The election of Moon Jae-in as President of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in May 2017 has brought with it many changes in government policy, perhaps most notably the conciliatory approach he has adopted toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang and the inter-Korean summit on April 28. The most ambitious of President Moon’s proposed reforms, though, relates to South Korea’s energy policy, which was unveiled in June 2017, barely a month after he took office. Yet, this proposal might not go far enough in ensuring South Korea’s energy security, especially when tensions inevitably erupt once again on the Korean Peninsula.
Under President Moon’s proposal, South Korea would turn away from coal and nuclear fission, with coal-fired power generation’s share of the national energy mix dropping from 40% to 21% by 2030 and nuclear power declining to 22% from approximately 30%. Meanwhile, Moon’s plan would have South Korea place greater reliance on gas-fired power and renewable resources in the future; by 2030, gas-fired power’s share of the South Korean energy mix would grow from 18% to 27% and renewables would expand from 5% to 20%. This will, in short, mean installing 47.2 gigawatts (GW) worth of new generating capacity from renewable resources in a period of only 12 years.
While a continued role for nuclear power and an increased reliance on renewables will help ensure South Korea meets or exceeds its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), these reforms will do little to improve South Korea’s weak level of energy security. As has been demonstrated in recent conflicts elsewhere in the world, large-scale energy infrastructure can be targeted by hostile governments or armed factions in order to coerce or inflict economic harm. For example, several armed groups involved in the ongoing Yemeni Civil War have launched ballistic missiles at refineries and oil terminals in neighbouring Saudi Arabia in an effort to compel the Saudis to withdraw their support for the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur al-Hadi. Similarly, in the event of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula or regime collapse in North Korea, it is conceivable that North Korean ballistic missiles could be used to strike refineries and large-scale electricity generating facilities in South Korea.
South Korea total primary energy consumption by fuel type, 2015.
South Korea total primary energy consumption by fuel type, 2015.
In particular, it is worth noting that the SK Incheon Petrochem facility, which processes approximately 275,000 barrels of crude oil per day, is located within range of the conventional artillery that North Korea has amassed along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). South Korea’s remaining four refineries, processing a combined total of 2.7 million barrels of crude oil per day, are within range of many of the missile designs within the North Korean arsenal, from the older Hwasong-6 to the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) unveiled in November 2017. Beyond refineries, several large-scale electricity generating facilities, such as the Yangyang Pumped Storage Power Station, owned and operated by Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power and with a hydropower capacity of 1,000 MW, are sufficiently close to the North Korean border that they could be targeted for a ballistic missile strike. This would have a devastating economic impact, as the Yangyang hydropower project alone provides electricity to about 164,000 households in South Korea and any significant damage to the facility would be very expensive to repair – in terms of both time and resources.
Given this, it is surprising that the new South Korean energy policy does not explicitly promote a transition to distributed generation and a decentralized grid. Such an approach would see South Korea placing greater emphasis on small-scale electricity generation facilities and encouraging each building, particularly in commercial districts, to be self-sufficient, such as through the installation of solar panels or geothermal heating and cooling systems. Distributed generation would be relatively easy for South Korea to implement; with a population density of approximately 507 people per square kilometre, South Korea is the 23rd most densely populated country in the world. As South Korea occupies a small territory of just over 100,000 square kilometres, the necessary infrastructure changes would not be prohibitively expensive either. By locating some power generation facilities close to major population centres, which would be almost unavoidable in such a densely populated country, it would also be possible to avoid high transmission costs. As such, promoting greater reliance on electricity generation from renewable resources without the accompanying change in how that energy is transmitted and distributed to consumers seems a half-measure.
Oil infrastructure of the Republic of Korea (Source: "Energy Supply Security 2014", International Energy Agency, 2014, p. 289).
Political realities may explain why President Moon’s administration is reluctant to take the full steps necessary to guarantee energy security in the face of the North Korean threat. Polling from October 2017 suggests the South Korean public narrowly favours continued investment in nuclear power and, as of this writing, construction continues on five nuclear reactor units: three at Kori Nuclear Power Plant and two at Hanul Nuclear Power Plant. Amid an historic thaw in relations with North Korea, President Moon enjoys an approval rating of 84%. But this popularity could quickly erode if upcoming inter-Korea talks fall through or fail to produce any tangible outcomes, especially as President Moon’s popularity prior to the Olympics had dropped from 70.8% in early December 2017 to 59.8% just over a month later, in January 2018. This may go some way toward explaining why President Moon does not have much appetite for a controversial war on the nuclear industry or a major campaign to significantly change the way South Koreans interact with and manage electricity in their daily lives. This is especially true among young voters, who were key to bringing President Moon to power in 2017 and have shown strong disapproval of the decision to field a team representing a "united" Korea at the Pyeongchang Olympics. These same young voters would be most sensitive to any changes in South Korean energy policy that would suggest a weak level of commitment to the aforementioned Paris Agreement.
As it seems unlikely that President Moon’s popularity will be buoyed in the polls before South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy (MOTIE) begins its implementation of the new energy policy, it is likely South Korea will continue to have weak levels of energy security, characterized by a reliance on large-scale power generating facilities and the importation of natural resources. This further raises the strategic importance for South Korea of participating in the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system proposed by the United States, though this technology cannot fully guarantee national energy security either. As some analysts have noted, more recent missile designs tested by North Korea may have the ability to evade modern ballistic missile defence systems. This would also offer no assurance for the security of those facilities within range of North Korea’s conventional artillery, like the SK Incheon Petrochem facility. The surest guarantee of South Korean energy security, therefore, is to give the North as few targets of opportunity for its ballistic missiles as possible by decentralizing power generation.