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Don’t get used to it

Mar 08,2019
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Wearing masks, primary school students go to school on Wednesday in Yeouido, Seoul. [NEWS1]
Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The Kospi closed at 310.67 — up 5.37 points from the previous session — on Aug. 31, 1988, when North Korea launched the Taepodong-1, a three-stage missile that stunned the world with its advanced technology. Over the next two decades, North Korea regularly repeated nuclear and missile tests. Seoul’s markets hardly flinched. Foreign media were amazed by the calmness of the Korean markets, as well as of the people on the streets who went about their everyday lives regardless of the actions across the border. What choice did the South and its people have? The country could not go to war, nor could it bribe the North to not use the weapons against it. Two decades later, North Korea finally mastered nuclear and missile technologies. A lesson was learned: concession is eventual defeatism.

Posing a bigger, more immediate threat to the South Korean population’s everyday lives today is the fine-dust problem. Going outside with a mask has become normal. Throat lozenges and air purifiers flow in abundance. Few remember they elected a president who vowed to make an anti-dust campaign one of his top priorities. The time has come for that priority to be acted on. President Moon Jae-in scolded the cabinet to do more, but no actions have ensued.

Only when the fine-dust streak lasted nearly a week did the Moon demand his government seek out all possible measures and create an extra budget if necessary. He ordered the Environment Ministry to supply air purifiers to schools and public spaces. In 2015, early deaths from bad air were estimated at 12,000, and that was before air quality took a turn for the worse. How is this situation different from that of ousted President Park Geun-hye, who turned up seven hours after the Sewol ferry incident broke out to order authorities to do all they could to rescue the victims?

Lee Mi-kyung, a director of the Korea Green Foundation, vowed to fight for the basic right to breathable air. She said she was outraged by such an irresponsible government. The president has placed the onus on the environment minister, and the environment minister has passed it on to mayors and governors. To whom can the people complain?

President Moon must step forward; he must show a strong determination. First of all, he must declare an end to his campaign to phase out nuclear power plants. Coal-powered thermal power stations are the third largest emitters of fine dust, accounting for 15 percent. More people are worried about the danger of fine dust (82.5 percent in a recent survey) than about nuclear reactors (54.9 percent). Nuclear reactors must replace fossil fuel-powered generators. Moon’s promise to cut back fine dust by 30 percent cannot be achieved if the country phases out nuclear reactors that emit little pollutants.

Under the energy outline aimed to phase out of nuclear reactors, reliance on traditional coal-powered stations will change little — with the ratio falling to 31 percent from 33 percent by 2030. Some sneer on social media that the government is keeping traditional generators alive to import coal from North Korea. The country should outright phase out coal-fueled power plants and keep nuclear reactors as a policy to combat fine dust.

Campaign promises are not sacred. The president has already withdrawn a plan to move the presidential office, currently tucked away from the public gaze, to the bustling Gwanghwamun area. He said the government must take emergency measures in emergency times. Well, we are in emergency times. Ruling Democratic Party lawmaker Song Young-gil has floated the idea of scrapping thermal power stations to build new nuclear reactors. If the government takes up the idea, the state utility firm Korea Electric Power Corporation’s financial deficit could narrow.

The government also could argue for stronger actions from Beijing to reduce pollution by explaining that Moon had to forgo a presidential campaign promise, which did nothing but stoke public rage against fine dust. If the president goes so far as to yield his commitment to a reactor phase-out, the public will be more convinced about his determination and become willing to cooperate with stricter environmental guidelines to jointly fight air pollution. We must do what we can, and at the same time demand cooperation from China. It may not be easy, and the payoff could come very slowly: but we must try. We will be defeated if we get used to the inconveniences and dangers of bad air.