Living in the Dust Age

Posted on March 08, 2020 by Tony Cho
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Overlooking the city of Seoul stands Korea's first comprehensive electric wave tower. Built in 1969, it has become a representative landmark symbolizing Seoul and can be seen on many posters and travel magazines that highlight Seoul as an attractive tourist destination.

However in 2011, the Namsan Tower took on another role as the Seoul Metropolitan Government asked the owners of the Namsan Tower (CJ - a chaebol) if they could regulate the color of the lights on the tower as a way to signal air pollution warnings to citizens in the city. Blue and Green lights indicate a good to ordinary quality of air at 0-50 micrograms per cubic meter, while Yellow and Red on the tower indicates bad to very bad ranging from 51- over 100 micrograms per cubic meter. And while these policies were implemented on the tower very quickly, the owners would still change the tower to particular colors on special holidays until 2015 when the Seoul Metropolitan Government advised not to do so as not to confuse the citizens.

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Communicating and measuring air pollution has been the most 'effective' or executable set of policies in Seoul when it comes to managing fine dust situation in Korea. In 2011 the South Korea government revised the Enforcement Decree of the Framework Act on Environmental Policy by allowing Air Korea to provide real-time data to the public through over 398 urban air networks, road-displacement measuring networks, national environmental measuring networks, and suburban air monitoring networks in 112 cities and counties nationwide.

However since these actions have been put into place the actual decrease in air pollution has not changed. In fact, government policy on the regulation of air pollution has moved a lot slower. Only recently has there been a policy to address new factories calculating down the impact of their air pollution. The government has done this by creating a new atmospheric exchange standar for fine dust sized less than 2.5 micrograms as well as allow for conducting environmental quality assessment again when the size of the built factories are bigger than they were planned.

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While policies to restrict air pollution from new developments have been slight at best, the government has instead focused its efforts on communicating the quality of air. For example, the citizens who live in Seoul frequently receive emergency disaster warning messages that report fine dust warning from the National Emergency Management Agency. This message is usually received to the citizen's smartphones and is determined by where to send based on a Cell broadcasting Service (CBS) system (very similar to an AMBER alert in the States). More recently the government has proclaimed that fine dust pollution is not only an environmental concern but a social one, defining it as a 'social disaster' and revising the disaster and safety management law to include high density particulate matter as a 'social disaster'.

Asking citizens to refrain from driving, purchase face masks, and cooking less fish in the home have been some of the things that the government has been advising it's citizens through their communication channels. Much of the education for understanding of fine dust is through these government notifications sent to individual smartphones and the occasional segment on national news. Over the past few years, the media has in particular focused on the air pollution coming from China, which while significant, has been eclipsing any knowledge of the impact of Korea's own factories and diesel fuel usage as significant factors in the overall air quality. Hardly spoken about is Seoul's geography, which presents itself as most prone to worsening air pollution due to the city being surrounded by 8 mountains. While being situated in a basin surrounded by mountains was a strategic advantage for combatting invasions in the past, it has left the air pollutants generated within the city unable to make a swift exit. This has had a great mental effect on the citizens of Korea as many people in Korea feel much less hopeful, and anxious about the future. With surveys and interviews staying most residents attribute psychological stress or anxiety, air pollution's effects are not only physical but psychosocial (Cho et. al).

In the midst of this, the air purifier market has boomed, doubling the supply rate of air purifiers in the spring of 2003. Due to the combination of yellow dust and fear of SARS, air purifiers became a necessity for all homes in Korea. New products have even come into the market as a result such as the LG Styler, which is a dry cleaner meant to get rid of any potential microdust from outside. The government itself has used a significant portion of its budget to operate air purifiers to clean the indoor air in schools, and government buildings.

So far individual action has been seen through public participation online with over 100,000 people signed up to the Internet cafe, "Taking measures against fine dust." This has resulted in eight rallies with the 7th one being located in from the presidential office in the Blue House. While actions have warranted response from the government, the biggest consequence of the air pollution has been a growing lifestyle for artificial air and the use of indoor spaces. Outdoor activity has been reduced and asking individuals to wear masks outside has been a passive and defensive attitude toward solving the fine dust issue. And while businesses are taking advantage of the need for creating a clean personal air space, none have been able to offer fundamental solutions to improve the air quality. There is a real danger in Korea, that public locations such as national parks, landmarks, and other public buildings are at risk of being underutilized as the public space and interactions in the public become less desirable as people opt to stay in privatized and clean airspaces. Looking to the future the breaking down of public institutions/space may have massive repercussions to Seoul's social fabric.