A cleaner Korean dreamMy daughter played for the first time on the football team of her school over the weekend. I was proud to see her score a goal and make several critical assists for her teammates. But then I was awakened repeatedly from sleep by her coughing late at night.
I am glad to have my family living with me here in Seoul and to have my children learn about Korean culture. I have often argued to others that our children have tremendous opportunities living here that they would not have in the United States. But I am starting to wonder these days whether I should send my children to live somewhere else where the air is clean, a country where they can exercise outside without endangering their health.
I was deeply embarrassed when my father came to visit us in Korea last year. The first thing he remarked when he stepped out of Seoul Station was that the air smelled like Sulphur.
It is an open secret that the air in Korea, even in rural areas, is getting much worse and that the number of people who become ill as a result is increasing. There have been frequent cases of diesel automobiles on the market which violate restrictions on hazardous emissions — I can smell them when I walk by — and yet nothing is done to ban them.
The fine dust that endangers citizens has made the yellow dust blown from the spreading deserts of China, seem harmless compared with the fine dust particles in the air.
To blame this situation on China is inaccurate on many levels. Not only do many emissions of hazardous gases originate in Korea, the emissions from coal plants and other factories in China are not beyond Korea’s responsibility. Koreans build factories in China that do not hold high standards for emissions. Even more importantly, China in turn is directly influenced by Korea’s environmental policy. If Korea were strict about emissions and had an ambitious program to eliminate fossil fuels and mitigate climate change, in the manner that Sweden or Denmark do, the Chinese would take note of that fact and most likely would benchmark Korean policies accordingly. In fact, China is making a greater investment overall in renewables than Korea.
Several foreign friends have confessed to me that they are having trouble recruiting people to Korea these days because of the terrible air quality. I can see that the reputation of Korea has suffered terribly from this wanton destruction of the environment and thoughtless embrace of short-term growth.
Nothing was more telling than the near simultaneous resignations of Yvo de Boer, the director general of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), and Hela Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the Green Climate Fund. Whether those decisions were directly related to frustration with current Korean policies, I don’t know, but I do know for a fact that the decision of the Korean minister of the environment not to stay to the end of the COP 21 conference in Paris was noticed around the world.
Sadly, all we see in Korea these days is a booming market for various filters for the home, or automobile, that promise to make this uninhabitable climate more tolerable to those who can afford such devices. Most Koreans seem to be in deep denial about the impact of such terrible air on their health, let alone the catastrophe of climate change that awaits them.
The time has come for us to take a stand. Korea must move bravely forward and establish itself as the nation with the strictest rules on emissions in Asia and Korea should make it clear that all coal-fired power stations will be closed down in the next five years, rather than increasing the number. Korea should be the model of a developing nation that moves beyond fossil fuels quickly.
We need to assume the equivalent of a wartime economy and we must rush to cover every building, every airplane and every vehicle with solar panels. We must make people aware of the terrible price they are paying with their health, and with our children’s future, if we do not take the environment seriously. The government should simply insist on the elimination of all non-electric cars from Korean roads and mandate stations for citizens to charge their vehicles from solar and wind power. Such a transformation of the economy will do much more to create real jobs than manufacturing any number of Korean automobiles overseas that contribute to climate change.
Within the government, we need fundamental change now. The national assembly should establish a major committee devoted entirely to climate change to coordinate all national policy so that corresponds with the terrible demands of this threat. Mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change needs to be the highest national priority, far more important than expanding trade overseas or purchasing military hardware.
Every single government agency must have a division devoted to implementing strict rules concerning the use of energy and the generation of emissions. And we should create tens of thousands of new jobs for young people in the renewable energy sector.
The government needs thousands of people to strictly monitor factories, to make sure that all automobiles conform to the strictest standards and to help set up solar panels on every building.
When young people can get loans easily that allow them to buy solar panels and to sell that electricity to their friends and neighbors we will start to see people believing in the Korean dream again.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.