The Future of South Korea’s Nuclear Energy Policy

April 27, 2024 Topic: South Korea Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: South KoreaEnergyNuclear EnergyElectionsYoon Suk-yeol

The Future of South Korea’s Nuclear Energy Policy

Abrupt changes in South Korea’s nuclear energy policy can pose significant risks to the stability and reliability of the country's energy supply.


The opposition Democratic Party’s landslide victory in South Korea’s April 10 parliamentary election appears likely to significantly influence the government’s energy policy, particularly regarding nuclear power generation. This could bring about substantial changes in the direction and momentum of future energy policies and intensified conflicts as the victors seek legislative and budgetary adjustments.

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government has announced a range of new policy objectives. It plans this year to move from changes in South Korea’s greenhouse gas reduction target under the Paris Agreement to carbon credit trading and energy supply schemes. The Ministry of Environment is developing a plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Seoul will submit the plan as a part of its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change next year. A carbon trading plan is a likely component of this.


Moreover, although the government was to unveil the 11th Basic Plan on Electricity Demand and Supply (BPE) earlier this year, officials have delayed releasing it, likely in part to align the plan with South Korea’s forthcoming NDC targets.

In South Korea, a central debate has surrounded the roles of nuclear power generation and renewable energy in meeting these targets; each successive government’s inclinations have determined this.

South Korea’s 10th Basic Plan, formulated during the previous Moon Jae-in administration, aimed to increase the proportion of renewable energy generation to 30.6 percent by 2030. When Moon’s Democratic Party lost the presidency in 2022, the Yoon administration revised this target to 21.65 percent. Observers expect Democratic Party legislators to oppose the Yoon government’s 11th plan and its policy of reviving South Korea’s nuclear power industry. Yoon’s government is also seeking to reduce Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) credits, which directly impact the profits of renewable energy generators. Opposition legislators will likely fight this, too.

No less consequential, the parliamentary opposition will probably move to curtail President Yoon Suk-yeol’s nuclear expansion plans. Yoon’s government has been actively promoting the construction of new nuclear power plants. Opposition skepticism could yield delays or cancellations of new nuclear projects. While industry stakeholders vehemently advocate for new nuclear facilities, societal and political resistance could pose significant challenges.

Conversely, the Democratic Party will likely seek a stronger renewable energy policy. This was a critical election campaign promise and a contrast with the Yoon government’s early energy plans.

South Korea’s Democratic Party has generally emphasized a gradual diminution (phase-out) of nuclear power over time without further nuclear construction and in preparation for a complete renewable energy transition. Thus, the shift in the trajectory of nuclear energy policy would probably not accelerate timelines for shutting down existing reactors. Still, some individual legislators may argue harshly against the Yoon administration’s pro-nuclear energy policy. Some opposition legislators are ardent supporters of a 100 percent renewable power goal.

Abrupt changes in South Korea’s nuclear energy policy can pose significant risks to the stability and reliability of the country’s energy supply. Nuclear power plants require long lead times for planning, construction, and decommissioning. Sudden policy shifts disrupt these timelines, increase uncertainty for investors, and delay infrastructure development. 

Any changes to the nuclear energy policy, gradual or rapid, carry other inherent risks and challenges. Considering the long timelines for nuclear projects, even gradual shifts in policy can have significant implications for energy infrastructure and investment decisions. Moreover, maintaining the delicate balance between ensuring energy security, meeting emissions reduction targets, and addressing safety concerns will remain a complicated task.

In the wake of the April 10 election, it is essential for South Korea’s policymakers to carefully consider the potential impacts and implications of any changes to the energy policy landscape. Collaborative efforts between the government and the opposition will be crucial in ensuring the development of a sustainable and resilient energy system for South Korea’s future and, of course, creating jobs, supporting continued industrial growth, and stimulating the economy.

Sinwoo Kim Esq. is a visiting fellow at the Center for the National Interest and managing partner (CEO) at D&A Advisory, DR&AJU LLC’s Washington D.C. affiliate, one of South Korea’s prestigious and pioneering top ten law firms. He got a national interest waiver for permanent residence in the United States and now lives in Tysons Mclean, VA. Email: [email protected].