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A family wears masks to protect themselves from a thick haze of fine dust in Seoul. Photo: AP

South Korea chokes on smog and once again seeks to blame China

  • The national average hovered around 102 micrograms of pollutants per cubic metre, putting most of the country into the ‘very bad’ category
  • Air pollution has spiked in other parts of Asia during the past week, with India, Thailand and mainland China all affected

A thick haze of smog has covered South Korea for the second day in a row, prompting officials to close outdoor venues and release health advisories. Parts of Seoul and Gyeonggi province have been particularly affected.

Levels of air pollution became severe on Sunday and worsened on Monday morning as dangerous levels of fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, blanketed the country. PM 2.5 air pollutants are 30 times thinner than a human hair, and can enter the lungs and even the human blood stream when inhaled, causing major health problems.

In parts of Seoul, the pollutants reached 169 micrograms per cubic metre. The national average hovered around 102 micrograms, putting most of the country into the “very bad” category, according to Air Korea’s air quality index.

The Korea Meteorological Association (KMA) expected the levels would remain serious until Tuesday, when it plans to reduce the advisory from “very bad” to “bad”. Levels of pollutants in South Korea on Monday reached more than four times the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for healthy air, which limits the amount of PM 2.5 humans should breathe to 25 micrograms.

A couple takes pictures of the city skyline at Seoul observation deck. Photo: AP

South Korea has in the past sought to blame pollution from mainland China for its problems with air quality. Headlines on South Korea’s Yonhap television claimed the nation is inundated with “air pollution from China”. A comic in the JoongAng newspaper called out President Moon Jae-in for failing to raise the matter with China.

In March, the Chosun newspaper blamed China for moving trash incinerators to the East Coast, where winds can blow smog away from Beijing and possibly towards Korea. Also last year, the Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science claimed to have evidence that a rise in fine dust during spring was partly due to massive numbers of fireworks used in China for Lunar New Year celebrations, citing a spike in potassium in the air as evidence.

“Researchers at the Seoul Institute and labs affiliated with the Ministry of Environment have said China is more than 50 to 60 per cent responsible [for the fine dust],” Seoul mayor Park Won-soon said.

However, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment last month refuted these allegations.

Wang Gengchen, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Atmospheric Physics Institute, told Chinese state media last month that South Korea should more closely monitor the effects of its own development before blaming China.

“South Korea should track domestic pollutants and provide a scientific report before blaming us,” Wang said. “Smog has no borders. It has become a regional problem which requires cooperation rather than blaming each other.”

Indeed, air pollution has spiked in other parts of Asia during the past week. In India, trains bound for New Delhi were delayed on Sunday due to a thick blanket of smog.

China’s fight for clean air gets more complicated

In Thailand, experts warned the public of a threat to public health if the poor air quality persists in Bangkok, the capital city. In some parts of the city, the haze was so thick over the weekend that visibility was reduced to 1km.

On Friday, at least nine cities in China’s industrial heartland of Hebei, Shandong, Henan and Shanxi issued second-level, or “orange”, pollution alerts. Industrial sites including steel mills, coke plants and aluminium smelters were ordered to curtail output by at least an average of 30 per cent during the alerts. Diesel-fuelled trucks were restricted from transporting commodities.

In Seoul on Monday, commuters wearing white surgical masks hurried from subway platforms to office buildings to escape the haze. An outdoor skating rink outside Seoul’s city hall was closed on Sunday due to the “very bad” air quality.

The Ministry of Environment has taken measures to address the rising smog levels. Starting on Sunday morning, power plants in Seoul and Gyeonggi province were forced to reduce their output to 80 per cent of normal operations.

During pollution alerts, some governments impose alternate no-driving days for public servants, with half of them banned depending on whether their cars have odd or even licence plates. Those restrictions could yet be extended to all citizens during pollution alerts. Drivers of older diesel-powered vehicles can also be fined up to US$89 for driving between 6am and 9pm during a pollution alert.

Smog in South Korea used to be a problem confined to the spring but pollution levels have recently remained consistently high for much of the year. The KMA expects levels to remain high this winter, as winds from China and Mongolia that generally carry away air pollutants are expected to be weaker.

South Koreans have complained about the effects of smog on their health. Lee Mee-ji, a make-up consultant in Busan, said she sees the effect of South Korea’s smog on her customers’ skin.

“There’s some customers showing redness when the dust hits their skin, like a rash on the jawline. They complain of sore throats and their skin being itchy,” Lee said.

Pollution warnings as cities in northeast China shrouded in smog

Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and professor at Columbia University, said during a recent visit to Yonsei University in Seoul that the problem was a regional challenge that must be tackled by all parties. He spoke of the wind, solar and hydro energy potential in the region, arguing a grid to connect these energy sources was the best solution for Northeast Asia.

“This would link all the countries together in a common energy system. It is the right answer,” Sachs told an audience at Yonsei. “Is that what wealth means, that you can’t even go outside?”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: S e oul blam es Be iji ng f or p ollution