Environment and Korean Consumer Ethics (or Lack Thereof)
300 tons of water for a concert didn't strike South Korea as excessive until now. Terrible drought is making at least some rethink the status quo.
When PSY, the singer of Gangnam Style fame, declared on May. 4 that each of his summer concerts required 300 tons of drinkable water, he probably didn't expect a controversy to erupt a month later.
He was on the popular TV talkshow Radio Seuta 라디오스타 (Radio Star) to promote his upcoming summer tour, suspended for the last two years because of Covid. "At concert venues we mobilize water mains and even water trucks," he said. "All that water costs a lot of money."
Given the Korean name Heumbbeoksyo 흠뻑쇼 (translated as "The Totally Wet Show"), his summer tour, which started in 2011, is famous for liberally spraying attendees with water and routinely sell out.
This year, though, the idea of using perfectly good water for entertainment, so casually brought up by Psy, has landed him in proverbial hot water.
Climate change has put the spotlight on water shortages around the world. California is facing severe drought after winter months proved to be the driest in a century. France saw in April a 25-percent drop in rainfall. The Horn of Africa is "ravaged by worst drought in four decades," declared The Financial Times early May.
If you didn't know, the Korean Peninsula, too, is experiencing one of the worst droughts on record. Over the past six months South Korea received only half of its average rainfall. Precipitation in May was especially poor, equalling only six percent of what it would get during the same month in a normal year.
Yet this growing emergency didn't quite capture full media attention (except when North Korea is concerned, that is) until now. Suddenly PSY's self-promotional comment from early May sounded shameless and tone-death. Incensed netizens began critiquing him on social media. And along with the backlash, parched plots of farmland all over the country became a topic of national conversation.
But whether that signals a widespread awakening of environmental awareness is too early to tell.
South Korea has a mixed record on mobilizing in response to injustice. Allegations of the rich and powerful engaging in gapjil 갑질—oppressing the less fortunate and extracting concessions—certainly make the news and often force those involved to apologize.
A case in point: the 2014 case of Cho Huyn-ah, a daughter of the then-Korean Air chairman, generated a flurry of headlines. She had thrown macadamia nuts at flight crew and forced the plane to turn back to gate at the JFK International Airport in New York City. She ended up having to resign her posts at the company and served a prison term for her behavior.
And in 2019 the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo suffered a South Korean boycott leading to a drop in sales after being accused of slighting the legacy of Japanese colonialism. Tourism by South Korean travelers to Japan also took a hit from the bilateral spat over history.
Such actions are, however, short-lived, and ethics doesn't always loom large in most South Korean discussions about consumption.
That was the case when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, leading to calls around the world for boycotting Russian goods to condemn the military aggression. In South Korea, in contrast, consumers reportedly flocked to buy king crab—a delicacy imported from Russia—because prices had fallen steeply due to demand bottoming out elsewhere (including in China, another large market for the crustacean, where Covid forced many lockdowns).
More recently, the eviction of a decades-old drinking establishment by a competitor in Seoul's Euljiro area early May attracted limited ire. OB Eulji Hof was responsible for turning this small corner of central Seoul into a famed hub for draught beer and dried fish (a pairing that may make no sense to you, readers, but is very popular in South Korea).
Manseon Hof, which opened next door by copying OB Eulji Hof's business model, expanded aggressively and bought into OB Euji Hof's building, terminating the rental contract for its more famed predecessor.
Preservation and anti-capitalism activists staged protests in front of the site and attempted to stop the eviction without success, but the queue to get a table at Manseon Hof, made up of indifferent young crowds who consider it something of an Instagram hotspot, stretched for blocks.
In response to the campaign for saving OB Eulji Hof, a common sentiment went: "Does it deserve finger-pointing when a building owner is simply exercising their property right?"
Even as Psy came under fire for wasting water, the discussion quickly moved away from the central issue of drought and collective responsibility toward why Psy should be alone in facing recrimination. If Psy is at fault for his water use, then what about waterparks or golf courses? What about ordinary people wasting water at home?
Sheen Seong-ho, a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University, told the English-language daily Korea Herald back in April, "When it comes to global issues, involving other ethnic groups to which [Koreans] are not directly related, [group action] rarely happens."
The same could be said about climate change, which has yet to have any measurable effect on the population or national policy.
In 2020, only 7.1 percent of South Korea's electricity production came from renewables according to research firm Enerdata. Among the six countries with even smaller shares under scrutiny, five were fossil-fuel producers.
OECD data similarly draws a dismal picture, with only 2 percent of South Korea's total primary energy supply as being from renewables, well behind the US (8 percent), China (10 percent) and the OECD average (11 percent).
South Korea is also one of the world's top producers of CO₂ emissions per capita. Domestic media rang alarm bells this spring that the figure is more than double the global average. Still, emissions have been increasing year after year, giving rise to doubt that the government's stated goal of going carbon neutral by 2050 is possible.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport admits that South Korea is a water-stressed country. Water resource available annually per capital is only 1,553 cubic meters, behind even India, which perennially suffers from drought, but water use, at 183 liters per person per day, outpaces that of most developed European countries except Spain.
(Germany, in comparison, uses only 127 liters per person per day, perhaps because water bills are five times higher than in South Korea.)
All that combined serves to explain in part why the Climate Change Performance Index, which tracks countries' commitment to fighting climate change, ranks South Korea 57th out of 61 nations.
At least the terrible scale of this year's drought is making some citizens think harder about the consequences of climate change.
A farmer in North Chungcheong Province told the national daily Joongang Ilbo on Jun. 6:
"Garlic that should be the size of a child's fist around now is only as small as a golf ball. And garlic stems disintegrate just from being touched [because they are so dry]."
"Cabbage has dried up and turned yellow after stopping to grow. Crops like peppers fruit after blooming, but this year it bloomed even before growing fully because there isn't enough rain," another in the Yongin area not far from Seoul lamented to Gyeonggi Ilbo, which covers the region around the capital, this month.
An acquaintance whose father is a farmer in North Gyeongsang Province recently shared on Facebook:
"I call my father every morning. My greeting used to be 'Did you eat?' but recently it changed to 'Did it rain?'" he wrote. "But it's a powerless cry into the air. It's just like some slogan. Rain will not come.
"What worries me is next year's farming, and the year after that and in the future. There is no hope that things will get better. Drying up waterways are the proof."
Such is the desperation that some villages have taken to holding giuje 기우제—the premodern ritual of praying to heaven for rain. Maybe they worked; the much-needed rain did fall early last week, but not enough to alleviate the overall shortage.
PSY, on his part, has been busy continuing to promote his "Totally Wet" concerts, and tickets go on sale starting Thursday.
For all the news about drought, things are business as usual in South Korea.
Cover: stock image of drought-stricken land (source: Seaq68 via Pixabay)