All questions

Environmental protection

Korea has enacted and implemented multiple specialised environmental statutes to deal specifically with individual sources of pollutants. However, in 2017, the Act on the Integrated Control of Pollutant-Discharging Facilities was promulgated and introduced a new legal regime, the integrated environmental management system (IEMS), which is applicable to large-scale business sites having great impact on the environment.

The IEMS integrated previous regulations into a single integrated management permit per business unit, thereby simplifying the process. Before the IEMS was introduced, businesses had been regulated by seven different environmental regulations requiring them to obtain up to 10 different types of permits for each source of pollutants. The IEMS permits, once issued, are valid for five years and can be extended for up to three additional years. If the discharging facilities are transferred, the transferee shall succeed the rights and obligations of the preceding transferor's permits, revised permits or file of reporting.

In the event a business site falls outside of the scope of the IEMS, then a separate regulatory regime is applicable, depending on the type of pollutant.

i Air quality

Air emissions are regulated by the Clean Air Conservation Act. This adopts different sets of regulations for the emissions by categorising the sources of air pollutants into places of business, living environments and motor vehicles or ships. Korea's regulation of air emissions is mainly focused on regulating places of business. Any person who intends to install emission facilities shall obtain a permit from the relevant mayor or governor or file a report thereon and install air pollution prevention facilities in accordance with the 'polluter pays' principle. A prevention facility should also be installed and an operation commencement report submitted to the MOE before the facility starts operating.

The Act sets permissible emission levels of air pollutants emitted from air pollutant-emitting facilities, thereby adopting a concentration-based regulation instead of an overall quantity-based regulation. On the other hand, certain areas designated as air pollution control areas are subject to overall quantity-based regulation under the Special Act on the Improvement of Air Quality in Air Pollution Control Areas.

If a facility emits air pollutants excessively, the competent authority can order a reduction of the facility's emissions to a permissible level. If the facility fails to comply, the competent authority can suspend the operation of the facility in whole or in part.

ii Water quality

The main legislation addressing the protection of fresh water is the Water Environment Conservation Act, which is the framework act for the prevention of water pollution. The act categorises water quality pollutants by methods of emissions and their location into point source, non-point source and miscellaneous sources. Under the Water Environment Conservation Act, the point source pollutants are subject to similar regulations imposed on places of business under the Clean Air Conservation Act.

Anyone intending to install a wastewater-emitting facility must obtain a permit from or file a report with the MOE. Once the MOE receives the application, the MOE can consult the local authority and restrict the installation of the facility if the MOE determines the facility's proximity to any reservoir protection zone or special protection zone to be harmful. The operator of the facility must also install a prevention facility to ensure that the amount of pollutants discharged does not exceed the permissible thresholds. An operation commencement report must be filed with the MOE before the operation of the facility.

Unless there is a justifiable reason, the Water Environment Conservation Act prohibits the following:

  1. dumping livestock excreta, farm wastewater, carcasses, wastes or dirty soil in public water;
  2. washing a car in a local stream or lake;
  3. spilling or dumping a significant amount of soil in the reservoir, local stream or lake; and
  4. excessive discharging of water pollutants.

Under the Water Environment Conservation Act, the MOE can order a facility to lower the amount of water pollutants discharged within a designated period if the facility is determined to be discharging water pollutants in excess. The facility must promptly report to the MOE once it completes the order. If the facility fails to comply, the MOE can suspend the facility's operation in whole or in part.

The MOE can also order a facility to stop discharging pollutants or other special measures if it determines that water quality will not satisfy the existing standards due to reservoir pollution, and may seriously harm public health.

iii Chemicals

Hazardous products and substances are mainly regulated by the following laws and regulations:

  1. the Act on Registration, Evaluation, etc. of Chemicals (K-REACH);
  2. the Chemicals Control Act; and
  3. the Act on Safety Management of Consumer Chemical Products and Biocides (K-BPR).

K-REACH, the Chemicals Control Act, K-BPR and respective regulations thereunder protect human health and the environment against risks caused by hazardous products and substances.

K-REACH is similar to the EU REACH as it is a statute that regulates the market entry of a chemical substance. Under K-REACH, any person who manufactures or imports no less than 100 kilograms of non-phase-in substance or any person who manufactures or imports no less than 1 tonne of phase-in substance must register the uses, quantity, etc., of the chemical substance in advance to the Minister of Environment. Non-compliance with the registering requirement could be subject to criminal penalties and a suspension order for the manufacture, import, use or sale of the chemical substances.

On the other hand, the Chemicals Control Act regulates the usage of such chemical substances once they have been introduced to the domestic market. Specifically, the manufacture, keeping, storage, transport and use of chemical substances (collectively, handling) require a business permit and handling facility in accordance with the specifications set forth in the Chemicals Control Act.

Lastly, K-BPR was promulgated in 2018 and came into effect in 2019. This Act, which is substantially similar to the EU Biocidal Products Regulation, imposes safety and labelling standards for certain consumer chemical products and requires manufacturers and importers of biocidal products to obtain prior approval for the biocides from the MOE.

iv Solid and hazardous waste

Under the Waste Control Act, the term 'waste' is defined as 'materials such as garbage, burnt refuse, sludge, waste oil, waste acid, waste alkali and carcasses of animals, which have become no longer useful for human life or business activities'. The Act categorises waste into two main categories and provides a differentiated management system for each category: industrial waste and household waste.

Industrial waste is further categorised into designated waste, construction waste and ordinary industrial waste. Among the types of industrial waste, designated waste, which is either harmful substances such as waste oil and waste acid that may contaminate the surrounding environment or medical waste that may cause harm to humans, is more strictly regulated than ordinary industrial waste.

Any business operator that discharges (i.e., generates) industrial waste must report the type and amount of the waste it discharges to the relevant local authority. The operator discharging the waste must treat the waste directly or have it treated by someone with a licence to manage a waste treatment business or operate a waste treatment facility. It is illegal to conduct waste treatment business without the requisite permit from the MOE or the relevant local authority. It is also illegal to dispose of waste in an area that is not prepared for waste collection by the local authority and to fill or incinerate waste in a waste treatment facility not licensed or registered. Such unlawful dumping of industrial wastes is subject to criminal penalties. Local authorities are in charge of household waste, and unlawful dumping of household waste is subject to administrative fines.

The government may require financial assurances from a business operator who has installed a waste landfill facility by requiring the operator to deposit the necessary expenses for follow-up management, etc., in the Environment Reconstruction Special Account as provided in the Framework Act on Environmental Policy.

One unique feature of Korea's Waste Control Act in relation to household waste is a pay-as-you-throw system, commonly known as Waste Jong-Ryang-Je. This is a government policy based on the 'polluter pays' principle, whereby the dischargers of household waste are subject to the collection of service charges for the treatment of household waste depending on the kind, quantity, etc., of the household waste discharged. The service charges are collected by selling standard waste bags and waste labels.

The Framework Act on Resource Circulation, enacted in 2018, regulates recycling of waste. The Act introduced the new concept of 'resource circulation' and provides general principles to promote recycling. The Construction Waste Recycling Promotion Act and the Act on Resource Circulation of Electrical and Electronic Equipment and Vehicles regulate the recycling of certain special types of waste.

v Contaminated land

The Soil Environment Conservation Act regulates matters relating to soil pollution in Korea and prohibits the following:

  1. disposal of soil pollutants or reclamation using soil pollutants;
  2. leakage of soil pollutants during storage, transportation or purification;
  3. installation of an unreported facility (installation of a soil-contaminating facility requires the installation of a soil-contamination prevention facility as well as its maintenance) that could severely contaminate soil;
  4. failure to report leakage of soil pollutants to the competent authority during manufacture, transportation, storage or treatment; and
  5. failure to report contamination of an installed soil pollution management facility.

Regarding soil contamination, this Act imposes two types of liabilities: payment of damages or purification obligations. While the former is a type of strict liability borne by the persons responsible for the soil contamination, the latter is a liability borne by the following persons designated by the law:

  1. any person who causes soil contamination by discharging, leaking, dumping or neglecting soil contaminants or committing other acts;
  2. the proprietor, occupant or operator of a facility subject to the control of soil contamination constituting a cause for soil contamination at the time soil contamination occurs;
  3. any person who has comprehensively succeeded to the rights and liabilities of either (a) or (b) on account of merger, inheritance or other reasons; and
  4. any person who previously owned or presently owns or occupies land on which soil contamination has occurred.

Clean-up of soil contamination first starts with the detection of contaminated soil through a soil contamination inspection. If the inspection reveals that the soil contamination of the area exceeds the Worrisome Standards, then measures such as the installation of a pollution prevention facility, improvement of an existing pollution prevention facility or restrictions imposed on the use of soil pollutants shall be implemented. If the soil pollution is severe and exceeds the Countermeasure Standards, then the person designated by the law shall be ordered to implement a project to purify or improve the soil contamination, or the competent authority may execute such a project at the expense of the person designated by the law. Under the Soil Environment Conservation Act, the Countermeasure Standards are defined as the levels of soil contamination that are likely to obstruct human health and properties or rearing of animals and plants, and accordingly would necessitate countermeasures. The Worrisome Standards are about 40 per cent less severe than the Countermeasure Standards.

In an asset sale, the buyer generally inherits pre-acquisition environmental liability, unless:

  1. the purchased asset meets certain exceptions under applicable laws and regulations (for example, if the buyer was unaware of the soil contamination and was not negligent in preventing soil contamination when he or she acquired the land; or
  2. other contractual arrangements in regard to the asset sale and purchase agreement exist. In a share sale, the target company shall be responsible for the pre-acquisition environmental liability.