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A defining tragedy

Mar 09,2019
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An ecoactivist denounces the Park Geun-hye administration for poor environmental policies in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, in 2015. [KOREA FEDERATION FOR ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT]
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Ahn Hye-ri
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

“People are like dust.”

“What did people do wrong?”

With so many parodies on President Moon Jae-in’s 2012 campaign slogan, “People come first,” on social media, it seems that I am not the only one feeling dubious about the government’s response to the pollution.

There has been a public outcry over the fine dust that has become significantly more severe. After five consecutive days of text alerts warning about emergency reduction measures, the president received an “emergency” briefing, not just a regular briefing, from the minister of environment at 6 p.m. on March 5. That’s why people vented their complaints on social media.

The government responded urgently the next day. The president said that it is the government’s duty to take emergency measures at a time of an emergency, and ministers suddenly became busy. Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye, who did not act when students in elementary, middle and high schools began the new school year in clouds of fine dust, dressed in yellow work clothes and checked air purifiers installed in elementary school classrooms.

The minister of health and welfare visited a preschool and toured with a mask on. Rather than contemplating the suffering of the people, the ministers seem to only look at the mouth of the president. I realized how little the officials were interested in resolving the fine dust issue. If the fine dust had really been a main focus of the government, the ministers wouldn’t have been so indifferent. Perhaps, the ministers think that it is enough to respond with showy events until the fine dust goes away.

Let’s look at President Moon’s Facebook page. He doesn’t reveal his intentions in real time as directly as U.S. President Donald Trump, but he is a politician who values communication with supporters on social media. The Facebook postings made a few times a day seem to contain his real interests. I reviewed his Facebook from the campaign to present and there have been two posts about the fine dust. They were both during the campaign period and he hasn’t mentioned it since he came into office.

Compared to other issues, Moon’s interest in fine dust is evidently slim. In addition to discussing North Korea issues, Moon mentioned the kindergarten crisis, the passing of actress Kim Young-ae, who appeared in movie “The Attorney,” which is based on the life of President Roh Moo-hyun, the book review of a new publication by psychiatrist and his supporter Chung Hye-shin, the inter-Korean canoe team competing in the Asian Games and his pet, Tori. Strangely, he refrained from posting about fine dust.

The contrast is most evident considering his moves during the campaign. Moon received policy suggestions through a campaign called “presidential promises made by the citizens,” and fine dust was one of the most discussed issues.

Among 60,000 participants, 10,000 called for strong measures. Based on the suggestions, a fine dust plan that includes a 30 percent emissions reduction, the installation of a special agency under the president and making it a priority between the Korean and Chinese leaders was announced on April 13, 2017. While emissions reduction by 30 percent was not easy, installing a special agency or diplomatic efforts to encourage China’s cooperation could have been possible in the past two years had Moon had a strong will to do so.
However, from the first event after his inauguration on May 10, 2017, at 8 a.m. to the emergency briefing on March 3 at 6 p.m., for 664 days, 15,946 hours, the current government made little progress on fine dust. It has produced a few stop-gap measures that are not that different from those in the Park Geun-hye administration, which was criticized to have an “F” grade by environmental groups.

However, environmental groups seem to be representing the government instead of checking on it. The Korea Federation for Environmental Movement is a notable one. It raised its voice to raise awareness about the health damages from fine dust and to argue that the fine dust standards needed to be strengthened. But now its co-chairman said that the fine dust standards are too high and scaring people. Another environmental group that had staged a protest wearing masks during the Park Geun-hye administration posted on its website about what will change after the special act on fine dusts.

The current administration officials and interest groups inquired about the seven hours that impeached President Park Geun-hye spent during the Sewol ferry tragedy and questioned the reason for the existence of the government for the safety of the people.

Aren’t they ashamed about the 15,946 hours the current government spent without actually addressing the emergency that is fine dust?

JoongAng Ilbo, March 8, Page 28.