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[Lee Jae-min] Our fine dust policy: still clueless while the blanket thickens

All of a sudden, last Friday felt different. Not because it was Friday. Something was obviously different: the air became finally breathable after a miserable week. The level of fine dust (or ultrafine dust) had been the talk of the town throughout the week at meetings and gatherings.

A 2017 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development put South Korea’s fine dust level near the bottom of the countries surveyed, which in fact prompted President Moon to include this issue in his election platform (slashing fine dust by 30 percent during his term). Statistics and science aside, we just feel that each spring is worse than the previous one. Korea’s most popular items this spring are air purifiers and white face masks.

At least what we know for now: the root causes of increasing fine dust are a mixture of both domestic and foreign origins. Domestically, vehicle emission and coal power plants are believed to be the main culprits. From abroad, particulate matters blown over from the continent are cited as a major reason. This is pretty much about it. Beyond this sketchy account, no detailed information is available yet. For instance, the Ministry of Environment’s analysis of the impact from China oscillates between 30 percent and 80 percent of the total fine dust in the nation. Roughly how much is attributable to vehicle emission and coal power plants also shows wide fluctuations depending on the studies and methodologies.

We are still waiting to see the first comprehensive (and I mean comprehensive) national roadmap to cope with this new national challenge. Ministries’ individualized policies and local governments’ compartmentalized decisions are pronounced randomly, many of which are a mere drop in the bucket or (more literally) a spray of an oxygen can into the hazy sky.

As the data gathering and analyses are still either incomprehensive or on-going, the next part -- what to do with them -- is still stuck on the drawing board. In the meantime, the situation gets worse each year.

China may tell Korea what it should do. Beijing has made air pollution one of its top national priorities. And most recently it has reduced roughly 32 percent of the fine dust compared to 2013. In several years, Chinese cities may boast a cleaner sky than ours.

Frustrated grass-root activists are looking to various other options. A public petition is being submitted to the Blue House urging it to find a solution to this problem. Legal action is pending as well. About 100 people initiated a legal proceeding in Korea last May against the two governments -- Korea and China -- citing failures to take concrete steps to remedy the situation and asking for damages of nominal but still symbolic amount.

In a country with a dense population living in a small territory along with many vehicles on the road (the number of registered cars in Korea was 21,800,000 in 2017), we have all the ingredients for a fast deterioration of the quality of air. Our sense of urgency should be different from others.

Last week’s week-long fine dust blanket was juxtaposed with the news that Korea’s 2017 Gross National Income per capita reached $29,745, ready to exceed the $30,000 mark this year. As long as the smog blurs our morning vision, the strong economic performance in terms of dollar amount may not accurately reflect or improve our true quality of life.

In the beginning of last week, my phone rang with an alert text message. It was an advisory for reduced outside activities due to the high level of fine dust. The previous alert messages in the inbox were for the likes of earthquakes or extreme cold and heat. Fine dust is now competing at that level of national urgency.

If this ‘hazy days’ trend continues, Seoul might soon join other heavily polluted cities in the world where expatriates are eligible for an extra hazard pay or environmental hardship allowance. Maybe some of them are already negotiating. An unbecoming label for a country with a $30,000 per-capita GNI. 

Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.