koreans were part of a single, pure bloodline. This idea seeped deep into the Korean mentality, and people gradually came to consider their supposedly unified, homogeneous ancestry and culture a source of great pride. As a result, Koreans became inclined to bond amongst themselves while driving out foreign forces; to behave in a way that challenged the concept of Korean unity was regarded as treachery toward one’s country as well as one’s people. This idea was further reinforced throughout the late half of the 20th century, as dictators such as Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee used the ideology of a unified nation to justify individual sacrifice for national unity.

Furthermore, Confucian values heavily shape the minds of Koreans (and in patriarchal Confucian society, chastity was considered the number-one virtue in women). Naturally, men were enraged when some Korean women started working as prostitutes for American soldiers stationed in Korea after the Korean War. Relationships of any kind with foreign soldiers were considered shamefully shocking, a disgrace to the family name. Though much time has passed since then, the idea still remains and colors the perception of international couples even to this day.

Thus, historical and ideological factors predisposed Koreans to lean toward ethnic nationalism, and to condemn those who act in an un-“Korean” way as unpatriotic, disloyal, and even morally corrupt ― as was obviously the MBC show’s view toward Korean women dating foreign men. But the thing is, though ethnic pride might have been the key to uniting against turmoil in the past, it is somewhat of an anachronism in today’s globalized world. Radical forms of ethnic nationalism actually serve to cripple diversity and open-mindedness ― even now, problems concerning the abuse of immigrant workers, multicultural families, and injustices caused by jus sanguinis policies have become leading social issues in Korean society. As Koreans increasingly live and interact with foreigners, they will have to learn to understand cultural differences and ethnic diversity to assimilate with people of other countries.


Pride in one’s heritage is commendable, but not when it leads to bias or false accusations (or morphs into nationalism). Koreans seem to love looking “global”― many students, me included, enter “international” essay contests, participate in English debates and seek to study abroad; the country strives to hold international events like the World Cup, the G20 and the Olympics; the government and media flaunt any favorable global rankings. It’s now time they really became as “global” as they claim to be. In a world where people of different races intermingle on a daily basis, open-mindedness is a virtue.

As for the girls in my class, they seem to be much more liberal. Perhaps it’s because they want to avoid the traditional duties expected of Korean women ― whatever the reason, almost all of them chirped an enthusiastic yes when asked whether they were willing to have a relationship with a non-Korean. Some even remarked that they preferred foreigners over Korean men.

As for me, I’m all for their side. From what I’ve seen, being the wife of a man who is “Korean” to the bone is taxing, to say the least. All housework and parenting duties fall under the exclusive charge of the wife, regardless of whether or not she has a career (my mom’s a pharmacist). It is also taken for granted that she help prepare for ancestral rites of her in-laws, held at least twice a year. On such occasions, the men gather around in the living room, chat, and watch TV while the women knead, chop, mix, and fry in a frenzy to prepare traditional dishes for the ancestral rites table. My mom always emerges from such ordeals with menthol pain-relief patches on her shoulders, vowing not to take part in such “madness” next year ― and yet she joins her sister-in-laws in the kitchen every ancestral rite season. Social expectations and pressure from family members ― recruiting phone calls from sister-in-laws, for instance ― are not easy to ignore; having observed this since childhood, I hardly want to submit to such ordeals myself. And because there are “plenty more fish in the sea,” many Korean women (me and my friends included) feel no need to restrict ourselves to conservative, traditional (and often chauvinistic) Korean men merely because of the fact that they happen to have the same nationality.


Of course, this is only speaking in general terms: liberal-minded Korean men exist, as do conservative foreign men. Also, my viewpoint may not necessarily represent that of the majority. I can still remember the incredulous look in my classmate’s eyes when I told him I preferred foreigners (or perhaps Koreans with foreign experience) to completely “Korean”-Koreans (those called “tojung,” or truly native, having never left the peninsula) when it comes to a relationship. So MBC, make of it what you will; surely there’s a scandalous scoop here. Meanwhile, I’ll defer to my friend who once said, “The world is large, and men are plenty.” I think I’ll take my chances with non-Korean guys, be they the incarnation of pure evil or not.

― Byun Bo-kyung, Daewon Foreign Language High School, Seoul

This originally appeared in a longer form on The Three Wise Monkeys website. ― Ed.