Climate Change Comes to South Korea

In recent weeks South Korea has been battered by torrential rains that have caused serious flooding, landslides and widespread property damage, killing 62 people. Stunning images of Seoul’s normally busy downtown streets filled with neck-deep water circulated around the world.

There are heavy rains every summer in South Korea, but this was something else. The storms are being regarded as evidence that the climate is changing and that the country must adjust to a hotter, wetter, more volatile reality. The South Korean government is quietly making plans to improve disaster preparedness and recovery capacity.

The events of July have all but confirmed what South Koreans have anecdotally thought to be true for some time: summers are longer than ever before with higher temperatures and heavier rainfall. A recent study by the Korea Meteorological Administration shows that the number of days with rainfall of more than 30 millimeters per hour has doubled in the last three decades. During this year’s midsummer rainy season, the rainfall in the central and southern regions was two to three times the average of previous years.

South Korea’s National Science and Technology Council has significantly increased funds for weather prediction in next year’s budget, from 3.1 billion KRW ($290,000) to W10.0 billion ($920,000). Seoul plans to install 82.9 kilometers of pipes in 26 places in the city by 2014, but only 5 km have been completed. President Lee Myung-bak has called for the creation of a new task force to revise the country’s disaster response systems to better deal with severe weather.

South Korea has the benefit of a vocal citizenry that keeps government on its toes. When something goes wrong in this country, people tend to get angry and demand better from their elected leaders. As this is a functioning democracy, leaders need to respond to their constituents for their own survival. Similar to how being caught unprepared for North Korea’s November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island has led to expansions in military capability, the poor preparation for July’s flooding has given way to improvements in the infrastructure for dealing with extreme weather.

The Seoul government has faced criticism after flooding led to deaths and paralyzed the city. The mayor has been criticized for neglecting the city’s lack of flood control infrastructure. He has since pledged W5 trillion over the next 10 years to install more effective drainage systems and reinforce homes in low-lying areas.

This signals a shift in the Seoul government’s priorities, as it had previously spent much of its time and money on projects to beautify the city, such as its World Design Capital and Han River improvement campaigns. It is likely that climate change will spur more policy realignments of this nature: away from the pursuit of the beautiful, towards the maintenance of basic functionality.

South Korea has long been active in responding to and preparing for the effects of climate change. In 2009, the South Korean government announced its “Low Carbon, Green Growth” plan, a broadly-based mandate of green growth initiatives that aimed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent through 2020 from 2007 levels. Under the plan, the government expanded use of solar and wind energy, smart grid, as well as carbon capture and storage technology.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has stopped short of publicly attributing July’s weather to climate change. In explaining the to-be-formed taskforce, he said "The Prime Minister's Office needs to form a task force with related government offices and experts to discuss how to re-establish the country's anti-disaster guidelines because we may undergo unexpected disaster next year, too," Lee was quoted by his spokesman as saying in a Cabinet meeting. This was a curious choice of words, as if there is flooding and landslides again next year, it won’t be unexpected.

While President Lee shied away from calling July’s weather a result of climate change, the National Emergency Management Agency’s Bureau of Disaster Prevention and Management has a taskforce called the Climate Change Response Division. So there is an acknowledgement of climate change within the South Korean establishment.

While the South is bracing itself for more flooding, North Korea has been devastated perennially by floods with which its substandard infrastructure has never been able to cope. In 2006, floods are believed to have killed thousands of people. In 2007, floods took the lives of 454 people, left 156 missing and injured 4,351. It was estimated that the 2007 flooding destroyed 11 percent of the country’s rice and corn crops.

It happened again in July in a country with weak response capacity, which meant the damage there was much worse than in the South. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification drew on media reports to estimate that 78,000 hectares of farmland had been flooded, several thousand homes destroyed; 150 coal pits flooded and tens of thousands of tons of coal washed away; extensive damage to industry and roads. The number of deaths was unknown.

Despite frosty relations between North and South Korea, the floods led to donations of medicines and other essentials from South to North. The donations were made through the Korean National Red Cross, possibly to camouflage the fact the South Korean government was behind the donations.

It’s a fairly safe bet that sooner or later all governments will need to change policies to deal with the new, more challenging circumstances. The South Korean case could be instructive, as it is being hit especially hard by new weather patterns and responding with something other than denial.