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South Korea is in the middle of a manmade public health crisis as toxic haze hangs over the entire country. Erik Cornelius, based in Seoul, gives us an in depth look at the underlying causes of Korea’s air pollution, how it affects ordinary citizens, and what companies doing business in Korea should know.

Pollution obscures Seoul’s southern skyline.

As I write this, the Air Quality Index outside of my downtown Seoul office is 153. Anything above 50 can cause short term discomfort and long term health issues, according to the WHO. Today is not unusual. Korea’s air has been worsening for several years.

A screenshot from the Air Visual App on my phone.

Hyundai Research Institute estimates that increased pollution cost the Korean economy $3.5 billion in 2018. It’s also led to expensive PR stunts like attempts at cloud seeding in cooperation with China.

There’s enormous debate in Korea about the causes of the increased pollution. The national government and the media have primarily pointed fingers toward China and its east coast factories, arguing that particulate matter blows across the sea until it’s trapped by Korea’s mountainous terrain.

This discounts important evidence to the contrary. For example:

Korea’s air pollution increase may, partially, be an issue of perception. According to official government data, air pollution has actually improved since the 1990s. But that data is highly suspect. Monitoring and reporting were sparse prior to 2015 and primarily focused on “yellow dust” that blew in from the Gobi Desert each spring. Yellow dust is primarily made up of PM10 particles. These are much less dangerous than the minuscule PM2.5 dust that comes from industrial sources and is small enough to cross into the bloodstream, bringing heavy metals and other toxic substances with it. (What’s the difference between PM10 and PM2.5?)

I don’t intend for this report to be an attack on Korea. I won’t attempt to track down the most potent the sources of air pollution and fine dust. (Read this article by David Lee at the South China Morning Post for more on that.) Instead I want to focus on how the air pollution is affecting the lives and decisions of the 50 million people who live in Korea.

Growing Public Awareness Meets Choking Concern

Observational evidence suggests that Koreans are becoming more aware of air pollution. On days when air quality is poor, many – but not enough – Seoullites dress like they’re ready to perform surgery, wearing 3M dust masks. On a recent clean air day I took my daughter to the park and overheard a couple with a toddler talking about how nice a change it was to be able to take their son outside to play.

The report author in a stylish 3M 9011 KF80 dust mask.

A national study conducted in 2017 backs up this growing awareness. Koreans named air pollution their number one concern, far ahead of North Korean nuclear weapons, which were making international headlines at the time. Another survey found that 80% of parents who send their children to preschool wish they could keep their kids at home on bad air days. The rise of dual income households has made this impossible for most.

Source: Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs

Reporting on air quality has been as thick as the air itself. Weather segments on nightly and morning newscasts include air quality forecasts. The most popular air quality monitoring app in Korea has more than 5 million downloads. Overall, downloads of air monitoring apps from the Google Play store were up 55.6% year-on-year in Q1 of 2019. Even bus stops now display the fine dust levels alongside arrival schedules.

You’d have to be willfully ignorant to live in Korea and not know about the air pollution. What’s less clear is how much of the population understands the dangers of fine dust. Korea’s largest newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, recently published an article highlighting the health hazards of pollutants including lead, cadmium and mercury, carried in PM2.5 pollution. Several news reports highlighted the role that air pollution may play in increasing rates of premature puberty.

But not everyone takes the dangers seriously. As my 78-year-old father-in-law recently told me as he headed off unmasked to play golf, “Something else will get me before the air pollution does.”

Korean Government Balances Action with Inaction

When Korea’s current president, Moon Jae-in took office in May of 2017 he almost immediately introduced policies aimed at improving the air quality.

On May 15, just five days after taking office, South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, signed an order to implement urgent measures to tackle the country’s severe air pollution problem… Currently, there are 10 coal-fired power plants throughout South Korea. President Moon has now temporarily closed 8 of these and plans to permanently close all of them during his 5-year term. Furthermore, Moon has also promised to phase-out and eventually ban all diesel vehicles (excluding trucks) by 2030, which are estimated to be responsible for 29 percent of PM2.5 (inhalable particulate matters that deeply penetrate the lungs) in the Seoul metropolitan area.

After an optimistic start, the government has mostly shifted attention to external sources of pollution, mainly China. But this strategy of finger pointing has begun to show a key weakness: The Moon Jae-in administration has been unwilling to push Chinese leaders very hard. (China is Korea’s biggest trading partner.) This led to sinking approval ratings for Moon while raising the ire of leaders in Beijing.

In response, Korea’s National Assembly approved $2.65 billion of spending in mid-March to combat the effects of fine dust pollution. This came shortly after six back-to-back days of record breaking pollution in Seoul.

The bill required and provided funding for installation of heavy duty air purifiers and air quality monitors in all 114,000 public school classrooms across the country. According to media reports installation is well underway and complements private efforts. (LG pledged 10,000 air purifiers for classrooms a few days before the spending bill passed.) I’ve spoken to teachers who confirm that the air purifiers and monitors are being installed, but that many of their colleagues and students leave windows wide open.

An air quality monitor in a Korean elementary school classroom. These readings aren’t especially good for indoor air.

In another recent move, the Moon administration created the National Council on Climate and Air Quality, appointing former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as its head. The body will work with China and with Korean conglomerates to find solutions. Currently the body is recruiting 500 citizens to participate and offer ideas.

Since February, Seoul has banned diesel vehicles produced before 2008 from entering the city from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., fining drivers approximately $100. Nationwide, older diesel trucks will be banned on high pollution days. To make it easier to upgrade to cleaner LPG powered trucks, the government is offering up to $6,500 in incentives to truck drivers who scrap their old vehicles.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government now makes public transportation free and closes parking lots at government buildings when air quality is poor. Preliminary results show that this effort has minimal effect on encouraging people to leave their cars at home. This stands to reason, as base fare for Seoul’s subways and busses is only about a dollar.

The Ministry of Industry will expand subsidies for green cars in 2019, with a goal of 430,000 electric cars and 65,000 fuel cell on Korean roads by 2022. The Seoul Metropolitan Government has also announced subsidies to help individuals and businesses purchase 80,000 eco-friendly vehicles by 2022. Combined national and local subsidies for electric cars range from about $6,000 to as much as $14,000 depending on the model.

As they stand, most of the government’s efforts don’t go far enough to address the root causes of pollution – coal, diesel and industry – instead focusing on short-term fixes that provide some protection for citizens’ health.

In a nod toward innovation the Seoul Metropolitan Government will host a “Particulate Matter Hackathon” in June. While it’s certainly a good idea, the event will unfortunately be marred by fine print that gives the city partial ownership of the solutions developed during the event.

Korea’s Citizens are Buying Solutions or Buying the Farm

Individual efforts to combat the effects of pollution range from the quite sensible to the comical.

In 2018, according to The Korea Joongang Ilbo, “Koreans bought 1.8 million air purifiers worth around $676 million, according to market researcher GfK. In 2016, Koreans only purchased 698,000 purifiers for $190 million. In January of this year, air purifier sales were up 414% percent year-on-year and mask sales were up 458%.

According to an article from Nikkei Asian Review, “Sales of air purifiers have surged, boosting the fortunes of LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics. The overall air purifier market is expected to top 3 million units this year, up from 2.5 million last year and 1.4 million in 2017.” The article also notes an increase in sales of clothes dryers. Until recently most Koreans saw dryers as a waste of money, preferring instead to air dry clothes.

A search for 미세먼지 (fine dust) on Naver, Korea’s largest search engine, brings up nearly 400,000 products, including dust masks.

Not all pollution-driven efforts are so conventionally corporate.

The latest in interior design trend has been termed “Planterior”. (Koreans love portmanteau.) Planterior is the term being applied to plant filled homes and cafes, which are popping up across the country. As Anna J. Park wrote in the Korea Times: “Tired of fine dust pollution that is worsening year after year in Korea, people are starting to feel the need for greenery in their living spaces, as some indoor plants have proven to be effective in purifying the air.”

Another interesting solution: One startup succeeded in convincing the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to approve the sale of portable oxygen canisters that give people a shot of pure O2.

Rather than trying to cope with the pollution, some Koreans dream of escape. In early 2018, the Chosun Ilbo reported about chatter on online forums in which people were seriously considering moving to Korea’s fast-emptying rural regions, or its holiday island of Jeju in search of breathable air. Unfortunately for anyone who moved, the air pollution is not localized within cities. It has a tendency to envelop most of the 100,000 sq. kilometer country.

This screenshot from Air Visual shows unhealthy air across the entire Korean peninsula.

The story is different for expats living in Korea. Many I speak to, especially those with children, are considering leaving. This could affect the operations of multinational companies and NGOs operating in Korea. Over the past decade Korea has transitioned from a hardship posting to a top choice for many executives. That trend may reverse.

Is Korea’s Toxic Air an Unsolvable Problem?

Many Koreans I talk to see the root causes of pollution as so big they’re beyond individual impact. Unfortunately they may be right, at least in the short term.

First, while I’ve highlighted domestic sources of air pollution in this report, China does play a role. Expert estimates put China’s contribution to Korea’s air woes at about 70% on days that the air quality is especially poor. When the air is merely bad, rather than toxic, they place China’s contribution in the 30 to 50% range.

Many ordinary Koreans, however, still believe that so much of the fine dust originates in China that there’s nothing that can be done domestically to solve the problem. I highly recommend watching this video from Asian Boss to get a sense of public opinion on air pollution.

More must be done domestically, but that is easier said than done.

Despite generous subsidies, there’s no way to immediately swap the millions of privately owned diesel cars for cleaner vehicles. If a large number of people did to switch to electric cars, much of the power would come from Korea’s giant coal plants.

And those muti-billion dollar coal power plants, like the 6.1 gigawatt Taean power station, are made necessary, in part, by fear of nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. (In one piece of good news, Korea did quietly open two new reactors at a nuclear power plant last month. That followed a long delay to improve earthquake related safety measures.)

Unlike the people power protests that toppled former president Park Geun-hye from power, the problem of pollution cannot be fixed by a simple change in leadership. The government has proven unable to dig out the roots of the problem, as demonstrated by the recent 235-company pollution scandal, as well as toxic trash fires at an illegal mountain of plastic waste near Uiseong.

There is certainly room for hope, but only if Korea’s political and business leaders stop the finger pointing and take action. Looking at the energy sector, for example, Korea is actually a global leader in nuclear power generation technology. But for now local fears of nuclear power are stopping the Korea Electric Power Corporation from deploying its technology more broadly at home.

Hanwha Q Cells is a leading producer of solar panels. LG Chem is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of batteries for solar systems. But once again, their technology is being deployed much more widely abroad than at home. To me this is actually quite astounding. In the past, the Korean government eagerly subsidized home grown technologies. Enormous solar purchases by the Chinese government – sometimes for panels that are never connected to the grid – have made Chinese solar manufacturers the largest in the world.

(Ironically, according to media reports, prosecutors are investigating Hanwha Chemical and LG Chem as two of the companies accused of polluting beyond legal limits and manipulating test data.)

How Air Pollution has Affected One Family

Korea’s worsening air pollution has lowered my overall quality of life and made me concerned for my daughter’s health. Government claims that the pollution is actually getting better don’t coincide with my own experience in Korea over the past 14 years.

I used to have an incredibly active outdoor lifestyle, regularly hiking Korea’s mountains, cycling on the bike trails that snake along the Han River, and running in the local park. My wife and I would take long walks alongside Deoksu Palace several nights a week. Air pollution was something to worry about for a few weeks in March or April when the yellow dust blew in. Now most of my running happens on a treadmill in the spare bedroom.

Every morning, before leaving the house for work, I always check pollution levels using two different apps (AQICN / 미세미세). This tells me whether or not I need to wear a mask. The unpredictability of the pollution has made planning outdoor activities in advance nearly impossible. Those apps also decide whether or not my 17-month-old daughter will be able to play outside, and for how long. Too often we’re stuck going to one of the growing number of “kids’ cafes” around Seoul.

Having suffered from allergies since childhood, I’m especially sensitive to air pollution. My wife and I have bought three air purifiers for our apartment. Yesterday, I ordered another air purifier, after checking the air quality in my office. When we enrolled our daughter in preschool, we checked to make sure that her classroom had an adequate air purifier. We also bought a clothes dryer.

Like other expats with kids in Korea, I’m considering my long-term plans. I’ve lived here for nearly 15 years. It’s hard to see myself here for 20 years.

Seoul on a rare good air day, from the same vantage point as the photo at the beginning of this report.

This is the inaugural Bright Shiny Insights article. In the future we’ll cover other trends in Asia providing perspective only available from long-term on-the-ground experts. In the future we hope to make the subject matter of reports more… bright and shiny.


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