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South Korea Says "아니요" (No) to Illegal Timber

Last March, the government of South Korea passed momentous new legislation prohibiting the import of illegally-sourced timber. This built upon efforts over the past several years, during which Korean State Forestry officials attended regional and international policy and technical gatherings with increasing regularity to learn about other countries’ experiences regulating timber imports, and presenting Korea’s likely approach. Korea’s new law came into effect on October 1, 2018.

Eager to learn more details about the legislation and the government’s motives for enacting it, my colleague and I decided to take advantage of a trip to the region to meet with the Korean Rural Economic Institute (KREI), the Korean Forest Service (KFS), and the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM).

During our time in Korea, we learned that the Korean government appears to have undertaken this change because it is the right thing for environmental sustainability and for the long-term competitiveness and sustainability of the industry. They studied global trends of countries regulating their timber trade—such as the US, the EU, Australia, and Japan–and determined that stopping the import and trade of illegal timber and wood products was important. Throughout the process, the Korean government consulted with researchers as well as the private sector, and determined that there was broad-base industry support. In the weeks following implementation, the forest service indicates that companies are actively engaged and eager to comply—sending in required declarations and calling with relevant questions.

The new law is comprised of a group of amendments to Korea’s existing Act on the Sustainable Use of Timbers, and is currently in a pilot phase slated to last one year. Korean importers must submit a declaration of a timber product’s species and origin, as well as documents proving the legal origin of the timber product to both Customs and the Forest Service. If there are no problems upon inspecting the documents, the Forest Service approves the goods for clearance. Otherwise, the Forest Service will undertake further investigation. We understand that the designated inspection agency--the Korean Forestry Promotion Institute—will conduct product sampling, to verify the declared species and other details included on declarations.

During this pilot phase, the law applies only to seven timber product categories: logs; sawn wood; plywood; wood pellets; and laminated, flame-retardant, and anti-decay wood. The government intends to continually assess the effectiveness of the system, and refine its inspection and approach.

The main weakness of this law is that the legality of the products is determined from documents. As EIA has found in numerous investigations, it is all too easy to obtain fake documents certifying legal harvest, purchase, or transportation, through bribery, forgery, or other chicanery. Aware of this weakness, KFS expects to consult with producer country governments in cases where there is suspicion of fraud. KFS also welcomes information that would help them to assess what products, species, and source countries pose particular risks of illegality.

EIA is happy to see Korea add its name to the growing list of countries saying “no” to illegal timber. Of course this law is brand new; its effectiveness remains to be seen. Still, based on our conversations and understanding of the legislation, the requirements are reasonably strong, and the government and other stakeholders seem to share a sincere intention to stop illegal timber. We’ll be paying close attention to the law’s implementation, and we wish Korea success!

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