South Korea’s plans for a just transition must be truly fair for all

South Korea is deemed to be relatively behind on climate policy. So much so that the country was considered a “climate villain” by international research institutes for its emissions. In 2020, the current South Korean government under Moon Jae-in announced South Korea’s own Green New Deal policies and declared to achieve carbon neutrality until the year 2050 in light of the Paris Agreement and growing demand from the international community. Still, many cast doubt on the efficacy and feasibility of such policies.

Indeed, the “2050 Carbon Neutrality Scenario”, which has recently come under review by the country’s Carbon Neutrality Committee, neither provides any suggestions for structural change in energy consumption, nor sets a clear direction for industrial transition. Instead, it maintains existing policy directions, focusing on technological development and support for conglomerates. With such passive directions and measures, it might be a distant dream for South Korea to reach carbon neutrality in 30 years as it does not send out the proper signals which the South Korean government ought to offer.

And leaving aside whether its policies will actually reduce emissions levels, the government seems to have not considered the principle of a “just transition”: a principle that obligates it to protect workers and local communities against possible negative impacts, and to engage civil society in the planning and implementation of the transition.

Although the past governments promoted green growth and greenhouse gas reduction policies, they did not consider a just transition. The Moon administration started to use the concept of a “fair transition” in the context of policies like the Korean New Deal. However, the term “fair” seems to have been applied in the narrow sense of meaning procedural fairness, and compensating industries for the costs of the transition or having them not violate rules.

Moreover, concrete policy efforts are insufficient. The Korean Green New Deal did not suggest detailed measures to realize a fair transition, and as for follow-up supplementary projects, it mentions only measures to support businesses in cases of industrial transition. Even in the 2050 Carbon Neutrality Committee, which was launched with 100 members at the end of May, the task of a “just transition,” coined a “fair transition,” was assigned to one subcommittee. In the subcommittee, there is only one person, the President of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), representing laborers, compared to dozens of employers.

However, the climate crisis is already bringing changes in the labour market. Jobs in coal-fired power plants and automobile industries are under threat. The Kyunghyung Daily News reported in early June, that workers in those industries, in particular subcontractors and irregular workers who lack the ability to negotiate, have almost no access to information related to such changes and no awareness of when their plants and factories will shut down.

In South Korea, workers do not welcome nor pay much attention to such transitions. Here are some examples: the labour union of Doosan Heavy Industries and Constructions, hit by a decrease in orders for new coal-fired power plants, is calling for the resumption of construction of the Shin Hanul Nos. 3 and 4 nuclear reactors in Uljin County; and the union members of Hyundai Motor Company are highly defensive when responding to concerns that a shift to electric vehicles may affect employment. There are also some positive signals: In areas such as Boryeong in South Chungcheong Province, which are expected to face shrinking economic activity due to the shutdown of older coal-fired power plants, local communities started discussions with local labour unions over how to respond to such changes. Still, it remains uncertain whether they will touch on the employment of mid-and small-sized vendor companies.

Since the global wave of climate action in 2019, official nation-level labour unions and industrial labour unions have agreed to a just transition and taken the lead in raising awareness of their union members. However, such sentiment has not resonated among workers on the ground or developed into more concrete proposals.

South Korean workers are not enthusiastic about a just transition. Firstly, it is difficult for union workers to take a certain position for long-term policies since the chapters are organized by company and their grievances are mostly focused on immediate and specific concerns.

Second, in South Korea trust levels are very low between labour, management and government. Often, they gather around the negotiating table not to resolve issues together but to put pressure on workers to make a concession.

And when it comes to labour unions, sad and painful experiences still dominate people's memory as union workers were unfairly sacrificed for fiscal austerity and restructuring for mergers and acquisitions during the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis as well as in the cases of sale of SsangYong Motors and Hanjin Heavy Industries.

Fortunately, the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU) of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) has recently launched the Committee for Democratic and Just Industrial Transition. It has submitted its argument to the government that relevant measures should be jointly decided by both labour and management parties, and has started conducting campaigns. Labour unions of the energy, railway, and medical sectors are also holding discussions to include a just transition into their official policies and businesses.

If a just transition is to take root and bear fruit in Korea, first, we must fully examine the economic and social costs of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and impacts on the labour market. The government and public sector should cope with such impacts, coming up with programs that can minimize or compensate for damage and providing opportunities for the relevant entities and local communities to gear up at the same time.

A just transition should not be limited to compensation, but should enhance both economic equality and social justice. It should be a catalyst to create more and better green jobs as well as move towards green industry.

Lastly, a just transition should be realized not by simply adding this terminology but with institutions and measures to encourage all three parties as well as civic groups to discuss and execute practical adaptation solutions to the climate crisis. To that end, there should be restructuring of just transition governance, which goes beyond current agendas and roles of the Economic, Social and Labor Council. In addition, we need legislation that ensures workers and stakeholders take part in the process of a just industrial transition. Moreover, there must be no complacency: Such efforts should include follow-up legislation and institutional reform to expand on basic rights, such as labour and societal rights.


Kim Hyun-woo has worked for the Korea Labor & Society Institute, Democratic Labor Party and New Progressive Party. For the last 10 years, he has worked at the Energy & Climate Policy Institute, researching just transition and energy democracy. Currently, he is the director of Nonuke News focusing on the climate change education and research on degrowth.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.