SEOUL — A rare springtime election will send South Koreans to the polls early next month, but here in smog-bound Seoul they may be gasping all the way.
Spring is notorious for its poor air quality here. The combination of smog and the yellow dust that descends from Mongolia’s Gobi Desert every spring has produced pollution so thick that on the worst days — and there have been many of them — Seoul has looked like a city shrouded in a toxic gray blanket.
This has made air pollution a topical issue in the snap presidential election, to be held May 9.
“I will do everything in my power to make South Korea an environmentally clean country,” Moon Jae-in, the Democratic Party candidate and clear front-runner for the presidency, said this month. “People are angry over the government’s lack of action to tackle the almost-unbreathable air.”
Moon and his closest rival, centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, have both pledged to work with China — blamed by the government for much of South Korea’s air problems, although environmental activists point out that most of the pollution is homegrown. They have also vowed to stop any new coal-fired power plants from being built. Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party has also promised to work with China and increase the number of environmentally friendly cars on the roads.
Seoul is joining Beijing and Delhi near the top of the list of Asian cities with certifiably unhealthy air. The South Korean capital now regularly records unhealthy levels of PM2.5 ultra-fine dust in the air — particles that are one-thirtieth the width of a human hair and can pick up lead and arsenic from the air and then embed themselves deep in a person’s lungs once inhaled.
In the first months of this year, Seoul has been recording twice the number of ultrafine dust warnings as last year, with authorities advising people to limit outdoor activities and sensitive groups to stay inside altogether to avoid breathing in the dangerous particles.
“It’s really frustrating because air pollution is not something I can fix as a citizen,” said Seoul resident Lee Eun-jung, the mother of two girls, ages 9 and 15.
“My eldest daughter goes to a middle school where they still have outdoor P.E. classes on days when the pollution is considered dangerous. It breaks my heart to imagine her working out on a day like that,” Lee said. “My youngest daughter has asthma and has been hospitalized several times for pneumonia.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked PM2.5 to a variety of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease, and low birth weight. A recent South Korean study suggested an association with Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has predicted that 1,069 South Koreans per million will die prematurely in 2060 as a direct result of air pollution. South Korea is the only country in the “rich nations club” (a phrase often used to describe the OECD) to exceed 1,000 deaths per million in the projections.
Local studies have put the economic damage caused by air pollution — largely because of lost production — at about $9 billion a year and have predicted this will double by 2060.
The tendency here has been to blame the pollution on neighboring China, where coal-fired power plants and huge factories are spewing gunk into the environment to be carried on winds over to the Korean Peninsula.
“China is the main culprit,” the environment ministry said in a report last month, saying that China causes 30 to 50 percent of the PM2.5 in South Korea on normal days, but 60 to 80 percent on the worst days. The central government has approached Beijing about working together to try to limit industrial pollution.
But the practice of pointing the finger at China overlooks the fact that the majority of South Korea’s pollution is homegrown, analysts and activists say.
Even if 30 to 50 percent of the ultrafine dust comes from China, that means 50 to 70 percent comes from South Korean sources, including exhaust from old diesel vehicles, “fugitive dust” from construction sites and tires hitting the road, and the illegal burning of waste.
“The South Korean government looks like it’s trying to avoid dealing with the situation,” said Son Min-woo, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace Korea. “They aren’t doing enough to reduce the pollution here.”
Greenpeace is lobbying the government to close down coal-fired power plants to reduce pollution.
About 40 percent of South Korea’s electricity comes from more than 50 coal-fired power plants, and the country has plans to build 20 new plants by 2021 despite being a signatory to the Paris climate change deal. It will, however, shut down 10 aging plants by 2025.
Other official efforts have had little effect. The Seoul metropolitan government has been ordering cars off the roads on alternate dates depending on their tags, but these restrictions apply only to government vehicles. Seoul also is doubling the number of street sweepers to pick up “fugitive dust” from the roads.
Lee, the mother of two daughters, is doing as much as she can to protect her family, installing three air purifiers at home and spending about $50 a month on masks for her family.
But she wants the South Korean government to do more.
“I know China is responsible for a large part of the bad air, but I hear that coal-fired power plants and aging industrial sites violating regulations are serious factors, too,” she said. “The South Korean government says it is cooperating with China to tackle this issue, but I don’t know if any meaningful results will come out from that cooperation.”
Bae Jeong-hwan, an economics professor at Chonnam National University, said a decade of effort by local and central governments had amounted to little.
“The government is neglecting its duties by not taking more action while people’s lives are at stake,” he said, saying the central government had been tinkering around the edges rather than tackling the crux of the problem.
For one, the government should bring the tax on diesel into line with that on gasoline, Bae said.
“The diesel price has been kept down to help South Korean industry, but diesel trucks can produce more than 140 times more exhaust than diesel cars,” he said. “Regulations need to be strengthened to make some difference in the air quality.”
Another, admittedly extreme option would be to impose a “smog tax” on products imported from China, Bae said. “When cooperation doesn’t work, stronger regulations or sanctions should be considered.”
In the meantime, many people here are concerned that the government is minimizing the problem by having a looser definition of dirty air than the international standard. The World Health Organization classifies 25 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter in a day as unhealthy, but the South Korean government standard is double that.
“I don’t understand this,” said Lee Mi-ok, a 38-year-old mother of a 4-year-old boy who was born prematurely with weak lungs. “Do Koreans have lungs that are twice as strong as other nationalities? Why do we have to put up with this bad air? What is the purpose of the government if it cannot protect lives and health of the people?”