SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea rose from poverty to prosperity on the back of brawny industrialization, manufacturing carbon-heavy autos, ships and steel for the rest of the world mostly under the stern guidance of military-backed governments.
Now, President Lee Myung-bak sees a crisis coming for Asia's fourth-largest economy -- one of the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluters -- amid growing calls to curb global warming. But Lee, a prominent player in South Korea's industrialization as the former CEO of a construction giant, also sees business opportunities lurking in the crisis. He is at the center of efforts to drive the country in a new direction.
Lee is pushing a "low-carbon, green-growth" policy aimed at lessening South Korea's dependence on fossil fuel and promoting the development of substitute energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and other technologies enhancing energy efficiency.
The plan is seen by some as nothing less than an attempt to remodel the decades-old pattern of South Korea's development and could set an example for other economies to follow. Others, however, call it nothing more than old-fashioned pump-priming in a green guise.
"Global warming is a crisis while at the same time an opportunity that can create a gigantic market as it takes a tremendous amount of investment to address it," Lee said in his regular radio address to the nation last month.
The United Nations, which is promoting a campaign to lower greenhouse gas emissions, has praised Lee's plan as a "major attempt to fundamentally transform the country's growth paradigm."
Granted, South Korea is not alone in seeking to add a green hue to its traditionally smokestack heavy economy.
Japan aims to expand the "green business" market and create up to a million new jobs. Taiwan says it will invest $1.3 billion over the next five years to expand and upgrade the island's solar and wind energy industries and help reduce the use of fuel.
But South Korea's drive, involving some 87 billion dollars of spending over the next five years, stands out not only for its scale, but also in terms of the strength of Lee's commitment.
It has become an overarching basis for government policies, and Lee rarely fails to mention it in public speeches. He even wore a green necktie during a national ceremony last month in a gesture underscoring his commitment to the policy.
Lee's "five-year green growth plan," announced in July, aims to spend 107 trillion won ($87 billion) on a variety of projects to reduce emissions and develop cutting-edge technologies and other areas.
It is reminiscent of a "five-year economic development plan" that former general-turned-president Park Chung-hee initiated in 1962 to rebuild a country devastated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
That drive, repeatedly extended for decades by successive military-backed governments, is credited for driving the country's rapid transformation into an economic power. South Korea became fully democratic in the late 1980s.
The industrialization, however, made South Korea one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gases blamed for dangerously warming the globe. The country now fears its economy could suffer unless it is ready for a mandatory requirement to cut emissions at a U.N. meeting or if higher trade barriers are built against big emitters like it.
Other challenges Lee's green initiative aims to tackle include the country's heavy dependence on oil and gas imports, which account for a third of total imports, and slowing economic growth.
"Without this, we can't get out of energy vulnerability, and growth will remain stagnant," said Kim Sang-hyup, presidential secretary for national future and vision. "That's why we say this is a strong growth policy."
Key areas of green technologies that South Korea plans to focus on include solar cell, hydrogen fuel cell, wind energy, and light-emitting diodes or LEDs, which are used in making energy-efficient bulbs and other products.
Experts say these areas, though unfamiliar, have strong growth potential, and South Korea can excel in them because it can apply its world-class technologies, such as those used in semiconductor or shipbuilding.
"Though such (green) technologies are very new to us now, these are the areas that have the potential to grow rapidly in gear with climate change and especially oil price rises," said Kang Hee-chan, a senior researcher at the Samsung Economic Research Institute.
Under the government's drive, big companies like Samsung Electronics and Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group have announced multibillion dollar investment plans.
Samsung Electronics said it plans to spend 5.4 trillion won until 2013 to develop environment-friendly products and reduce greenhouse gases from factories. It launched a solar cell R&D line earlier this month.
Hyundai-Kia plans to invest 4.1 trillion won for similar purposes.
Local environmentalists, however, criticize Lee's initiative for including a massive construction project aimed at overhauling the nation's four major rivers, claiming it is a pretext to push for his unpopular campaign pledge to build a grand canal through the country.
About a fifth of the five-year green growth budget is set aside for the river project.
"It's just an economic stimulus package creating menial jobs in construction projects like the four rivers' project," said Lee Sung-jo, an activist with the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement.
The government rejects the claim, saying the river project is an effort to tackle negative effects of climate change, such as floods and water shortages.
"Green growth is a path we can't avoid," President Lee said in a July meeting on his plan. "If it's a path we should take, we should be at the forefront."