Asia Minute: South Korea’s Air of Misery

Mar 8, 2019

Air pollution in Seoul | 2005
Credit Craig Nagy / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr

South Korea is wrapping up a difficult period for air quality. Earlier this week, some measures of air pollution in the national capital hit their worst levels in several years. And something else is in the air: politics.

The air was relatively clear in Seoul by the end of the work week, but the government said that at its worst, the pollution earlier this week was six times higher than the level considered safe by the World Health Organization

The focus: very small particles of 2.5 micrometers in size, known as PM 2.5, roughly 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The culprits are by now familiar — everything from coal fired power plants to old diesel engines. As well as pollution that blows over the Korean peninsula from neighboring China.

On Thursday, South Korea’s Foreign Minister said, “It is true that the worsening air quality in South Korea is attributable to a China-originated factor.”

The day before, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry asked, “I wonder if the South Korean side has any clear basis that its smog is from China.” Adding “All countries realize that the cause is highly complicated.”

The pollution has led to domestic political frustration — with Korean media reporting more than 180 petitions about the topic turned over to the president’s office on Thursday alone.

That concern is not a new development.

According to a survey released last spring by the government affiliated Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, air pollution ranked as the most distressing part of life in the country –outpacing any threat from North Korea.