South Korea’s new president underwent his own personal green revolution when he became mayor of Seoul. In charge of major construction projects at Hyundai for three decades, Lee Myung-bak reversed himself in the new millennium. He made rivers spring from concrete and grass grow where there had once been only cars.

President-elect Lee now has a golden opportunity to accomplish this same trick for South Korea as a whole.
South Korea led the world in information technology in the 1990s. It put a cell phone in everyone’s pocket and a flat-screen monitor on everyone’s computer.

It is now time to harness the tremendous innovation and industriousness of South Korea’s workforce to meet the twin challenges of the 21st century: global warming and the looming energy crisis.

Lee is perfectly positioned to paint the South Korean economy green. He has the industry background, and he has new eco-credentials. He also has a reputation for persistence. And he’s going to need it every ounce of this persistence to pull his country kicking and screaming into the new global green economy.

After all, South Korea is not exactly an environmental paradise. It ranked 42 out of 133 countries in the 2005 Yale Environmental Performance index, behind Cuba, Russia, and Brazil. It is also among the top ten leading global emitters of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

South Korea, alas, is world-renowned not for its vibrant environmental movement but for its highly polluting heavy industry, which has consumed ever larger amounts of energy. To wean itself of this energy dependency, Korea has been relying more and more on nuclear power plants, which produce waste that the world still doesn’t know what to do with.

But there are also positive signs. In 2008, the world’s largest solar plant is scheduled to go online in Sinan, South Jeolla Province. And a large wave power plant is scheduled for 2009. The government has also recently announced a 15 percent increase in fuel economy standards so that South Korean cars will have to achieve 33 miles per gallon by 2012.

South Korea is the only country to have made the leap from the Third World into the elite club of the top dozen economies of the world.

Lee, with his 747 plan, wants to break into the top eight. To do that, he should consider bulldozing a different path. He should make South Korea the world’s first sustainable economy based on renewable energy, new and efficient technologies, and targeted government support.

Former President Kim Dae-jung devoted government funds to boosting the IT sector and the information infrastructure in Korea. Lee should do the same for alternative energy.

By providing incentives for new businesses and new scientific research into alternative sources of energy, the Korean government can draw the best entrepreneurial and research talents to the country. Certainly the new KSTAR nuclear fusion reactor in Daejeon is a promising development.

But while scientists scramble to uncover a nuclear fusion process that produces more energy than it requires, the Korean government can invest in more immediate technologies that can save energy and reduce carbon emissions. Korea still lags behind Europe and Japan in terms of fuel efficiency standards for cars. It must establish stricter performance standards for factories.

Most importantly, Korea has to introduce new technology and new standards to reduce carbon emissions from its power plants. According to new findings by the Center for Global Development, the Boryeong power plant is the second leading emitter of carbon dioxide in the world (Dangjin is No. 12 and Taean No. 14).

When it comes to economic cooperation with North Korea, Lee has called for greater pragmatism and reciprocity. There is nothing more pragmatic or reciprocal than the new inter-Korean train system.

The new rail line breaching the DMZ is of course a powerful symbol of a reunited peninsula. But, pragmatically speaking, it is also a critical method for reducing the amount of energy spent on shipping goods across the Korean peninsula as well as from Asia to Russia and Europe. The train line is a classic win-win proposition.

Furthermore, as South Korea moves forward with joint economic projects with the North – an expansion of Gaeseong, mutual development of the Haeju port, the establishment of new shipbuilding facilities at Anbyeon and Nampo – these projects should showcase state-of-the-art energy efficiency and low carbon emissions. This is the perfect chance for both North and South Korea to leapfrog over old technologies.

These projects will not only help South Korea become a 747 power. They will not only help make the economic reunification of the peninsula more viable. They will show the way for a world that desperately needs to reduce its carbon footprint as quickly as possible.

South Korea compressed the 20th century’s economic development into a couple decades. Faced with the twin crises of global warming and fossil fuel depletion, the world needs an infusion of “ppali ppali” spirit. With a green bulldozer in charge, South Korea can help the world quickly leave behind the carbon emissions and energy inefficiencies of the 20th century and prepare for a sustainable 21st century.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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