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The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 46-51

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The Growth of Environmental Cooperation in Northeast Asia:
The Potential Roles of Civil Society

Esook Yoon


During the past two decades many formerly "domestic environmental problems" in Northeast Asia (NEA) have taken on an international dimension because they are causing unidirectional or reciprocal externalities among regional countries. The international nature of many environmental problems calls for cooperation among regional countries in establishing appropriate regional bodies to address what are perceived as increasingly pressing and serious problems. Regional cooperation has been occurring in Europe and North America for decades. It is only slowly beginning to occur in NEA. Over the past ten years or so, countries in NEA, particularly Japan, China, and South Korea (hereafter Korea), have taken solid, albeit still limited steps toward environmental cooperation. This is a marked change from the past. In Europe's case, environmental cooperation was driven by the need to harmonize laws for economic reasons, but also because of the demands of an increasingly environmentally conscious civil society. In NEA's case, cooperation was delayed relative to Europe for political reasons. Authoritarianism, communism, and developmental state priorities focused attention on policy areas other than the environment and limited the voice of civil society. Today that is changing as a result of the considerable opening of the political systems of the region and the thawing of regional tensions to at least some degree. The emerging cooperation evident in the region reflects these political developments as well as the emergence of environmentally more conscious societies.

What distinguishes NEA from Europe is not only the much more limited extent of cooperation within NEA than Europe, but also the far more limited extent to which civil society has been brought into the decision making process. Public policies have been primarily shaped by central governments; social actors have been effectively excluded from policy-making processes. This has been the case especially in China, in Korea before 1987, but in all three societies to varying extent still today. Environmental issues, however, are opening possibilities for social actors to participate in domestic and international politics through mobilization, public voicing of concerns, circulation of information, and formation of environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) networks.

The Environmental Situation in the Region: What are the Issues?

Serious environmental degradation in NEA has been the result of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Economic growth has been the overriding policy objective of regional governments throughout the past several decades. Countries in NEA have experienced exceptional rates of economic growth and industrial transformation, compressing into a few decades a process of industrial development that, in the case of early industrializers, took several generations. This process of rapid industrialization increased energy and resource consumption, industrial pollution, and waste discharge. Combined, the problems place tremendous strains on the natural environment.

Among the various environmental issues facing the region, acid rain and marine pollution have drawn particular attention. These are classic examples of the negative consequences that economic and industrial development can have when no environmental controls are put in place. They are also examples of transboundary pollution problems requiring cooperative efforts among neighboring countries if they are to be effectively addressed. 1 Acid rain in NEA is linked inextricably to the pace of China's economic development and its overwhelming reliance on coal. 2 The precise scale and impact of transboundary acid deposition still remain unclear, but many scientists both in Japan and Korea believe that emissions from China are blown across the Yellow Sea and the East Sea (Sea of Japan) to Korea and Japan by prominent seasonal winds. 3 Acid rain is known to harm forests, watercourses, buildings, and human health. Considering the current energy consumption patterns and economic development plans of the regional countries, and particularly China, in the next few years a serious international acid rain problem could affect the entire region, unless preventive actions are taken.

Marine pollution in the Yellow Sea and the East Sea, is also a transboundary issue, calling for immediate control and protection. Many severely polluted rivers flow...


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