Fine Dust in Korea: Who Should be Held Responsible?
Korea has been plagued by high fine dust levels, with the Air Quality Index reading exceeding 200 at times. It has become a common sight for almost everyone to be wearing fine dust masks. With no country being held responsible for the fine dust and air pollution being ever present, the situation is only getting worse. This month’s debate discusses both Korea’s and China’s responsibility concerning Korea’s recent fine dust crisis.
A Game of Blame
As clouds of haze rise in the skies, a heated controversy escalates on the ground. Concerns for public health and calls to reduce air pollution rapidly grow as Korea’s air quality index goes downhill. Amidst all of that, an international conflict has also sparked: Korea maintains the accusation that China’s yellow dust pollution is the culprit, while China condemns Korea’s cowardly refusal to take care of its own affairs. While it is tempting to place the blame on Korea, there are a few things about China’s involvement that is often overlooked in this stance.
Before delving too deep into this matter, it is best to know how it all began. As explained in an Asia Society article, the yellow dust, or hwangsa as it is often called in Korea, originates from the deserts in Northern China and Mongolia and is carried by wind to the Korean peninsula. While the dust itself is not really harmful per se, the industrial pollutants and microorganisms it brings are hazardous for respiratory health. According to the National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER), 75% of Korea’s fine dust pollution comes from external sources, and in 2016 joint study by NIER and NASA also reported that the haze from China was responsible for 34% of Korea’s pollution. With all this in mind, it is not surprising that the Korean society blames China.
Following continuous protests from Korea, Chinese officials have also responded to the backlash. Bingjiang Liu of China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment has spoken out that while China’s air quality has been steadily rising since 2013, Seoul’s fine PM2.5 particle concentration was either steady or worsening. Various other opinions have also been raised against the Korean government’s tendency to pass the responsibility onto China, while neglecting the fact that Korea’s share of industrial pollution is not much better than China’s. This is especially because coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) consumption in Korea has surged over the past decade, as reported by the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. But is this really all there is to it?
Countless studies have been completed; even NASA has helped Korea attempt to unveil the real source of this pollution. However, what good will the results of those studies do if they are just a tool in determining which party is more eloquent in blaming the other? Will this game of blame ever end? One thing is certain, though. Even if Korea somehow manages to drastically reduce its local pollution, it still will not be able to stop the influx of harmful yellow dust from China. While it is true that Korea needs to acknowledge and minimize its own industrial pollution, it does not change the fact that China is still accountable for more than one third of Korea’s air pollution. To make matters worse, Korea is in unfavorable climate conditions, according to Yong-seung Shin of the Research Institute of Public Health and Environment. The atmosphere above the Korean peninsula has been stagnant because of the lack of wind and warm temperature, making it extremely hard to clear the fine dust particles from China. As long as Korea receives the flow of fine dust from China, its efforts to reduce local pollution will be in vain.
At the end of the day, everything calls for both China and Korea to stop disputing about their share of blame and instead begin looking for ways to actually overcome their shared air quality problem. A recent initiative by President Moon Jae-in to start a joint artificial rain project with China is already a good step. Not only is it a beneficial move for both parties, it can also be a means for the two countries to reconcile and hopefully cooperate in the future.
By Chrysan Angela
The Finger Should Be Pointed Inwards
Even though the commonly held belief in Korea is that its fine dust originates from China, it simply isn’t right to blindly blame China instead of evaluating Korea’s own pollution production and efforts to combat its high fine dust levels. It most likely is the case that the Korean government’s inaction to properly devise a solution for its domestic air pollution has led to dangerously high levels of fine dust.
Although the reliability of the data is questionable, according to the Seoul Institute and the Ministry of Environment, around 50% of the fine dust in Korea originates from China. However, there remains the fact that Korea has numerous industrial areas within the country itself, including about 50 coal plants with plans to build even more. Furthermore, according to the Ministry of Trade, liquefied natural gas sales within Korea have increased over the past decade, which would naturally lead to more air pollution. In 2016, the South Korea-United States Air Quality (KORUS-AQ) research was conducted by NASA in order to determine the sources and levels of air pollution in Korea. It revealed that high local nitrogen oxide emissions combined with organics that are not possible for transboundary transport resulted in high ozone pollution levels. These particles contributed to nearly half of the aerosol mass in the air. Although nitrogen oxide is not responsible for fine dust formation, its production is a good indicator for fine dust emission levels. Furthermore, there was also evidence to suggest a significant production of secondary particulate pollutants, which provides further indication that Korea’s own air pollution production is a substantial factor in the current fine dust crisis.
One reason as to why the fine dust levels have become abnormally high in Korea for the past few years could be the Korean government’s incompetence in the devisal of a proper solution. For a long time, the press, as well as the government, only focused on the severity of the issue and didn’t seem to have plans to combat it. Currently, it seems as though there is a lack of proper solutions such as support for the socially vulnerable concerning the effects of fine dust, increased supply of, and infrastructure for, electric and hydrogen fuel cars, and increased efforts to diminish industrial activity that leads to fine dust production while incentivizing low-pollution industries.
The lack of such efforts over a longer period reveals how current plans by the Korean government are too short-term to be sustainable. According to Segye Ilbo, even the policies that were revealed as a result of the recent fine dust situation, such as the increased limitation put on automobile usage and the plan to develop an outdoor air purifier seemed to have been hurriedly developed. The latter plan has been under scrutiny, as citizens question whether or not public air purification will be enough to alleviate fine dust levels while the dust cloud covers the entirety of Korea as well as China. Thus, the lack of proper and reliable solutions is one of the main factors as to why the fine dust levels in Korea has reached such a high level.
Only recently has President Moon addressed the need for collaborative work with foreign governments in order to devise a true long-term solution. However, progress seems to have stagnated between the Korean government, which continues to blame China for the air pollution, and the Chinese government, which refuses to cooperate without recent and reliable data to support these claims. Rather than trying to find the source for the fine dust, the Korean government should be more focused on working to find a solution as this is an issue of an international scale, not one that a single country can be held responsible for.
Thus, while it is true that on the surface, a large portion of the fine dust in Korea originates from China, the Korean government must also be held responsible for its poor efforts at devising a solution at both a national and international scale.
By Woong Gyu Park