Korea’s Energy and Climate Justice Movement

On November 17 of 2015, ISC Editor in Chief Dae-Han Song went to interview Lee Heon Seok about Korea’s environmental justice movement this year and next. Lee Heon Seok is director of Energy Justice Actions, an environmental justice group at the head of a burgeoning climate justice movement in Korea.

Dae Han Song: Your organization is named Energy Justice Action. Can you explain the concept of energy justice to our readers? Lee Heon Seok: Energy justice is about not being discriminated against due to race, gender, where you live, etc. The best example in Korea is the Miryang village’s ten year struggle against the power transmission lines through their village. While they do not reap any of the benefits, they have to suffer the impacts of a power transmission tower crossing through their village to provide power for another area. Their struggle started after the government began construction without notifying villagers of the decision or explaining it to them. A similar thing is happening in the city of Yeongdok. Right now, Yeongdok’s energy needs are met through its wind power plant, the largest in Korea. However, there are plans to build a nuclear power plant in Yeongdok to provide electricity for another region. So the residents of Yeongdok are organizing and protesting. Because Korea’s energy policy greatly impacts its carbon dioxide emissions, the climate change issue is also a part of energy justice.

DHS: In the US, the climate justice movement is not simply an environmental movement by people concerned about the environment, but is propelled forward by people directly impacted, usually racial minority groups like Latinos, Blacks, and Asian Americans. Such movements are able to harness the energy of those directly impacted. Because of this, it feels like hope is not in the larger environmental movement, but in the environmental justice movement. Is there an element in Korea that mobilizes people around environmental justice? LHS: In Korea, there isn’t as much of a racial aspect in environmental justice as there is in the United States. However, what really drives the environmental justice movement in Korea is regional discrimination: inequality between areas like large cities that are highly populated and those that aren’t. That’s what pisses people off.

This is the case with Yeongdok. Officially, Yeongdok has 34,000 registered residents, but only 24,000 people live there. 10,000 are registered there but live and work in Seoul. The majority of the actual residents are elderly - in fact, Yeongdok has the oldest population in Korea. There is a sense of alienation and deprivation. When I was calling and surveying people on the phone about the nuclear power plant, they’d respond, “If the nuclear power plant is so great, then why is it being built in Yeongdok?” They know that good things don’t come there. Yeongdok is one of the few places in Korea that still doesn’t have a highway or a train. Nonetheless, they have traditionally supported the (currently ruling) conservative party in Korea, the Saenuri party. They had the second-highest vote for President Park Geun Hye, who heads the Saenuri party in the country. However, despite the government’s insistence that such a vote would be illegal, 11,000 people came out and voted in a citizen’s referendum. 91% opposed the nuclear plant; 8% supported it; and the rest were invalid. Even after Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power sprinkled money to win them over, the people still came out and voted against the nuclear power plant.  They are aware of the negative impact of nuclear power plants. They only need to look at the neighboring village that already has one. Yeongdok is not just a nuclear energy issue, but a democracy issue.

DHS: I recently came across an interview with US climate justice activists that struck me. They said that climate justice was not simply about fighting something, but about also creating alternatives that compete for resources. Their example was a struggle in a Native American reservation against a coal mine depleting the water aquifer. The people there weren’t simply fighting to shut down the coal mine, which they depended on for jobs, but they were trying to create an alternative: a locally based economy around solar panels and indigenous crafts that could provide jobs and income. In some ways, they were directly building a new sustainable economy. What is Korea’s climate justice movement like? LHS: Well, the Korean environmental justice movement isn’t very strong yet. After 2009, the climate justice movement expanded greatly. First, there was the Copenhagen COP meeting, and we had been bringing up climate change as a serious issue. In 2010, we organized a coalition of civil society groups which we launched in 2011: Climate Justice Solidarity. A month later, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown happened. All of a sudden, the focus shifted from climate justice to denuclearization. All of the major activists and organizations that had been involved in Climate Change Solidarity were no longer able to concentrate their energy and efforts on climate justice. Strictly speaking, the denuclearization and climate justice issue fall into different spheres. Climate justice is about carbon dioxide emissions, energy consumption, and eliminating the use of coal, while denuclearization is about shutting down nuclear power plants. So for the past 3-4 years, there has been almost no activity within the climate justice movement in Korea. Now, with the upcoming Paris Climate Change Conference set to determine post-2020 global agreements to tackle climate change, the climate justice movement is picking back up again.

DHS: Participating in the recent panel discussion on climate justice by Climate Justice Solidarity, I got the feeling that climate change is not necessarily an issue where the unions will lead. Maybe they have a role to play, but it seems like it will be farmers and citizens whose everyday lives are impacted that will lead the fight. LHS: You are right. The unions that were represented at that meeting were from the public sector. In particular, they were from the public energy companies. They have great working conditions; you might say that they’re upper tier workers. They even have a conservative bias: They’re trying to guard their food dish. I think that’s normal. It’s our job to pull them to our side. Climate Justice Solidarity is trying to instill social consciousness in these unions by inviting them to workshops and by working and dialoguing with them. Climate change has not traditionally been a union issue; strictly speaking, it still isn’t.

As regards farmers, their livelihoods and their ability to farm are directly affected by climate change. However, they are not stepping up yet. Climate change is on their minds because they can’t farm, but we need to create the next step for them, and come up with a slogan that could unify a movement. The farmer’s movement has not yet reached this stage. We need to be asking ourselves: If climate change is difficult to combat right away, then what can we do about the loss and damage farmers are incurring right now, and what steps can we take to remedy it? I think answering these questions is an important task for the farmers’ movement in Korea.

DHS: What is your forecast for the climate justice movement next year? LHS: The climate change, energy, and anti-nuke movement will have to come together. The fundamental question that ties them together and that they need to agree on is: What should Korea’s energy policy be? The answer will lead to a rebirth of the climate justice and energy justice movements. Monitoring the COP meetings, the struggle against coal power plants, addressing climate change impacts to agriculture, monitoring corporations - this is the direction that we are headed towards. Right now, we are small and weak, but next year we will be stronger.

As regards COP 21, we’re going to have to see what happens after the summit. However, in Korea, one of the big things will be the April National Assembly elections. March and April are also very significant months: March will be the 5th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown; April will be the 30thanniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. The energy issue will be a hot topic next year. There will be a lot of activity the first six months, with the April election being the most important moment.

DHS: How about regarding the Yeongdok struggle? Is the idea to really focus on March and April then impact the elections… LHS: Yes, the plan is to eventually push for an annulment of the nuclear power plant construction. Right now, the government says they will not acknowledge the results of the people’s referendum. We expected this, so the question will be, “How will this impact the elections?” The best outcome would be for a national assemblyperson that opposes the nuclear power plant to get elected. Even electing a national assemblyperson who’s on the fence about the nuclear power plant would be a victory. I want to make this clear: what happened in Yeongdok was a miracle. This city is the bastion of support for the ruling Saenuri Party. But for the first time ever, the people came out and voted against a government policy. Moving forward, what happens in Yeongdok and what happens in the elections will determine how we upgrade the denuclearization struggle.

Interviewed and edited by Dae-Han Song, Chief Editor