In October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a sobering report arguing that globally we have ten years to complete greenhouse mitigation measures, to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels, or risk climate impacts that are civilisation-threatening in scale and scope.
For South Korea, like other developed societies, the transformation required to come in under the 1.5oC limit is more than a technological problem or a political task but is an all-encompassing collection of inter-related change processes, broadly grouped as the “sustainability transition.” This transition is seeing transformations across modes of production, consumption and exchange, and their associated social, cultural and technological systems, so that human societies are properly ecologically sustainable. The transition is a project for government as well as grassroots actors.
From a strong sustainability perspective, a society must exist in a way that its environment is able to support indefinitely through its ecosystem services and resource base. Human activities should be limited in scale to a level that is within the carrying capacity of the environment. Like many countries, South Korean society is way out of balance with its ecosystems.
There are numerous illustrations of friction points between environment and development in South Korea, however the one that most comes to mind is the case of Dumulmeori, at the junction of the Bukhangang and Namhangang rivers in Gyeonggi-do. Dumulmeori has been an ongoing battleground between organic farmers and environmental activists, on the one hand, who want to establish a community-run organic farm on the site, and developers and municipal government on the other, who want to develop the site for eco-tourism and riverfront apartments.
Ostensibly a battle over land use on the peri-urban fringe of Seoul, it is also symbolic of the pronounced friction between government, economy and environment that has evolved along with South Korea’s developmental state, which makes the Republic of Korea such an interesting environmental politics case study. The Dumulmeori case study is reflective of three observations from the broader literature on the evolution of Korean environmentalism.
First, and most obviously, environmental protection continues to come a distant second to rapid economic growth. As President Park Chung-hee’s state-centric “developmental state” model gathered momentum in the 1970s, export-oriented industrialisation led to pollution clusters around new heavy industrial complexes run by the chaebol, South Korea’s large industrial conglomerates. Here we see the seeds of the Korean environment movement in the rise of localised protests of residents living near the industrial precincts. Dumulmeori is reflective of both South Korea’s relentless developmentalism and the mobilisation of citizen resistance to oppose it.
Second, Korean environmentalism has been branded by the government-chaebol complex with the brush of “communism.” In part, this is because pollution incidents during the 1980s highlighted the excesses of the military dictatorship and the corruption of the chaebol. This allied relationship between the democracy and environment movements persists today. Activists supporting the preservation of Dumulmeori were targeted for arrest at the height of the protests against the Four Rivers Restoration Project.
Third, the bureaucratic momentum of developmentalism persists in shaping discourses and policy in environmental politics to the present time. While environmentalism became professionalised as Korea democratised through the 1990s and 2000s, the logic of developmentalism continues to shape policy-making and official discourses around environmental issues. This has been a limiting factor on the efficacy of environmental organisations who attempt to lobby government and participate in policy-making processes.
This is where a Melbourne connection comes into play in the Dumulmeori case. The Doomoolcoop, who oversee the Dumulmeori site signed a memorandum of understanding with CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne in 2011 to get international support for their efforts. In negotiations with the Yangpyeong-gun municipal government, Doomoolcoop cited CERES specifically as the holistic community-led organic agriculture development model they wanted to emulate. As such, it would become an incubator for emerging models of food system resilience, community-run service provision, and alternative economies—all vital adaptive innovations for sustainability transition—as well as its value as a biodiversity corridor.
In July 2017 I was part of a group that rekindled this connection with Dumulmeori when I co-led a La Trobe University student group from our Environment and Sustainability in East Asia short overseas intensive study trip to Korea with our partner CERES Global. I returned again this year and spent time at Dumulmeori as part of my field research funded by La Trobe Asia. Dumulmeori has captured my imagination precisely because of its importance as a contested political space and an incubator for emerging sustainability transition practice.
South Korea’s unique story of economic, democratisation, and environmental vulnerabilities make it a poignant case study for sustainability transition. The Korean case demonstrates that we are now in a period where we need to evaluate environmentalism as more than just a reaction to the pollution excesses of the developmental state, but also as part of change processes that are global in scope and that are coming to define the politics of the 21st century.
Dr Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University