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South Korea begins the first public hearings on a climate lawsuit in Asia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A court in South Korea began on Tuesday, the first public hearings for a climate change lawsuit in Asia. The plaintiffs argue that by not effectively tackling climate change, their government is violating its citizens' human rights. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this story from Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking non-English language).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Plaintiffs, lawyers and activists gathered outside South Korea's Constitutional Court. The youngest of the more than 250 plaintiffs is 17-month-old Choi Heewoo, nicknamed Woodpecker.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY LAUGHING)

KUHN: Woodpecker's mom and legal representative, Lee Donghyun, made him a plaintiff while he was still in her womb.

LEE DONGHYUN: (Through interpreter) The more we think this task can be delayed now, the bigger the burden our future generations will have. I think it's the same as passing on a debt to your children.

KUHN: The suit, Woodpecker et al. v. South Korea, is one of four petitions filed since 2020, which are being considered together by the court. It argues that South Korea's goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030, compared to 2018 levels is insufficient. It will lead to disastrous climate change and violate their constitutional rights. Lee says that without fundamental reforms, South Korea won't be able to meet even its own modest targets.

LEE: (Through interpreter) It won't be sustainable if we don't make structural changes. That's why I think it's time for the government to reorganize our industries and our consumption in a way that reduces carbon emissions.

KUHN: South Korea's government will likely argue that it's doing everything it can to minimize climate change while supporting the nation's economy. U.S. attorney Thae Khwarg is representing another group of plaintiffs. He says lawyers decided on going to the constitutional court because the case is about constitutional rights. He notes that Article 35 of South Korea's constitution guarantees citizens the right to a healthy environment.

THAE KHWARG: We're not asking for damages. We're really asking the court to just say what they think should be done for the young generation.

KUHN: The public hearing started two weeks after Europe's top human rights court ruled that the Swiss government has violated its citizens' rights by not doing enough to fight climate change. There are other climate lawsuits in progress elsewhere, but when it comes, plaintiffs say, South Korea's Constitutional Court ruling is likely to be the first in Asia.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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