When two of my co-workers came to pick me up from orientation these were the first three things they said to me (in order):
- Your bags are so heavy!
- Are you single? Yes? Great! So is the male co-worker around your age who came to pick you up. You both sit in the back of the car together.
- Do you see the haze? That’s Chinese air pollution.
Chinese air pollution? I asked
Yes, they assured me it blows over from China and makes Korea polluted too. Meaning that the 50 million people that live in South Korea make up part of the 1.3 billion East Asians who breath unsafe air on the daily. Since I was new to Korea and did not really know what was going on still, I accepted this as fact. But after just a few days in Korea my observations told me something else. Everywhere I looked there was construction and factories and signs of industrialization. All the things that are classic pollution creators.
So I did a little research.
Korea consistently has it’s two largest cities, Seoul and Busan, rank in Airvisual’s Daily Worst Air Quality. While usually between 5th place and 10th place, for this first time ever, the week of March 21st, Seoul was ranked as having the 2nd worst air quality of anywhere in the world.
All this did was tell me that Korean pollution is bad. And every where on the internet there are articles and research saying the pollution is bad. But who is responsible for the pollution is a different question entirely.
So I looked further.And the problem of Korean pollution just seemed to get more complicated.
It begins truly during the Korean War. Remember South Korea had most of its infrastructure completely razed by the Korean War. What is so amazing is in less than 50 years after being completely destroyed, Korea is one of the most modern places on this Earth. They rebuilt themselves incredibly fast. This speed is not without a price though. And what comes with fast building is the disregard for all things environment. Korea had no economy, and no infrastructure after the war, taking care of their people was their number one priority.
Between 1977 and 1997 over 200 companies moved production factories to Korea. These companies mostly headed to the Ulsan area (the southeast portion of Korea). But as late as 2007 some of the companies still did not have the proper ventilation systems to filter out sulfur and other harmful chemicals. Further more Greenpeace did a study in 2015 that showed that 70% of the haze found in the Korean air is produced by Korean coal plants. Now that still leaves 30%. Greenpeace does say that about 30% of Korea’s air pollution blows over from China. Which is quite a lot. But with two key differences. The first difference being China has made plans to reduce emissions by almost 60% by 2020. Whereas Korea has pledged to build 12 more coal energy plants by 2020. And the second difference is anywhere between 5-15% of that is “natural” air pollution. Natural air pollution is dust from northern Chinese deserts that picks up pollution then blows in the air. So while China is a contributor, China is not the main culprit.
Despite this the Korean media and Korean government constantly and consistently blame China for the pollution that is destroying Korean air. Leaving the average Korean to casually blame China whenever the air feels particularly bad. Beyond that the media does not focus on pollution as a persistent problem but only focuses on it when it is particularly bad.
So between blaming China and not recognizing it as an issue Korea is headed for some serious environmental issues in the future.
But as I have learned, blaming someone else for your problems doesn’t make them go away. Usually it only makes them worse.
So Korea? It’s time to wake up and smell the arsenic. Before it causes a health epidemic.
This article is so heavily linked because I did not want people to think I was just saying these things to crap on Korea. I love Korea, but the pollution is a serious problem/health risk and more than a few organizations are pointing out that it is not just China.