The snowflakes drifting earthwards made for a pretty sight in Seoul this week. But they had a darker aspect for many residents concerned about their toxic properties, as worries continue about South Korea's vulnerability to air pollution in nearby China.
Much of eastern China has experienced its worst smog for years over the past week, caused largely by the past decade's huge increase in coal usage by factories and power plants, as well as emissions from the rapidly growing number of motor vehicles. Since Saturday, South Korea has also suffered an acute rise in air pollution – albeit not to the same levels of Beijing – and local media, as well as government officials, are pinning the blame on China.
According to a study by the National Institute of Environmental Research, levels of sulphur and nitrogen oxides in the air from January 12 to 15 were up to four times higher than in the same period of last year. Levels of lead were about three times higher. In Seoul, the concentration of ultra-fine dust in the air reached 218 micrograms per cubic metre – more than double the government's maximum acceptable level.
"Our country's air pollution is affected by air pollution in China, because pollutant substances are blown in by westerly winds," says Oh Young-min, an official at the ministry of the environment. Around 40 per cent of nitrogen oxide in South Korea's air comes from China, she adds.