Weekly Insights and Analysis

Green Growth Brings New Dimension to U.S.-ROK Alliance

March 24, 2010

By Jill Kosch O'Donnell

The recent news from Korea that the country is stepping up cooperation with Denmark on energy efficient and renewable technologies marked the latest triumph in President Lee Myung-bak’s push to build international support for his green growth vision. In Seoul, Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen said that Korea’s green growth plan can serve as a model for the world. The announcement was emblematic of the Lee administration’s growing global posture. Korea is aiming to be the first “me” in what Lee has called the “me first” approach to climate change, referring to the need for nations to take the initiative instead of waiting for others to act first.

President Lee has described his National Strategy for Green Growth as a “new national development paradigm that creates new growth engines and jobs through green technology and clean energy.” The underlying premise of his approach is that economic growth and environmental protection are compatible, and even mutually reinforcing. Over the past 18 months, the central government has moved aggressively to court international partners and build domestic mechanisms for implementing the green growth strategy. This flurry of activity has resulted in the Presidential Committee on Green Growth, formed to oversee the strategy, and a national greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of four percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (or 30 percent below what levels would be if nothing were done to curb emissions and Korea remained on the current trajectory). The Basic Law on Low Carbon and Green Growth, which formally codifies the framework for the plan, is expected to take effect in April. Lee has pledged to spend two percent of Korea’s annual GDP in support of its objectives.

Last fall, a net-zero-energy house built by Samsung Engineering and Construction, became the first-ever building in Korea to receive the U.S. Green Building Council's highest grade of LEED Platinum. Pictured here, Korea's highly-developed Bandung district.

Last fall, a net-zero-energy house built by Samsung Engineering and Construction, became the first-ever building in Korea to receive the U.S. Green Building Council's highest grade of LEED Platinum. Pictured here, Korea's highly-developed Bundang district.

Korea is a middling player in global carbon emissions. The country ranks ninth among G-20 nations in overall carbon emissions. Classified as a developing country under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Korea has no mandatory obligations to reduce greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol. Lee’s decision to do so anyway can look like bold leadership to re-energize a sclerotic UN process, or like a preemptive move in anticipation of reclassification as a developed country under the UNFCCC and the expectations that accompany such status. In any case, the National Assembly must still pass a national cap-and-trade law, and Lee must woo recalcitrant business leaders concerned about Korean economic competitiveness in a carbon-constrained economy.

Pursuit of green growth is not without obstacles, and the U.S.-ROK alliance could provide the necessary boost to overcome some of them. In a new report published by The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, I explore the ways in which the United States and Korea are already collaborating on clean energy and climate change mitigation and identify potential areas for future cooperation. There are elements of U.S.-ROK cooperation on the Korean government’s central priority areas of smart grids, green buildings, and electric vehicles.

Through their respective smart grid industry associations, the United States and Korea are sharing best practices as Korea builds a pilot smart grid on the island of Jeju. Korea expects to use lessons learned from that endeavor to set domestic standards as it aims to build the world’s first nationwide smart grid by 2030. Last fall, a net-zero-energy house called “Green Tomorrow,” built by Korean industrial giant Samsung Engineering and Construction, became the first-ever building in Korea to receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest grade of LEED Platinum. As several companies around the world prepare to begin mass production of electric vehicles, Korea is seeking an edge in the batteries that will power them. The Korean firm LG Chem will supply lithium-ion batteries for General Motors’ Chevrolet Volt plug-in vehicle, due out later this year.

Building from these links, the United States and Korea are well-positioned to do more together to make green growth a reality. Technological standards – especially for smart grid components – carbon capture and storage, and wind energy are a few of the areas that are ripe for more collaboration. One of the major challenges for Korean organizations will be identifying the right partners amid the profusion of climate change and clean energy initiatives that spring up from all levels and sectors of government and society in the United States. This stands in contrast to Korea’s highly centralized, top-down approach. But it’s a good problem to have. The sheer number of U.S. initiatives spells great potential for expanded partnership. From Wisconsin to Texas to Jeju island, and places in between, U.S. and Korean clean energy interests are finding each other, and they will continue to do so.

Jill Kosch O’Donnell, a former Junior Associate at The Asia Foundation, is a writer with a special interest in energy policy. She holds an M.A. in International Relations and International Economics from the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She can be reached at

Related locations: Korea
Related programs: Environmental Resilience
Related topics: Center for U.S.-Korea Policy


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