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South Korea Environmental Export Market Plan
Chapter 3 - Legal and Regulatory Review
Chapter 3 - Legal and Regulatory Review

National and Local Government Entities

Concerning environmental administrative matters, the authority and responsibility are shared among the Ministry of Environment, other national government agencies, and local governments.

The Ministry of Environment and its Subsidiaries

The Ministry of Environment (MOE) plays the leading role in managing environmental issues on the national government level. MOE is structurally divided into the headquarters and its subsidiary organizations. Within the MOE headquarters, there are the Planning and Management Office and six Bureaus: Environmental Policy, Nature Conservation, Air Quality Management, Water Quality Management, Water Supply and Sewage Treatment, and Waste Management and Recycling.

MOE subsidiary organizations include the Central Environmental Disputes Coordination Commission, the National Institute of Environmental Research, and four Environmental Management Offices which are responsible for the regions surrounding four major rivers (Han River, Nakdong River, Keum River, and Youngsan River). Under these Environmental Management Offices, there are four regional Environmental Management Offices and eight Environmental Branch Offices across the nation.

While MOE establishes the framework of environmental policy including related laws and regulations, Environmental Management Offices under MOE and local governments are responsible for implementing the environmental policy and regulations. The main role and responsibilities of each Environmental Management Office are:

Each regional environmental office conducts the following activities within its jurisdiction:

Local Governments

Together with the Environmental Management Offices under MOE, local governments carry out their own environmental mission and those delegated by MOE. Local governments mainly conduct the following activities:

Each local government has an environmental section in charge of environmental issues within its jurisdiction. The Health and Environmental Research Institutes under the provincial and local governments are responsible for monitoring environmental quality. They are also authorized to conduct environmental tests and inspections.

Other National Government Agencies

Other national government agencies also manage environmental issues as outlined below:

Ministry of Science and Technology
Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry
Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy
Ministry of Construction and Transportation
Ministry of Labor
Ministry of Culture and Tourism
Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries
Forestry Administration
Legal Framework

Korea’s environmental laws are based on the environmental right provided by Article 35 of the Constitution: “… All people have the right to live a life in a healthy and pleasant environment, and the government and the people shall make efforts to conserve the environment….”

The formation and development of environmental laws and regulations are closely related to the public perception of environmental problems. In Korea, environmental concerns emerged in the 1960s when the country began to pursue industrialization. To address environmental concerns arising from industrialization, the Pollution Prevention Act was enacted in 1963. This Act lacked effectiveness and practicality in managing complex environmental issues, so it was drastically revised in 1971 to introduce several measures to more effectively manage environmental matters, such as those related to the emission standards and the construction of emitting facilities. With rapid industrialization and development continuing through the 1970s, public concern about pollution problems surged significantly. In response, in 1977 the Environmental Preservation Act was enacted to replace the previous one. The new environmental act introduced several schemes to cope with environmental problems in a more proactive and comprehensive way as well as to prevent environmental damage or degradation.

As environmental problems became more serious in the 1980s as Korea’s economic development progressed, the framework for Korea’s environmental law was transformed into a multiple-law system in 1990, whereby six separate environmental laws were enacted. They include the Basic Environmental Policy Act, the Air Quality Preservation Act, the Water Quality Preservation Act, the Noise and Vibration Control Act, the Toxic Chemicals Control Act, and the Environmental Dispute Settlement Act. Since then, a number of other laws have followed, including the Soil Environment Preservation Act, the Drinking Water Act, and the Underground Living Space Air Quality Control Act. Currently, there are 30 environmental laws under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment.

The Basic Environmental Policy Act can be regarded as the basis of all Korea’s environmental laws. This Act provides the principles, goals, and principles of the national environmental preservation policy. Its main content includes the “polluters pay” principle, matters relating to establishing and enforcing the comprehensive long-term environmental preservation plan, and responsibilities of business establishments that discharge pollutants. The Air Quality Preservation Act sets regulations on air pollutant emissions by businesses and households and automotive gas emissions. The Water Quality Preservation Act provides regulations on the standards for industrial wastewater discharge, requirement for installing wastewater discharging equipment, and prohibition of dumping toxic substances and specified wastes into public water zones. The Waste Management Act defines the standards for treating waste and related license requirements. The Toxic Chemicals Control Act provides all the requirements and standards for production, sales, and logistics of toxic or hazardous substances. The Act on Development and Support of Environmental Technologies is enacted to actively cope with international environmental affairs. It stipulates the promotion of the development and distribution of environmental technologies and the development of environmental industries.

In 1999, MOE streamlined Korea’s environmental laws in tandem with the government’s deregulatory drive. Thus a number of obsolete and irrelevant environmental regulations were abolished or amended. On the other hand, new regulations were introduced to address problems that arose in enforcing the laws in the past. Thus 20 of the 30 environmental laws under the jurisdiction of MOE were amended in 1999. There are over 50 other laws relating to environmental issues, which are executed by more than 15 other ministries. They include the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Enforcement Activities and Trends

The Korean government adopts two main approaches to attain the goals of environmental policy: direct regulation and environmental charges. The government also employs various programs as preventive measures such as the Environmental Impact Assessment and the Environmental Feasibility Review. In addition, MOE operates the Environmental Surveillance Force to monitor the environmental quality surrounding four major rivers and voluntary environmental management programs for the private sector.

The instruments for direct regulation include standards for polluting media, approval or permission for discharging facilities, and guidance and inspection. In case of violation, environmental authorities can impose penalties in various forms, including improvement order, closure or suspension of operation, business license cancellation, fines, and imprisonment. Installing or upgrading discharging facilities requires approval or permission by MOE. This is a preventive measure to minimize pollutant emissions. MOE’s administrative guidance and inspection involves checking out whether discharging establishments comply with all environmental requirements. The government also employs monetary instruments for environment management purposes. They include the Environmental Improvement Fee, the Emission Fee, the Deposits for Waste Discharge, the Waste Fee, and the Water Quality Improvement Fee.

In Korea, the separate Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act was enacted in 1993 and was amended in 1997. EIA is currently mandatory for 17 development categories and 62 sub-categories. The current EIA Act requires the authorities in charge of project approval to initiate EIA consultation. The developer should comply with all EIA requirements based on the EIA consultation, while the relevant government authorities should monitor and enforce them. The Amendment of 1997 effected more stringent penalties against noncompliance activities. Over the last several years, 150 to 160 cases of EIA consultation were reported each year. The regional Environmental Management Offices (EMOs) under MOE initiated 70 percent of all EIA consultations.

Together with EIA, Korea adopts the Environmental Feasibility Review (EFR) for smaller projects in order to reflect environmental impact from the site location or planning phase. The Environmental Management Offices have initiated the great majority of the EFR cases. Over the last several years, 700 to 1,000 EFR cases were conducted.
Environmental Standards and Relevant Laws by Sector
Environmental Standards
Relevant Laws
Water QualityStandards for water environment (rivers, lakes, underground water, marine areas)

Standards for drinking water

Standards for effluent water quality

Standards for wastewater
Basic Environmental Policy Act
Water Quality

Water Quality Preservation Act

Act on Treatment of Sewage, Excreta and Livestock Wastewater
Air QualityStandards for air environment

Standards for air emission

Standards for emission by manufactured motor vehicles

Standards for emission by motor vehicles in operation
Air Quality Preservation Act
Noise and VibrationStandards for noise environment

Standards for noise and vibration with plants

Standards for automobile noise
Noise and Vibration Control Act
Soil Preservation and Toxic Chemicals ManagementStandards for soil contamination

Standards for restrictions on growing agricultural and fish products

Standards for designating toxic substances and other hazardous substances to watch out
Soil Environment Preservation Act

Toxic Chemicals Control Act
Source: “1999 Environment White Paper,” MOE, October 1999

Other Environmental Organizations

The Korean government operates 34 environmental commissions according to the environmental laws and regulations. These commissions perform reviewing or advisory functions on important policy issues. The Environmental Preservation Commission (EPC) is headed by the Prime Minister and acts as the highest-level policy making institution. EPC has 23 members: 14 national government ministers and 9 civilian members. EPC reviews and resolves medium and long-term national environmental plans and important environmental issues. The government also operates several councils to discuss policy issues with other sectors including the industry, nongovernmental environment organizations, and the military.

There are hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have influence on environmental issues. In 1999, 128 non-profit environmental organizations were enlisted with the Ministry of Environment. They include major research institutes, industry associations, academic societies, and environmental activist groups.

The National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER) is the research hub that is under direct control of the Ministry of Environment. NIER is responsible for supporting MOE in forming environmental policies and for educating environmental officials. In particular, NIER drafts a variety of environmental standards. NIER consists of five departments, four offices, seventeen sections, a research lab (Automobile Pollution Research Lab), and four water quality inspection labs. Other influential research institutes include the state-run Korea Institute of Science and Technology, National Environmental Protection Institute, and Korea Environment and Technology Institute.

The Korea Environment Preservation Association (KEPA) supports both industry and government by providing various educational, promotional and research services, including organizing trade shows, seminars, conventions, and educational programs. The Korea Environmental Industry Association (KEIA) represents the interest of pollution control contractors and other environmental businesses. KEIA frequently organizes, among others, international cooperation and promotion programs such as trade missions, joint technical seminars, and conventions. KEIA is also building an environment market database as part of MOE’s initiative for its Environmental Technology Information System.

Environmental Management Efforts

Water Quality

In 1996, the Ministry of Environment set up comprehensive measures to manage water quality. Since then, the government has made efforts to improve the nation’s water quality, primarily through water and wastewater infrastructure construction and more stringent management of polluting sources. But the results are minimal since the number of polluting sources continues to increase. Municipal water infrastructure should still be expanded in many agricultural areas and islands. The percentage of the supply of municipal water is 84.5 percent nationwide. But the municipal water supply percentage for Korea’s agricultural areas and islands is merely 23 percent and 12 percent, respectively. On the other hand, many people do not trust in the quality of their tap water in spite of continued government efforts for improvement. To tackle this problem, MOE has conducted in-depth environmental research for each of the four major rivers to establish a comprehensive measure to improve water quality. MOE has already set up and implemented new policy measures for the Han River, the source of drinking water for Seoul and its surrounding areas.

Air Quality

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Korea’s air quality increasingly deteriorated, particularly in industrial areas and large cities. The government’s efforts for air pollution abatement have resulted in reduction in such pollutants as sulfurous acid gas, smoke and particles. But air quality associated with ozone and hazardous air pollutants has deteriorated in recent years. Thus most people are concerned that overall air quality is much worse than before. The main causes seem to be increasing car ownership, increased chemicals usage, and accelerating urbanization. For the most part, Korea’s standards for air environment are based on those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The current standards for air quality are concerned with 26 pollutants, including sulfurous acid gas, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, smoke and particles, ozone, and lead. In selected industrial areas (Ulsan Mipo-Onsan and Yeocheon), more stringent or special standards are applied. To monitor air pollution, MOE and local governments operate automatic telemetering systems nationwide. The government uses mobile monitoring vehicles to measure air pollution in the areas where a telemetering system is not installed. It also maintains a rain acidity monitoring network through major urban areas nationwide. The violation rate based on total cases of inspection decreased from 9.2 percent in 1993 to 5.6 percent in 1997, but it increased to 7.4 percent in 1998. This can be attributed to the government’s more stringent enforcement efforts and industry’s stagnant business activities amid the economic crisis.

Waste (Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste) Management

Since 1993, total waste volume has been on an upward trend. In the 1990s, industrial waste discharges surged at an annual average of 10 percent while municipal waste discharges have been reduced significantly. The government policy on waste management is focused more on expanding incineration capacity than increasing landfills with a goal to raise the rate of incineration from 9 percent in 1998 to 20 percent in 2001. There were 12 incineration plants operating in 1997, and the government has pursued 20 new municipal incineration projects to be completed or started by 2001. The government places long-term policy priority on prevention or reduction, reuse, recycling, energy recovery, incineration, and landfill in that order. On the other hand, the government prohibits installing smaller incinerators with a processing capacity no larger than 25 kilograms per hour.

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