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Wealthy but polluted

Mar 12,2019
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Lawmakers of the opposition Party for Democracy and Peace are urging the government to come up with measures to address the fine-dust pollution last Friday. [NEWS1]
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Kim Dong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Korea has joined the exclusive club of nations with populations of more than 50 million and with per capita income topping $30,000. Only six others in the world are on that list— the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France and Italy. It is a staggering triumph for a once poverty-stricken country. But what good is the title when the people are increasingly fearful of breathing because of dust in the air today?

Korea’s true living standard is revealed by the air quality app AirVisual. Koreans enjoyed temporary relief over the weekend, but air-pollution levels in Seoul and Incheon are frequently the worst in the world. The bad air is making already difficult lives only more so, as wealth inequalities grow despite the impressive per capita income standing.

Spring is here, but people are forced to stay indoors due to dust in the air, making earnings tougher for street businesses on top of a protracted slump.

The fine-dust crisis underscores the two-facedness of Korean society. The dust cannot be solely blamed on China. Engrossed in its modernization and industrialization drive, Korea neglected the pollution risks. Past administrations addressed the pollution problem as an ideological issue and a topic for the blame-game. They never got around to fighting the emissions from coal-powered stations in southeastern China.

The Moon Jae-in administration promised to address the issue in summit talks with China. But the topic did not come up during the summit. There is not much time left for the administration to fulfill its campaign promise as this year marks halfway point of the five-year presidential term. Fine-dust pollution requires bipartisan and diplomatic efforts.

It is also a part of the ongoing evolution of the fourth industrial age. Ride-sharing is the best example. Uber was able become successful in the United States as it can help reduce pollution. When people share rides, energy is saved and carbon emissions are cut. Uber gave rise to rival Lyft, bringing Americans closer to being a society where owning a car is a thing of the past.

Koreans are moving backward. Carpooling has been partially allowed during busy traffic hours, but sharing economies are mostly prohibited. It’s the same as the Red Flag law in which motor vehicle drivers were forced to raise a flag in order to not upset the traditional coach and railway industries in the 19th century. We learned nothing even after history showed the world that the law kept the British behind Germans and the United States in the automobile industry.

To make matters worse, Korea has chosen ideological beliefs over science by phasing out clean and cheap nuclear reactors. Unplugging nuclear reactors inevitably increases power generation from fossil-fueled power stations and fine-dust emissions.

The president promises to subsidize installation of air purifiers in school classrooms. But all these electrical devices will require more power, and thus more dust will be created. The problem won’t be eased if the government insists on weaning the country off nuclear power. State utility firm Korea Electric Power sits on a ballooning deficit as a result of the government’s nuclear phase-out policy. The utility firm wants to raise electricity prices, but that would outrage consumers.

It was not a public desire to generate electricity using imported gas while idling cheaper nuclear reactors at home. Few would agree to bigger bills due to bad policy planning. Authorities are even mulling to increase the bill on the industrial supply of electricity while leaving the household bill alone. But that is also a short-sighted measure. When production the cost increases, the burden is translated into higher retail prices. Instead of finding scapegoats, authorities must seek out fundamental and wiser solutions and create a society befitting a nation of $30,000 income.

JoongAng Sunday, March 9-10, Page 30