South Korea needs to level up shipbreaking standard

South Korea is home to internationally renowned shipbuilding companies, such as Daewoo and Samsung, however compared to the construction of new ships, there is practically no attention paid to the proper management of end-of-life ships, and this is causing harm to both environment and humans.  

About 44,000 metric tons of old ships and their components are illegally discarded into the ocean every year, and the estimated cost of the damage caused was 380 billion won ($US274 million), according to the Korea Maritime Institute. 

Materials from old ships can cause maritime accidents, for example, when a piece of discarded component wound around/hit a passing ship’s engine.  Abandoned ships can also pollute the ocean.  On July 11, there was an oil spill from a 1,200-ton abandoned ship stranded on a beach near Muan in South Jeolla Province. Residents said the ship has been there for the past three years.

Cemetery of old ships

Several areas along the southern coast of South Jeolla Province are known as cemetery of old ships where hundreds of end-of-life ships are abandoned.  The high cost of shipbreaking is the major reason why end-of-life ships are abandoned.

In 2019, 96 percent of registered ships in the country were made with fiber-reinforced plastics (FRP), according to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. FRP have been used for building ships since the 1980s, as they are sturdy and low-cost. 

Even so, shipowners have to hire heavy equipment to break FRP, such as an excavator or grinder. They also need to ask professionals to incinerate it, because ordinary incinerators are not able to burn it. In total, shipbreaking can cost about 1 million won ($US720) per metric ton. 

In the 1980s, shipowners sent their ships to recycling centers for scrapping but now, recycling centers do not accept shipbreaking since FRP cannot be recycled and scrapping it will damage equipment. Additionally, ships cannot fit into any incinerators.

No legal obligation of shipowners to properly dispose of old ships

A shipowner has to report to the city office to inform authority of their intention to scrap old ships. They have to submit a “confirmation of dismantled ship” issued by the Korea Ship Safety Technology Authority, which does not mandate how a shipowner disposes the ship.  Therefore, there is no legal obligation to dismantle the ship at a proper shipbreaking yard under the authority’s supervision.

There is also the fact that in South Korea, there are only a few companies providing shipbreaking services, mostly near port cities like Busan.  For example, in Busan, there used to be five but now, there are only two shipbreaking yards.

Technically, ships can be exported to other countries for breaking. For example, Sinokor Merchant Marine exported 11 end-of-life merchant ships to Bangladesh and India in 2018. 

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of organizations working to reverse the environmental harm and human rights abuses caused by current shipbreaking practices and to ensure the safe and environmentally sound dismantling of end-of-life ships worldwide, dubbed Sinokor the “worst corporate dumper” in the world.  In the process of breaking the ships, several workers were injured because of poor safety standard.

Go Dong-hun, lead of fisheries research department, Korea Maritime Institute, said shipowners have the responsibility to properly, safely and sustainably dismantle FRP ships, including paying requisite cost.

“In accordance with the polluters pay principle, shipowners must pay for the cost of scrapping old FRP ships, and those who illegally abandoned their ships to avoid the payment should be punished by law,” Go said.

He added the government’s focus should be on both enforcement and meting out punishment as well as lowering the cost of shipbreaking.

Photo credit: iStock/ Milacroft. Stock photo of abandoned ship.

Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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