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Climate Hypocrisy? A Case of Korea’s Involvement in Coal Capacity Expansion in Southeast Asia
The Korean Journal of International Studies 20-2 (August 2022), 275-299
Published online August 31, 2022
© 2022 The Korean Association of International Studies.

Heejin Han [Bio-Data]
Received May 31, 2022; Revised July 18, 2022; Accepted July 21, 2022.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Due to deepening climate change, countries around the world have increasingly committed themselves to transitioning to carbon neutral socio-economic systems. However, some recent studies and observations in the environmental realm have noted how commitments to address climate change have often turned out to be empty promises, to the extent that the actions of these countries can be called hypocrisy. This study adds to the existing discussion on climate hypocrisy, applying the concept to the case of South Korean firms’ involvement in coal-fired power plant projects in Southeast Asia. The study problematizes such practices, as they have dramatized the discrepancy between Korea’s commitment to carbon neutrality as well as greenhouse gas emission reduction goals as a responsible, leading green state on one hand, and its ongoing support for overseas coal capacity expansion via its public and private firms on the other. This discrepancy has eroded Korea’s credibility in global environmental politics surrounding the climate change issue, inviting international criticism including local opposition in Southeast Asian countries. Moreover, some global financial firms have decided to withdraw their investment in Korean firms, causing monetary loss and raising the possibility of the coal-fired power plants under operation or construction to become stranded assets. In addition to conceptualizing the climate hypocrisy, this study highlights the importance of the congruence between commitment and action in global climate change politics.
Keywords : climate change, climate hypocrisy, South Korea, coal, Southeast Asia, credibility

The accelerating climate change crisis and the Paris Agreement designed to tackle such a challenge suggest an urgent need for a global-scale transition to a low-carbon economy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2018, 17) stated that all pathways to limiting global warming to 1.5°C require a virtual phase-out of coal from electricity generation by 2050. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP 2018) report on greenhouse gas emissions argued that global greenhouse gas emissions should reach its peak by 2020 and decline rapidly thereafter to limit the increase in the global average temperature to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. These recommendations suggest that rapid and far-reaching changes should be made across multiple fields including land management, energy, industry, buildings, transport, city planning and so on. In particular, the dependence of the world economy on fossil fuel should be drastically reduced in order to halt the earth’s temperature increase at 1.5°C.

Countries around the world have thus increasingly committed themselves to transitioning to carbon neutral socio-economic systems. As of today, over 130 countries, representing 88% of global emissions and 90% of the world economy have pledged to carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions, by 2050 or shortly thereafter (Choi 2022). Moreover, non-state actors, such as corporations and civil society, have joined this trend. However, some recent studies and observations in the environmental realm have pointed out how these actors’ commitment to addressing climate change, their climate commitment, has remained unfulfilled, ending up as empty promises to such an extent as to be described as being hypocritical.

This research adds to the study of climate hypocrisy by defining the term and applies it to the case of South Korean firms’ continuous involvement in the development of coal-fired power plant projects overseas, particularly in Southeast Asia. This paper examines the extent to which South Korean firms have been involved in the expansion of coal capacity in countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam through upstream (mining development and import) or downstream (investment, construction and operation) activities. Then the study discusses several risks and problems that such an involvement has engendered.

This study problematizes this ongoing practice as it has dramatized the discrepancy between Korea’s commitment to carbon neutrality and greenhouse gas emission reduction on one hand and the continuous involvement of Korean firms in coal extractivism and coal capacity expansion in developing countries on the other. This discrepancy has undermined Korea’s credibility in the sphere of global climate change politics. Moreover, some global financial firms have decided to pull their money from Korean firms, leading to monetary loss and raising the possibility that coal power plants under operation or construction become stranded assets. This research concludes that the discrepancy, Korea’s climate hypocrisy, can undermine the country’s soft power and damage its image as a middle power state that aspires to lead as an economically innovative and environmentally friendly country. It bears several risks, which can also result in negative economic consequences. Moreover, Korea’s continuous involvement in the expansion of coal capacity in Southeast Asia increasingly goes against the movement of global divestment and an emerging anti-coal norm. It also hampers the prospects of Southeast Asian region’s transition to carbon neutrality. This study thus highlights the importance of seeking congruence between climate commitment and actual behavior in the realm of global climate change politics.

The rest of the paper proceeds as follows. The following section discusses the notion of climate hypocrisy and provides a brief overview of the global divestment trend. Section three introduces the case of Korea’s involvement and participation in Southeast Asian coal-fired power plant projects and discusses how such practices have contributed to Korea’s reputation and image as being a hypocrite. The conclusion section summarizes the findings and discusses the implications and limitations of the study.


Theoretical Background: Climate Hypocrisy

According to Brunsson (2007), hypocrisy refers to the inverted relationship between decision and action. It is a response to a world in which values, ideas, or people are in conflict; a way in which individuals and organizations handle such conflicts. It is a way of trying to satisfy some demands with statements or decisions and satisfy others by action. It occurs when people fail to practice what they preach. The defining feature of hypocrisy is inconsistency between what people say and what they do.

This term has been applied at an individual level mostly in psychology studies (Laurent & Clark 2019) and does not often appear in the field of international politics. Rather exceptionally, in his book titled Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy, Stephen Krasner (1999) argues that the presence of longstanding norms that are frequently violated—organized hypocrisy—has been an enduring characteristic of international relations. He argues that the idea of sovereignty has been violated, either in coercive or cooperative ways, throughout history. He discusses how the idea of sovereignty has been often violated even by the very actors that preach its importance. Thus, Krasner unveils the gap between what states declare they believe in and what they actually do, especially under circumstances where their interests are at stake.

There have been only several academic publications dealing with climate hypocrisy across fields. Higham and Font (2019), for instance, discuss academia’s carbon intensive aeromobility practices, such as international travel for conferences. While most of those in academia understand they leave carbon footprints through air travel, they go on regardless, which the authors find hypocritical.

Research conducted by Gunster, Fleet, Paterson and Saurrette (2018) is one of the first original studies to unpack the term, climate hypocrisy. The authors argue that such hypocrisy is deployed not just by conservative opponents of climate action but also by progressive proponents. Furthermore, they argue that while the hypocrisy discourse is used by both groups, its nature and function differ depending on the user. The study talks about four modes of climate hypocrisy discourse: 1) individual lifestyle outrage (outrage about the hypocritical behavior and lifestyle of climate activists); 2) institutional cynicism (a cynical fatalism about proposed governmental action regarding climate change by suggesting they are necessarily hypocrites because of the economic and political impossibility of serious emissions reduction; 3) institutional call to action (hypocrisy to attack government inaction on climate change and demand action in line with their public commitment to climate action); and 4) a reflexive mode (explorations of the ubiquity of climate change hypocrisy illuminating the dilemmas that virtually all responses to climate change necessarily grapple with in the current context). This study focuses on several discourses characterizing climate hypocrisy, rather than delving into the hypocrisy or the behavior itself.

Except for Krasner’s book, very few studies utilize the concept of hypocrisy in the field of international relations. In a comparative study focusing on Australia and Norway’s climate responsibility narratives, Eckersley (2013) discusses how a country’s perception of its role in addressing climate change and its climate ambition in the global climate change diplomatic arena can be sharply contrasted with the actual portion of a carbon-intensive industry in its national economy. The author refers to this discrepancy as climate hypocrisy but does not define the term itself. The author argues that Norway’s self-perception as a benevolent state and Australia’s fractured national identity, as its perception of itself as a middle power state, are crucial to understanding why the former’s government has been much more responsive to the UNFCCC’s call for climate leadership and why it was much more troubled by the contradiction between its climate and energy policies. That is, while Norway has portrayed itself as a climate leader, its status as a high-tech petroleum and gas producer has created a contradiction. This study suggests that Norway’s behavior exhibited climate hypocrisy, even though it does not elaborate on the concept theoretically.

However, there should be academic attention paid to the concept and its impact on global climate politics. Recent observations made by environmental pundits and activists suggest that while actors in global environmental politics, including states and firms, have committed themselves to higher levels of climate goals, many of those promises remain unfulfilled. Jayati Ghosh (2021), Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, for instance, argued that many of the statements by leaders of developed countries at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 summit in Glasgow were at odds with their actual climate policies and with what they were saying in other settings.

As the first attempt of its kind, this study applies, if not theorizes, the concept of hypocrisy to the climate change issue in international politics. This study defines climate hypocrisy as the discrepancy between actors’ stated goals and their actual behavior in the climate change arena. It refers to the gap between the publicly-stated objectives and policies compared to the actual behavior with regards to climate change. This study postulates that such discrepancy is prone to domestic and international criticism and undermines the credibility of a country and hinders its fulfillment of the original goals. This study fleshes out the concept by illustrating this argument through the case of South Korea’s continuous involvement in coal-fired power plant programs in Southeast Asia.

Global Divestment Trend: A Brief Introduction

As climate change and its negative impacts escalate, there has been a growing call for the reduction of coal-fired power plant financing and development around the world. Major economies such as the U.S. and European countries have been decreasing new investments in the coal sector and have begun to direct them to renewable energy over the years. For instance, the United Kingdom (UK) closed down 2.8GW coal capacity in 2018, a large part of the total 3.7GW coal retirements at the whole European Union (EU) level. Coal power accounted for 39% of the total electricity generation in the UK in 2012, but it declined to 5% in 2018. More than half the EU member countries have committed themselves to phase out coal use by 2030, and Germany by 2038 (Shearer et al. 2019, 7).

Renewable energy proportions in these advanced economies as a total percentage of their electricity generation have continued to rise. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA 2021)’s Renewables Market Report 2021, the growth of the world’s capacity to generate electricity from solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable technologies is to accelerate over the coming years, with 2021 expected to set a fresh all-time record for new installations. The report expects global renewable electricity capacity to rise more than 60% from 2020 levels to over 4,800 GW, equivalent to the current total global power capacity of fossil fuels and nuclear combined, by 2026. The amount of renewable capacity added over the periods between 2021 and 2026 is expected to be 50% higher than from 2015 to 2020, due to stronger support from government policies and more ambitious clean energy goals announced before and during the COP26 Climate Change Conference. This global growth of renewable energy suggests a transition away from fossil fuels, mainly coal, is at hand.

Moreover, governments at both national and sub-national levels as well as corporate entities have joined coalitions to facilitate global low-carbon transition. For instance, Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), consisting of 33 national governments, 28 subnational governments and 43 businesses, has worked to share best practices to support the phase-out of unabated coal, including coal financing, and to adopt practical initiatives to support low-carbon transitions through clean energy programs and targets (PPCA n. d.).

International organizations have also reinforced their financing regulations applying to fossil fuel projects. For instance, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has adopted policies that urge its member states to reduce their financing of fossil fuel projects. The OECD Arrangement on Officially Supported Export Credits, was agreed upon in 2015 and enacted in January 2017. This arrangement forbids the financing of projects with less than ultra-supercritical efficiency unless specific host country conditions are met. Those conditions include host countries with eligibility for International Development Assistance (IDA), low electrification rates, and geographically isolated conditions such as remote islands (Trencher et al. 2020, 9).

Moreover, non-state actors such as trade unions, civil society organizations, and academic institutions (including student bodies) have joined the so-called divestment movement, pressuring governments and corporate entities to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels by withdrawing investment from the coal sector (Ayling & Gunningham 2017; Healy & Debski 2017). The movement was sparked by the idea of an environmentalists Bill McKibben about a decade ago with the idea that financial institutions and civil society should work together to save the planet. Such divestment movements have aimed to interrupt financial flows supporting fossil fuel extraction and related infrastructure under the motto of “keep it in the ground.” According to a report (SEI et al 2019), individuals and institutions have already pledged to divest over USD 11 trillion from fossil fuel holdings. Forbes (201) argues that the movement has gained remarkable traction recently, going from a fringe strategy to a USD 14.5 trillion movement with over a thousand major investors, pension plans, and endowments committed.

Divestment movements and activism at various levels have contributed to the diffusion of the anti-fossil fuel norm, affecting investment policy and decisions. There has been increasing recognition that extraction of fossil fuels and construction of carbon-intensive power plants must be reduced if global climate targets are to be met. Commercial banks and financial institutions involved in coal financing today have shared such an understanding as they face higher risks of reputational and brand damage through negative media coverage if they are found to be supporting the fossil fuel industry. For instance, Bank of America lost over 60,000 accounts due to its continued financing of thermal coal mining during the Rainforest Action Network coordinated campaign called “Move Your Money.” (Influence Map 2019, 21).

Under increasing pressure, financial institutions have been making efforts to stop being blamed and become the leading force of a global shift away from fossil fuels. According to US think tank IEEFA, more than 100 financial institutions globally have made commitments regarding investment in thermal coal mining and/or power (Influence Map 2019). For instance, the state of California amended its state law in September 2015 to order its public pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS which manage about 360 trillion won, not to make new investments in coal companies and to withdraw existing investments by July 1, 2017. The Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global with 1,000 trillion won under its management (which is one of the biggest pension funds in Europe) amended its regulations in December 2014, setting investment criteria that prohibit investment in coal power generation or coal mining companies that rely on coal for more than 30% of their electricity production or revenues. It is not just public financial institutions but also private financial institutions, such as the German Allianz (ABL), the French AXA and so on, that have joined this divestment trend of withdrawing investment from coal companies and related industries (SFOC 2018, 23).

All of these trends suggest that the global energy transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources has gained momentum under the escalating climate change crisis.


Commitment to Carbon Neutrality at Home and Abroad

As various actors have committed themselves to clean energy and moving away from fossil fuel, South Korea has also adopted policies to reduce the portion of coal in its energy mix. South Korea began developing its interest in renewable energy back in the late 1980s as a way to address growing environmental problems caused by its heavy fossil fuel consumption that was vital for rapid economic development and industrialization. Moreover, the government aimed to improve its energy security by reducing its heavy reliance on energy source imports and boost its economic competitiveness by nurturing the renewable energy sector as a new growth engine. The Korean government introduced the Law on the Promotion of Alternative Energy Technology Development in December 1987 and set targets for developing technologies in 11 renewable energy sectors by 2001. In December 1997, the government amended the aforementioned law, introducing the Law on the Development, Usage, and Distribution of Renewable Energy to further expand renewable energy use. In 2002, the Korean government began to promote the renewable energy industry more actively with the introduction of the Renewable Energy Law, providing legal, institutional, and policy support for the growth of the sector (e.g., feed-in tariffs, subsidies for housing equipped with solar power systems, and tax benefits).

As a result, renewable energy grew gradually. However, South Korea’s renewable energy consumption in 2015 was among the lowest within the OECD. This poor achievement had to do with a national energy policy that prioritized coal and nuclear energy as primary energy sources while relegating the role of renewable energy merely as complementary.

It was under the Moon Jae-in administration that renewable energy began to be promoted by receiving more governmental attention. Upon coming to power in May 2017, the Moon administration introduced a national energy plan, marking a departure from previous administrations that had largely pursued policyies of promoting and expanding nuclear energy as Korea’s competitive energy industry.

Several factors informed the Moon administration’s energy transition policy. First, the South Korean government made an international commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37% from the Business as Usual (BAU) level by 2030 under the Paris Agreement. This Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) introduced in June 2015 under the Park Geun-hye administration meant that the electricity sector alone must reduce 64.5 metric tons of CO₂, or a 19.4% reduction from BAU, making it the largest reduction category. This commitment, made under the international climate regime, required South Korea to make a transition to a low-carbon economy, even under a new administration, and pursue a greener growth path. While this NDC was criticized for being insufficient considering the size of the Korean economy and its emission level, the goal still meant a drastic change in domestic industrial and energy policy. The Moon administration faced international pressure to deliver its NDC and possibly replace it with a larger reduction ambition, although such a pursuit might be unpopular domestically. Second, a transition to a low-carbon society was promoted as a way to address domestic environmental concerns. Korea experienced unprecedented levels of air pollution represented by particular matter (PM) 2.5 and PM 10 over the years. Thus, the Moon administration proposed the energy transition policy as a partial solution to such problems, promising to reduce PMs by 30% and remove ten thermal power plants older than 30 years by 2022. The administration announced a plan to close seven out of 59 coal-fired plants older than 30 years to mitigate the air pollution and expand green energy (The Korea Herald 2017).

Against this backdrop, the Korean government released the Eighth Basic Plan on Electricity Demand and Supply (2017~2031) and the Renewable Energy 3020 plan as the blueprints for the country’s energy transition in December 2017. These documents heralded South Korea’s willingness to make a transition from an energy system in which fossil fuels and nuclear energy represents the major sources of its primary energy to an energy system in which renewable energy and liquified natural gas (LNG) account for higher proportions. The Moon administration introduced an ambitious goal of expanding the portion of renewable energy from mere 6.2% of the total power generation in 2017 to 20% by 2030. The total installed capacity in the renewable energy category is expected to increase from 15.1GW in 2017 to 63.8GW in 2030, with solar and wind serving as major components.

Together with a plan for the power sector released in 2017, the Korean energy master plan released in 2019 set a target for increasing the portion of renewable sources in its total electricity production to 20% by 2030 and 30-35% by 2040, up from 3% from 2017. This was a sharp increase from the target of 11% by 2035 under the previous master plan. To achieve these goals, in November 2019, the Korean government promised to shut down six coal-fired power plants by 2021, a year earlier than the previously pledged plan, in addition to the four that had been already closed since 2017 (Gabbatiss 2020).

The Moon administration’s energy transition vision was retained even after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The administration and the Democratic Party, which won a landslide victory in the National Assembly election in April 2020, adopted the Green New Deal as the green recovery and economic stimulus package in response to Covid-19. Emulating the European Union and the U.S. which introduced green stimulus policies (Davenport 2021; Johnstone 2022), the Moon administration introduced the Green New Deal with digital and green transition components to revitalize the Korean economy and facilitate the transition to a low-carbon, green society. Social safety elements were also included in this grand national plan to address possible negative consequences such as deepening inequality.

South Korea became the first country to adopt such green stimulus packages in Asia. By introducing the policy, the Korean government aimed to address various domestic concerns such as economic and social ones by creating jobs and by building the necessary infrastructure for digital and green transitions in various fields including electric vehicles, hydrogen cars, smart grids, and so on. Korea’s introduction of the Green New Deal also indicated its ambition to lead global action in the face of structural changes including climate change and pandemic (The Government of the ROK 2020, 4).

Such international ambition was followed by the Moon administration’s announcement of the 2050 net-zero target and an end to coal financing (Gabbatiss 2020). In addition to making the pledge that the country will achieve net-zero emission by 2050, it promised to stop coal financing. At the US hosted Leaders’ Summit on Climate in April 2021, Korea announced that it would stop financing coal projects abroad immediately (Wang, Liu & Wang 2021). President Moon said “to become carbon neutral, it is imperative for the world to scale down coal-fired power plants,” and developing countries that are struggling due to their dependence on coal “should be given due consideration and access to proper support” (Reuters 2021). Although exceptions were announced for retrofitting, carbon capture and storage, and approved projects one month later (SFOC 2021), Korean firms including financial groups such as KB, Shinhan, Hana and Woori followed suit, announcing their own plans to make their investment portfolios carbon neutral by 2050 (Korea JoongAng Daily 2021).

Moreover, in May 2021, the Korean government hosted the second summit of the Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 (P4G). Through this event, Korea aimed to improve its climate diplomacy by making a commitment to carbon neutrality and climate response. It also promised to assist developing countries by sharing lessons from the Green New Deal implementation.

Confirming the administration’s commitment to carbon neutrality, the Korean National Assembly passed the Framework Act on Carbon Neutrality and Green Growth (“Carbon Neutrality Act”) on August 31. The act provides the basis for tackling the climate crisis and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Korea, by enacting the law, became the 14th country in the world to enshrine a carbon neutrality vision and its implementation mechanism into law (Ministry of Environment 2021). The act introduced a climate impact assessment, which is to assess the climate impacts of major national plans and development projects. National budget planning should incorporate emissions reduction targets through a climate-responsive budgeting program. In addition, the act set up a climate response fund to be used to support the structural transformation of carbon-intensive industries.

Based on the Carbon Neutrality Act, South Korea finalized its policy roadmaps to achieve the 2050 carbon neutrality goal in October 2021. The Presidential Committee on Carbon Neutrality adopted two alternate roadmaps, but both roadmaps called for the end of coal use in power generation to achieve net zero emission goals by 2050. The first roadmap aims to scrap all thermal power production that use fossil fuels to achieve zero emissions in the electricity sector, while the second roadmap calls for abolishing coal-fired power generation while keeping LNG. According to these roadmaps, the portion of coal and LNG in the country’s electricity mix will be lowered to 21.8% and 19.5% by 2030, compared with 41.9% and 26.8% in 2018 respectively (Lee 2021). In addition, the Moon administration submitted an updated NDC to the UNFCCC in December 2021, setting the target of reducing emission to 40% below 2018 levels. This upgraded target was a significant improvement compared to the previous NDC of 24.4% below 2017 levels that the administration had previously set, replacing the one adopted under the Park Geun-Hye administration.

In sum, the South Korean government has made efforts to make a transition to a low-carbon economy and society to fulfill its international commitments under the Paris Agreement and expand its economic competitiveness. The country’s updated NDC, Green New Deal policy, and 2050 carbon neutrality goal indicate the country’s commitment to the transition from the carbon-intensive economy to a low-carbon, green economic system. Achieving these goals means that the country will reduce its dependence on coal as part of global efforts to respond to climate change not only domestically but also internationally.

South Korea’s Involvement in Coal Capacity Expansion in Southeast Asia

Despite the Korean government’s domestic and international pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by moving away from fossil fuels and making a green transition in its economy, South Korean public and private firms’ involvement in the coal-fired power plant projects has continued.

Southeast Asia remains one of the regions recording the fastest economic and population growth rates. Countries in this region consume much more electricity today for industrialization, urbanization, and improvement of people’s living standards compared to the past. Most of the current and future electricity needs are to be met by coal, which remains relatively cheap and abundant in the region (Koplitz et al., 2017). According to the IEA, coal demand in Southeast Asia and India is estimated to rise at double-digit rates while global coal demand will rise by just under 1% from 2017 to 2030, as demand is expected to decline in the U.S., Europe, and Japan (Yoshinobu 2020). Indonesia and Vietnam have been the two leading countries when it comes to the expansion of the region’s coal capacity. Indonesia had 147 coal-fired power plants in 2011, but this number is expected to jump to 323 by 2030, with tens of new ones already under construction. The number of coal power plants in Vietnam will increase from 38 in 2011 to 133 by 2030 (Uddin, Zakkour & Lewington 2019; Koplitz et al. 2019).

Indonesia and Vietnam have developed their coal sectors using domestic resources and local technology, but they have largely relied on foreign investment due to the lack of advanced coal technology and financial resources. Over the years, China, Japan and South Korea have emerged as the major sources of such technological provisions and project funding (Baruya 2017; Greenpeace East Asia Seoul 2019; Influence Map 2019; Trencher et al. 2020; Zhao and Alxandroff 2019). These three countries have provided close to 88% of total overseas coal financing arranged by G-20 countries (Choi 2022). Facing rising domestic and international pressure to reduce fossil fuel use and to deliver their NDCs under the Paris Agreement, the coal technology and industry of these Northeast Asian countries have gone abroad to explore offshore projects with project financing backed by their domestic banks.

According to the Global Coal Exit List released by German environmental group Urgewald, Korea was the 9th largest investor in the world’s coal industry as of January 2021 (Korea JoongAng Daily 2021). Southeast Asia remains one of Korea’s top investment destinations, and Indonesia and Vietnam are the two main countries where this investment has been directed.

Korean companies have participated in various coal-related projects, ranging from upstream activities, such as mining development and coal import, as well as downstream activities such as investment in coal-fired power plants and their construction and operation. Korean public financial institutions have provided project financing and export credits. For instance, export credit agencies such as Korea Trade Insurance Corporation (K-Sure) and Export-Import Bank of Korea (Korea Eximbank), both public corporate entities, have provided insurance for local Korean companies against potential risks (such as political risks like the nationalization of plants, constraints in foreign exchange, moratorium, civil wars and so on) in host Southeast Asian counties. As public agencies, K-Sure and Korea Eximbank have served the national agenda of boosting Korea’s economic competitiveness by promoting trade and overseas investment by providing export credits to support overseas investments and development projects as well as by serving as trusted safety net for Korean trade, investment and finance. Therefore, export credits provided to Korean domestic firms via these financial firms mean national assistance is being granted to help domestic companies run their businesses smoothly in target countries (Gabbatiss 2020).

According to research findings by Solutions for Our Climate (SFOC 2018, 2), a Korean non-profit organization established in 2016, Korean public financial institutions have provided 9,427 billion won worth of financial support for domestic coal-fired power plants while investing 9,416.3 billion won in international coal-fired power plants built since 2008. In the case of foreign coal power plants, the Korea Eximbank financed about 5,100 billion won, while K-Sure financed about 4,000 billion won. In addition, the Korean Development Bank (KDB) has also participated in international coal financing. Financial institutions like these were ranked fifth and ninth in terms of the scale of the financial support for coal-power projects in 2013 and 2015 each in the world, according to a report released by international NGOs such as Oil Change International (Oil Change International et al. 2017; SFOC 2018, 3). The majority of South Korean public financing for coal projects has gone to Southeast Asia, with Vietnam and Indonesia having received 94% (Choi 2022).

Table 1 and 2 below list some of the examples of the coal-fired power plant projects that the K-Sure and Korea Eximbank have financed in Vietnam and Indonesia in recent years.

Project financing decisions of these public financial agencies, however, have not been always based on a careful consideration of the social and environmental impact of the projects, not to mention the projects’ overall impact on climate change. Moreover, the continuous involvement of Korean firms in coal financing and coal project development have raised concerns within the international community, undermining the credibility of Korea’s publicly announced commitment to carbon neutrality and climate change response.

First, Korean firms have often adopted much lower environmental standards for overseas coal projects. The emission standards for major pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and PM, are set at much lower levels in environmental impact assessments of coal-fired power plants in Southeast Asia (SFOC 2018, 20).

Southeast Asia’s dependence on coal has already taken a toll on public health in the region, causing various diseases including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases among the population. A study (Koplitz et al. 2017) estimated that the number of excess deaths in the region per year as a result of coal emissions would increase from average 19,880 at present to 69,660 by 2030. The highest mortality rate is likely to occur in Indonesia (24,400 excess deaths per year from coal emissions) and in Vietnam (19,220 excess deaths per year). Coal emissions from the region in 2030 could exceed the combined sum of emissions from the U.S. and Europe (Koplitz et al. 2017).

In this context, the expanding activities of coal capacity by Korean firms, including the construction of coal power plants, have met local opposition in the host countries. On April 19 of 2017, the Bandung State Administrative Court (PTUN) of Indonesia ordered the suspension of the environmental license issued by the West Java Province (BPMPT) for Cirebon 2 in a lawsuit against Hyundai filed by WAHLI (Indonesian Forum for the Environment), an Indonesian environmental NGO founded in 1980. A day before the verdict came out, however, the Korean Eximbank signed a lending contract for Cirebon 2 (SFOC 2018, 19), and later in July, the court overturned the suspension, giving a green light to the project. Moreover, some Korean companies have faced criticism that they have been involved in illicit practices such as bribing local authorities to secure deals for the project. For instance, Hyundai Engineering and Construction was accused of such corrupt practices in the case of Cirebon 2.

While Korean firms might have been able to circumvent such local opposition thus far, they are likely to meet increasing opposition and criticism as the living standards in the Southeast Asian countries improve and as these countries introduce more stringent environmental regulations to meet the demands for a cleaner environment resulting from a growing middle class and civil society. This kind of bottom-up demand has been changing the environmental governance in the region already. In Indonesia, for instance, civil society organizations have been forming anti-coal movements. In September 2018, dozens of organizations such as WAHLI, Indonesia Corruption Watch, and the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation announced their support for #BersihkanIndonesia, or the Clean Indonesia Movement. This movement challenged the presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the 2019 election to make commitments to clean-energy and a just energy transition as well as the departure from Indonesia’s dependence on fossil fuels (Jakarta Post 2018). The governments in the region have responded to this call to expand clean energy while reducing coal. The Philippines announced a moratorium on new coal in 2020, which could remove up to 10 GW of planned coal capacity from the current pipeline. Vietnam saw a record increase in solar capacity in 2019 and the first half of 2020, and is moving towards plans to limit coal and enhance renewable energy (King 2016; Fuentes 2021). Therefore, the risk of local opposition is likely to increase against Korean firms if they remain committed to coal.

Second, in addition to the risk of such local opposition, various international sources have pointed out how the coal power assets owned by the Korean firms are likely to face business and financial risks. They have noted that the cost competitiveness of renewables has been increasing globally, even in Southeast Asia. Moreover, thermal coal power generation and associated value chains such as mining, infrastructure and power engineering have become increasingly stigmatized (Influence Map 2019) by anti-coal or divestment campaigns undertaken by various entities such as environmental civil society, global financial institutions and policymakers outside of Korea. These factors are likely to drive up the cost of coal power, posing business risks for Korean coal project lenders, investors and operators.

According to Carbon Tracker, an independent financial think tank that carries out in-depth analyses on the impact of energy transition on capital markets and the potential investment in high-cost, carbon-intensive fossil fuels, the potential value of stranded coal power assets (due to the plummeting cost of renewable energy) represents a significant portion of the GDP of the recipient countries (Influence Map 2019). The Carbon Tracker Initiative of 2019 shows that the value of Korea’s stranded coal power asset risk stands at 6.9% of its GDP, much higher than that of Indonesia and Vietnam. Already, some international financial institutions have withdrawn their investment in Korean firms due to the latter’s involvement in coal projects. For instance, South Korean power company KEPCO appeared on the Norwegian pension fund’s investment exclusion list based on the fund’s new environmental criterion (SFOC 2018, 22).

Finally, the global reputation of Korea is at stake. South Korea has attempted to expand its soft power and economic influence in Southeast Asia over the years. Under the Moon administration, in particular, the country pursued the New Southern Policy, reaching out to Southeast Asia, particularly in the cultural and economic realms. Moreover, South Korea has been branding itself as the agenda setter in global green growth efforts. Korea had begun to accelerate its efforts to improve its global image and credibility in the global environmental diplomacy arena, starting from the Lee Myong-bak administration (2008-2013). The administration aimed to promote Korea’s image as an economically competitive and environmentally-friendly middle power state (Han 2015). Under the Lee administration, Korea succeeded in hosting the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a UN body set up for mobilizing USD 100 billion every year by 2020 from richer countries to finance climate mitigation and adaptation measures in the developing world. Korea became one of the first countries to make a pledge to the fund, with its commitment increased from USD 100 million to USD 200 million (Gabbatiss 2020). Such an effort to exert global environmental leadership continued under the Moon administration as discussed in the earlier section.

The expansion of coal capacity in Southeast Asia by Korean firms, however, can tarnish the soft power and reputation that Korea has been building in the global environmental politics arena while undermining Korea’s image as an innovative economy. While global financial institutions have joined the divestment movement, Korean firms, by remaining locked-in to coal financing and development, have created the impression that they lag behind their peers in the EU and the U.S. For instance, the KDB has continued to finance coal-fired power plants at home and abroad, although it signed the accreditation master agreement with the GCF in 2017. This suggests that the KDB, as the accredited entity, works with the GCF in finding promising projects in developing countries in order to help them reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve climate adaptation capacity. However, the KDB has continued to finance coal projects, raising doubts regarding its credibility as a partner bank of the GCF.

The negative impact and risks posed by the continuous involvement of Korean firms in coal-fired power plant projects in Southeast Asia have raised concerns among Korean environmental civil society and Korean policymakers as well. Some of the Indonesian anti-coal activists and residents from planned coal power plant sites launched anti-coal movements, not just in Indonesia but also in Korea. In August 2019, Indonesian plaintiffs composed of three residents from Java Island filed a petition with the Seoul Central District Court to seek a preliminary injunction against Korean public financial institutions including KDB, Korea Eximbank and K-Sure to stop them from financing power plants in Indonesia. In this case, they were talking specifically about the Jawa Units 9 and 10 to be built 150 kilometer west of Jakarta by Doosan Heavy Industries. The Indonesian plaintiffs, joined by Korean environmentalists, claimed that the power plants would affect both the health of local residents and the environment negatively (Shin 2019).

Moreover, civil society organizations, such as Solution for Our Future (SFOC), informed the public of the situation where Korean public financial institutions have been involved in the expansion of coal capacity in other countries. The Korean National Assembly then began to pay attention to the matter of overseas coal financing. In May 2017, the National Assembly proposed bills to prohibit public financial institutions, including the National Pension Service, from financing coal-fired power plants responsible for air pollution in host countries and contribute to climate change. The parliamentary hearing sessions in October 2017 discussed the state of domestic and overseas coal financing executed by the public financial institutions and called for their responses.

International environmental NGOs have also questioned the government’s commitment to the successful implementation of the Green New Deal. In June 2020, ten international NGOs including Rainforest Action Network (U.S.) and Market Forces (Australia) placed an advertisement on the Washington Post. In this advertisement, these NGOs asked the question: “President Moon, is this Korea’s idea of Green New Deal?” problematizing the continuous participation of South Korean firms in overseas coal financing and infrastructure development (Weekly Chosun 2020).

In sum, South Korean public and private firms have been part of the continued use and expansion of coal-fired power plants in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and Vietnam. Korea’s involvement in these programs, however, has engendered opposition and criticism from various sources. It is not just local civil society in Southeast Asia, but also other international actors including global financial institutions and international environmental NGOs have found fault with Korea’s climate hypocrisy, raising questions regarding its commitment and credibility as far as its national and international climate-related pledges are concerned. Moreover, Korea’s continued participation in coal plant projects has raised the financial risks of the assets owned by the country.


Climate change poses one of the most urgent global threats today. The IPCC (2022) in its Sixth Assessment Report predicts that without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach. In the scenarios assessed, the IPCC shows how limiting warming to around 1.5°C requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak by 2025 at the latest and be reduced by 43% by 2030. Limiting global warming and responding to climate change requires major transitions in the energy sector, which entails reducing fossil fuel use and making a transition to a net-zero energy system through energy efficiency improvements and increased renewable energy use. Over the years, there has emerged a movement, particularly among the global environmental civil society and financial sectors of advanced economies, to keep fossil fuels in the ground and withdraw investment from the coal sector to respond to the deepening climate change crisis. States have joined these efforts, though with varying degrees of commitment. The low-carbon, clean energy transition and investment withdrawal (divestment) from the fossil fuel industry have gradually become the norm. Given that international cooperation is integral for a successful transition away from fossil fuel on a global scale, advanced economies, in particular, should not just reduce carbon emissions at home but also help developing countries achieve their own low-carbon transition by shifting financial support away from fossil fuel production and towards low-carbon solutions (SEI et al. 2019).

However, some countries have demonstrated a gulf between their climate commitment and actual behavior. This gap partly explains how coal continues to account for a large portion of global energy use despite the spread of anti-coal messages and norms. While world coal production fell by 6.2% in 2016, the largest drop on record, coal continues to generate over 40% of the world’s electricity, and advanced economies continue to subsidize fossil fuel exploration that provides financial benefits, displaying the gulf between promises and tangible political action (Brown & Spiegel 2019). Such a gap can be referred to as climate hypocrisy.

To further illustrate the concept of climate hypocrisy, this study has examined the case of South Korea. Despite its commitment to climate change responses and carbon neutrality, Korea has continued to remain involved in the expansion of coal capacity in Indonesia and Vietnam through upstream and downstream development activities. The study then discussed what problems and risks such activities have generated. This study has made theoretical and conceptual contributions by defining the concept of climate hypocrisy and demonstrating how it applies. The term can be applied to describe and analyze various actors’ behavior in global climate politics.

In terms of real-world implications, this study suggests that South Korean firms and financial institutions, including public ones, need to take various opposition and risk factors into consideration. They also need to make more conscious efforts to make their business decisions more accountable to the stakeholders, the people and governments in both host and home countries, as well as the global environment in the age of deepening climate crisis. The financing and execution of coal projects in the developing world has undermined Korea’s vision of becoming an economically innovative green middle power state, contributing to global efforts to address climate change. Moreover, it has undermined the Southeast Asian region’s prospects for a decarbonized transition. The investments made by South Korean public and private firms as well as agencies should be directed towards programs that contribute to the region’s effective climate responses and transition to low-carbon economies.

While this study has applied the term, hypocrisy, to the global climate change politics arena in a rather novel fashion and has illustrated the concept through a case study of Korea’s actions, this research has several limitations. First of all, as a single case study, the findings and implications of this study cannot be generalized to other countries involved in overseas coal financing. One can conduct comparative studies examining various aspects and impacts of overseas coal capacity expansion conducted by other states including China and Japan.

In addition, one of the major limitations of this study is that one cannot always connect the behavior of Korean firms involved in coal-fired power plant projects to the climate hypocrisy of Korea writ large as a country. Although some of the firms in this case study are public financial institutions like KDB, Korea Eximbank, and K-Sure, which are can be largely equated with the country as a whole as they promote the country’s national economic visions and goals, there are private firms, which work more independently from the state, that are involved. Thus, one cannot simply equate these actors’ behavior with Korea’s climate hypocrisy as a whole. More systematic research needs to be conducted to explore how these firms’ behavior contribute to Korea’s image as a hypocritical country in the climate change realm. Moreover, while the involvement of Korean firms in coal projects in Southeast Asia seems to have generated domestic and international criticism, raising doubt regarding the country’s commitment to actions necessary to tackle climate change, Korea’s soft power has been growing in other realms such as cultural and economic ones (see for instance, Ainslie 2016). Thus, one needs to see how Korea’s seemingly hypocritical behavior in the climate change realm has affected the overall soft power it has built over the years in Southeast Asia to reach a conclusion about the comprehensive effects of Korea’s engagement with the region. Finally, to generate a more comprehensive picture of coal power capacity expansion in Southeast Asia, one needs to conduct more research on the perspectives and motivations of the Southeast Asian countries as stakeholders in such expansion.

Fig. 1. Coal Power Stranded Asset Risk by Country, 2019
Table. 1. K-Sure’s Coal Project Financing in Vietnam
Table. 2. Eximbank’s Coal-Fired Power Plant Project Financing in Indonesia and Vietnam
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