Urgent Action Required on Air Quality in Korea

김한영, 박채리l승인2017.05.12l수정2017.05.14 10:42l354호 1면

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 Yellow dust has been a serious health and safety problem in Korea for the last 10 years, yet we still have no effective solutions to combat it in place. In fact, nowadays, ‘fine dust’ (or micro dust), which is more serious than ordinary yellow dust, has become a severe problem in Korea and China. It is obvious that micro dust wields enormous harm on our bodies. People usually breathe 10,000L or 13kg of air per day, which is more than ten times bigger than the amount of food people eat daily. This makes it clear that the air we breathe in, at the volume we need to live, is strongly affected by micro dust and will significantly impact our health. 

▲ Air pollution in China, which is affecting air condition in Korea (Copyright by Google)

 Research shows that about 80 percent of micro dust we see, comes from China. The National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER) analyzed the components of micro dust and it turns out 64% of it, are substances that at critically harmful to human health.  Among these poisonous substances are nitrates and sulfates, both of which are generated by burning fossil fuels. China’s overall reliance level on fossil fuel is about 70%. The Chinese government runs a heating system that runs on anthracites. They rely on anthracites every night from November through until the end of April. By the end of the year, the numerical values of pollutants in the air are 8 to 16 times over The World Health Organization’s safety standard. According to the Korean Meteorological Administration, micro dust usually occurs in winter and spring, which overlaps with China’s heating months. Another air pollutant is sulfur, a by-product of fossil fuels. The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has a weak regulation policy on sulfur emissions as compared to the United States or South Korea. Thus, most of the motorcycles and cars in China emit more highly-concentrated pollutants than they do in other countries. In the northern part of China, factories for heavy industry use coal as a main source of fuel. All these poisonous substances travel on westerly winds and flow into Korea’s atmosphere.

 Since the biggest factor in Korea’s micro dust problem is Chinese inaction, there are limits to what the Korean government can do on its own.  Clearly the two governments need to work together to find a solution. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (FMPRC) seems quite indifferent to the problem. Although experts have pointed out that China is critically affecting Korea’s fine dust problem, FMPRC is requiring ‘absolute’ scientific proof that China is guilty. The media is speculating that China’s lukewarm response to the problem is because they have nothing to lose. Despite both governments having signed cooperative agreements on this environmental problem, substantial action has been slow and progress has been almost insignificant. NIER established a joint research center in Beijing. Their mandate was to identify the fundamental cause of micro dust, but so far all researchers have managed to accomplish is a daily concentration of dust measure. Ever since the Ministry of National Defense (MND) decided to accept the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), things have gotten worse for the Ministry of Environment. It is now harder than ever to seek Chinese cooperation on the matter. In fact, the recent unofficial anti-Korean policy in China has impeded the execution of the memorandum. A meeting of the Environmental Secretaries of Korea, China, and Japan was planned for the 26th of April, but was in doubt due to the THAAD conflict. In the end, the meeting did take place and ended with a further commitment from all participating nations to work together to combat the air quality problems. However, the agreement does not go far enough. The participants agreed to merely track yellow dust to project its travel routes leaving the more serious micro dust to be dealt with in the years to come. The Chinese Ministry of Environment committed to opening a control tower for particulate dust in Beijing in 2016. Despite efforts to persuade them to live up to this commitment, the project is still under discussion. Here at home the problem isn’t getting much more action. Korean citizens are demanding effective policies, but instead they are seeing passive action like fines for operating old diesel cars.

 Since the Korean government has chosen instead, to focus on passive action to respond to the micro dust problem, a private environmental group called, ‘Korea Green Foundation’ was launched to act and address the matter. For the first time in Korea, an organization is actively seeking to prosecute the Korean and Chinese governments for our fine dust problems.
To learn more about their work, The Dankook Herald (DKH) interviewed the president of the foundation, Choi-Yul. First, the DKH asked why we have not seen any proper solutions to this problem. Mr. Choi argued the Korean government has acted as if they have no responsibility to address the problem and that Korean people are not interested enough in resolving this issue. He decided the best way to draw attention to the problem is to sue the Korean and Chinese governments, hopefully encouraging them to take proper and practical action on this serious health matter.

 Second, the DKH questioned Chinese responses to the problem. He stated that, according to a survey from the nation’s official press office in China, only 5% of Chinese think that they are responsible for the fine dust pollution in Korea. This means, that while the Chinese know they are responsible for air pollution, they are not aware of how severe an impact their actions are having on neighboring countries. Moreover, he mentioned that this is happening because the press in China is less likely to report the fact that fine dust in China is having a global impact.

 The DKH asked what practical solution is there for dealing with micro dust. He insisted that there should be official and practical agreements addressing this environmental problem. The Korean government should take an active approach and scientifically prove both nations have a responsibility in solving this problem and encourage the Chinese government to come up with a supportive plan for cooperation on this problem.

 There is a specific human right that people around the world need to be assured of. That is the right to pursue happiness, vouched for under a nation’s constitutional law. Environmental rights are a fundamental part of this human right to happiness. In other words, if someone is living with dangerous air pollution, it is a violation of human rights and their government, which is supposed to secure their basic human rights, is not living up to their responsibilities. Now is the time for the Korean government to stop violating the environmental rights and damaging the health of their citizens. They need to start instead, to defend their people, in the hopes of a better future for all.


김한영, 박채리  dankookherald@gmail.com
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