South Korea: Worrying About the Polluting Neighbours

Seoul, South Korea
Murat Taner | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

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 itsworst 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.

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Concerns about the impact of Chinese air pollution are not new. South Koreans have long experienced "yellow dust storms" sweeping in from Mongolia's Gobi desert – a phenomenon that has become far more menacing now that the clouds bring not just sand, but also toxic particles accumulated as they pass through China's industrial region. Five years ago the storms forced the closure of schools and semiconductor factories in South Korea.

Those storms normally occur in the spring; such a severe bout of pollution at this time of year is unusual. It seems that the past week's rising temperatures created high levels of water vapour, which trapped pollutant substances in the lower levels of the atmosphere.

In any case, the unseasonal phenomenon has put worries about Chinese pollution back on the agenda in Seoul. This comes as incoming administrations in both countries are getting to know each other: South Korea's next president Park Geun-hye last week received a visit from China's vice foreign minister, and a group of her aides will meet Beijing 's newly anointed leader Xi Jinping next week.

(Read More: Beijing's Toxic Smog Was Years in the Making, Had Many Sources)

Choi Jun-ho, director of Friends of the Earth Korea, says South Korean manufacturing groups bear much of the blame for the country's pollution woes. "The government needs to tighten its pollution-related regulations, and companies need to abide by the rules," he says. But what happens in China will also be crucial to solving the problem, he adds – noting that, while the Beijing government is giving some signs of a tougher stance on pollution, continued industrial growth could mean plenty more toxic particles floating over the sea to Seoul.