Spring. Cherry blossoms draping the country in a vivid pink, the sun bathing us all in a warm embrace, the winds enveloping the atmosphere in a gentle cool, and to top it all off, enough dust in the air to give us all smoker’s lung.
Korean spring has been plagued for a very long time with what is known as hwangsa, or yellow dust. Dust from deserts in the west are blown over here by powerful winds and turns the beautiful scenery in Korea into a pneumonic nightmare. People walk around with runny noses, persistent coughs, and face masks and it’s been an especially bad case in 2017. Air pollution in Korea has reached record highs as the country issued 85 ultrafine dust warnings, a whopping 100% increase compared to the 41 issued last year.
But this problem became strangely political this year. Experts are saying that the notably bad spring air is neither exclusively nor primarily from dust storms, but mostly from home. Overseas particles account for 20% and 30% of the air pollution according to Kim Shin-do, a professor of environmental engineering at Seoul National University and Greenpeace respectively. In contrast, the South Korean environment ministry puts that figure as high as 80%. To make things even more bizarre, authorities have even blamed cooking mackerel as a leading source of the massive decline in air quality. “Fishy” doesn’t even come close to describing this nonsense.
Turns out the big new player in Korea’s questionable air is the rise in coal plants. When Korea was hit by a nuclear power scandal, the country fired up its old coal plants and even built new ones with even more capacity for coal. More coal, more pollutants, more black lungs. Coal is a resource that is being phased out more and more as the world focuses on climate change, yet despite people’s best efforts, it remains like an ugly black stain on a sundress. Korea is an energy hungry country, drowning in electronics, so it’s no wonder that they needed something to get them their power fix. Yet, the country is trading the five extra minutes of air conditioning for future pulmonary deaths and a horrible environmental reputation.
Despite politicians touting that they will implement pollution control, nothing of significance has been achieved. The general attitude is so similar to the Saenuri party’s years ago, and based on what we have now, this is definitely not what the government should be doing. Air pollution is only getting worse and the fact that the coal plants here are allowed to chug at maximum capacity doesn’t really give much hope. Moon Jae-in’s and Ahn Cheol-Soo’s promises to shut down old coal plants and reduce coal operation levels to 70% are only tiny steps for the big coal problem. There are natural gas plants left unused that could provide power for a far smaller footprint, yet there is more emphasis on “talks” with China for pollution reduction (pot calls the kettle coal black right here folks).
What does Korea need to realize this is a serious issue? When elementary schools are cancelling field trips because it’s too dangerous outside? When 44,000 mothers protest at Gwanghwamun Square for their children? When Korea becomes the only OECD country to have a projected air pollution death rate exceeding 1000 deaths per million? Let us get our heads out of the dusty clouds.