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Improvements in living conditions

People sought an improvement in the quality of life as incomes rose. In addition, a series of pollution accidents in the 1990s prompted more attention being paid to environmental issues. The importance of environmental protection was underscored by the release of tons of phenol into the Nakdong River in 1991; the contamination of the upper reaches of the Nakdong River on two occasions in 1994; the degradation of Sihwa Lake due to reclamation; and an oil spill from a tanker, the Sea Prince, off the southern coast in 1995.

The environmental challenges confronting the country had gradually increased with the development of HCIs, the concentration of population in the cities, a rapid rise in the number of cars starting in the 1980s, and the emergence of a consumption culture based on affluent lifestyles in the 1990s. However, the country has not kept up with these economic developments in terms of establishing basic environmental facilities, such as waste dump sites, ultramodern waste incinerators, or sewage treatment plants. Problems associated with industrial waste and wastewater frequently became political and social issues rather than just environmental management problems. By the 1990s, the country’s environmental conditions had deteriorated to a level much worse than that in many advanced countries.

In the 1990s, the government decided to adopt means to promote amore environment-friendly economic development policy, including expanding waste treatment facilities. Economic regulations were tightened to reduce pollution and new production processes were installed to restrict the emission of pollutants. New environmental fees were introduced since a system of special assessment charges on water and air pollutants introduced in 1983 had not been tough enough to force the adoption of better environmental practices by industry and consumers. The government, starting in 1992, imposed additional environment charges on vehicle owners and polluting industries, with the fees collected being used for investments in environmental protection. These measures helped raise the public’s consciousness about environmental problems. But the fees created controversy since the government held consumers and distributors partly responsible for environmental damage, which was in contrast to the previous attitude that put the burden mainly on industries to reduce pollution.

A waste-related deposit-refund system (1991) and a waste disposal charge system (1994) were adopted to encourage the recycling of waste and more environment-friendly consumption patterns. An E-Mark system was introduced to alert consumers to environment-friendly products, along with apay-per-bag trash system in 1995.

The waste disposal charges amounted to a type of environmental tax. Under the waste-related deposit-refund system, for example, a company had to deposit an amount of money to ensure that it dealt with harmful waste or substances that it had produced. The pay-per-bag trash system that was imposed on individuals is credited with decisively contributing to waste reduction.

As a result of these efforts, key environmental indices showed a considerable improvement in the 1990s. The total amount of emitted pollutants in the air fell due to the increased availability of less-polluting fuels and vehicles despite arise in the annual consumption of fuels. Solid waste showed a similar trend. With the adoption of the pay-per-bag trash system, the per-capita amount of trash disposed daily was reduced to about 1 kg, while there was a drastic increase in the rate of waste recycling and a sharp decrease in the amount of waste stored underground or incinerated.

Source : SaKong, Il and Koh, Youngsun, 2010. The Korean Economy Six Decades of Growth and Development. Seoul: Korea Development Institute.

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