As children, we are taught at an early age not to stare at the sun. Youth of today could be excused for their skepticism. In Seoul, in early March 2019, even at midday, staring at the sun (if you can see it at all), poses little danger to the retina. Dust from the Gobi Desert has delivered a fine, yellow tint to the spring skies in Korea for centuries. In the past decades, as China industrialized, the factories along the East coast have emitted pollutants into the atmosphere which have bonded with the yellow dust and delivered a noxious health risk to the Korean peninsula. While I have titled this piece 'Chinese Dust', political correctness now dictates that it be called 'fine dust' to disassociate it from China, an increasingly important political stakeholder. Nevertheless, these Chinese chemical imports are inflicting a tremendous cost on the Korean population. Hospital outpatient visits spike on highly polluted days, instances of pneumonia and chronical lung suffers are growing. Even heart disease grown is attributed to the dust.
Korea has implemented multiple responses to this problem. Probably the most meaningful is political efforts to establish cooperative efforts with China and Japan to address the problem. The majority of the problem comes from China so the major solution must be found there. Korean NGOs have established programs to plant trees in the Gobi Desert to try to stem the relentless expansion of the arid region.
Closer to home, the government has turned its attention to local contributors to the problem. For more than a decade, natural gas has been applied to home heating as well as fueling all city buses and taxis. Recently, tour bus drivers were instructed not to idle their engines when waiting for passengers. Korea has established a goal to convert all vehicles to environmentally friendly alternatives (e.g. we will produce 6.2 million hydrogen cars by 2040). The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy has announced that it will suspend operation of 'old' coal fired power plants. The first (unsuccessful) attempt to seed clouds to promote rain was implemented in January 2019.
In the meantime, the government broadcasts warnings about dangerously high levels of pollutants almost on a daily basis. Virtually everyone on the streets is seen wearing a mask. The market for air purifiers has tripled since 2016. There is a discernible migration of families to rural locations down country (Jeju island being particularly attractive) or even overseas.
The challenge appears daunting and politically complicated but efforts on many fronts must be implemented simultaneously if Seoul is to again see the sun.
Peter Underwood, IRC Consulting Managing Partner.