Vol. 17, No. 30May 7, 1998

Scholar comments on South Korean environment

Jung Wk Kim and his wife, Myung Hee Huh,
with John Byrne during a recent visit to UD
On the screen is a picture of a massive department store in South Korea collapsing at its center and killing 500 people. This image is a metaphor for what will happen to Korea if economic growth destroys the country's environment, Jung Wk Kim told those attending a colloquium at the Trabant University Center last week.

Kim is a professor of environmental engineering at Seoul National University, a leader in the environmental movement in Korea and an internationally respected environmentalist.

He was at UD, working with the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP), to lay the framework for the Joint Institute for a Sustainable Energy and Environmental Future (JISEEF), an organization dedicated to helping South Korea deal with its considerable pollution problems.

The University received a $680,000 three-year grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, to create JISEEF, a collaboration between CEEP and several South Korean environmental organizations. Kim is one of its founders. JISEEF's goal is to educate government, industry and civic leaders to the practical benefits of conservation, recycling and renewable energy sources. Once that's done, the institute will work on bringing about alliances between Korean leaders to affect public policy. According to John Byrne, director of CEEP, if JISEEF works in Korea, the Jones Foundation would like to see similar programs in other Asian nations.

During the colloquium, Kim painted a vivid picture of Korea's environmental problems and the role an organization like JISEEF could play in solving them.

"At one time in Korea, you could get 100 lashes and military service for illegally logging two pine trees." But, after the Korean equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in the 1960s, environmentalists were considered traitors, he said. The pendulum is swinging back now, and in public opinion polls Koreans consider environmental degradation the nation's number-one problem.

There were slides of the 20-lane highway that runs through the center of Seoul City, a city cloaked in smog so thick it has obliterated the mountain range directly behind; rivers black from industrial discharge; and the Han River filled with froth from industrial chemicals.

"Industrial solid waste grows by 30 percent each year while GNP increases by less than half that. Yet, pollution laws are written to protect industry rather than the environment," he said. It's so bad that only 3 percent of the population still drinks tap water and people are being forced to relocate or demanding to be relocated because their communities are so polluted it would be hazardous for them to stay, Kim told the group. And soon Korea will begin constructing the largest airport in the world, expected to serve 100 million people a year.

But, Kim said he sees hope for East Asia's environmental future with organizations like the JISEEF, which will educate the government, industry and citizens to the practical necessity of using nonpolluting energy sources and recycling techniques as an integral part of economic growth.

-Barbara Garrison
Photo by Jack Buxbaum