The response to Misemonji (fine dust/particulate matter) in Korea

Misemonji 미세먼지 and the collapse of governance


The time has come to wake up out of the reverie of people-powered democratic revolution driving a new progressive government and look with cold determination at the reality of governance of Korea today in a state of advanced decay. That process is not about Moon Jae-in, a likable character who happened to be the next in line for the position, but rather about the long-term dismantlement of government over the last decade, starting from the end of the Roh Moo-hyun administration and reaching a peak over the last three years.

Power demand in South Korea has increased by more some 2.5 per cent per year since 2006. Most Koreans are completely oblivious to the fact that the cost of electricity is subsidized in South Korea and that every time they use a smart phone, or turn on their computer, they are contributing to the pollution of the air, let alone to climate change (which most citizens have only the vaguest awareness of).

We do see an awareness of the health impact of fine particulate matter over the last year, with an increasing number of people employing nose masks or simply staying inside. Seoul has some of the worst air quality in the world these days and for all the complaining, little or nothing has been done to make automobiles electric (by either making petroleum-powered automobiles illegal or giving subsidies for electric automobiles), or to end coal-fired power plants for the country as a whole, or for specific factories.

Frequently, the state of the air is treated as if it was a matter about which nothing can be done, as if “misemonji” was a new form of whether, like snow or rain, about which we can do nothing other than wearing a mask, as one might use an umbrella on a rainy day. Many believe, based on rather misleading reports, that all the pollution comes from China. Many are unaware of just how many people die (are killed) by such pollution every year for the simple reason that the commercial media either does not report such facts, or hides it somewhere deep inside the newspaper, or news report. It is hard to know the exact numbers, but probably we are talking about 15,000-20,000 people a year. In fact, it would be easy to make charts showing the increase in mortality from various cancers and respiratory diseases over the last 10 years if anyone wanted to do so.

If that many people were ill,or dying from attacks by North Korea, you can imagine the problem would be splattered all over the internet. But to a conspicuous degree this matter is being ignored, and citizens are being misled.

According to the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, gas-fired power plants increased output from 58,000 to 111,700 gigawatt hours per year, while coal-fired powered plants increased 134,900 to 203,800 gigawatt hours between 2005 and 2015. Little South Korea now has a whopping 53 coal power plants,

More significantly, Korea is alone in the world in the rate at which it has increased, rather than decreased, its dependency on coal over the last ten years.

More often than not, signs along the roads, in buses and in the subway promote the false impression that automobiles are the primary source of such pollution. News reports suggest that the pollution is floating over from China.

There are plans to shut down 10 coal-power plants by 2015. Plans to add 20 more coal-power plants by 2021, however, have not been cancelled.

It is interesting to see how this critical issue is completely drowned out by the constant reporting on the scandals surrounding former Presidents Park and Lee.

The issue is in the background for the May 9th election, and on occasion politicians do mention air pollution. Yet, few, or no, politicians have advocated for the most obvious solutions:


  • Cancel all plans for new coal-fired power plants


  • Provide massive funding for solar and wind power and make it mandatory for all offices and buildings


  • Make concrete plans to close down all existing coal plants in the next two years


  • Require significant insulation on all buildings and rigorous inspections for efficiency in all buildings and in all plants


  • End self-regulation and self-reporting on pollution by factories in Korea


  • Publically announce the exact levels of emissions from all factories and all buildings in the region in a manner which all citizens can understand


  • Provide scientific education for citizens, and for all children, about the causes of pollution and the solutions required.


A JoongAng Ilbo April 5 2018 article reported that there was a protest on April 2 in Gwanghwamun Square against fine dust that supposedly represented a group called “Dust Out” of some 44,000 women.

The Korean name is Midaechok 미대촉, or short for “Demanding policy responses to fine dust” 미세먼지대책을촉구합니다 –


Original article in Korean


According to the article, the group summited a report demanding the use of air purifiers at schools and analysis of fine dust and its sources. But there was no mention in the article of any discussion of the need for extensive inspections of factories for pollution by government, or stricter regulations, or plans to close down coal plants and push renewable energy.

The city of Seoul issues warnings by phone when the concentration of PM2.5, or particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, exceeds 90 micrograms per cubic meter for more than two hours. According to the OECD the average among its members is 14.05 micrograms per cubic meter. and according to the World Health Organization, a PM2.5 level above 10 micrograms per cubic meter is deemed harmful.

According to the article, the posters held up by the women blamed China, in accord with statements by the Ministry of the Environment. Local government and central government in South Korea have made efforts to limit the use of automobiles used by government, but have done little or nothing about the factories which are the primary source of the problem.



JoongAng Daily,April 11, 2018 Mothers form civic group to battle air pollution, HAN YOUNG-IK, ESTHER CHUNG


We must think about two aspects of this problem. On the one hand, we must make everyone aware, from kindergarten students to grandmothers and grandfathers, that every time they turn on their smart phone, every time they drive their car, every time they use energy for some frivolous and unnecessary purpose, they are adding to the air pollution that kills tens of thousands, and they should feel a certain shame, 염치 about what they are doing. At the same time, we must recognize that one-time demonstrations are not going to be the solution to this crisis. We need a government which has the moral authority, the authorization and the budget and the power to step in and tell corporations that they cannot pollute any more.


It is deeply ironic that so much is written up in the media about the corruption of the Lee and Park administrations involving personal payments received for favors, but there is almost complete silence about the way in which the two governments gutted the government itself and how they undermined the ability of government officials to make meaningful policy and to implement it. That crime was far more serious, and its implications are being felt today, as Korea struggles to pull itself up and move forward. The inability of the government to actually go after the companies that pollute is a result of that tragedy.

Sadly, because many of the environmental activists started out associated with the labor movement, and were more concerned in the 1980s and 1990s with working conditions in factories and industrial pollution that impacted working class neighborhoods, they have often less of a focus, or interest, in climate change or the more complex aspects of industrial pollution. Moreover, funding for environmental groups from industry has often cut down on their effectiveness.




Fine dust, which increasingly pollutes the Republic of Korea at a time that China is dramatically increasing the quality of air in many places, has become a hot topic of late. Many more people are wearing masks to guard against fine dust, or particulate matter and the awareness of the danger of such pollution, produced largely by coal-



“Fine dust is another disaster! There are 17,000 early deaths in Korea due to fine dust (according to a 2010 OCED report)”


These posters, and also recordings played in buses, suggest that using transportation is the best way to address air pollution. But the entire premise is flawed. The role of industrial pollution is entirely left out.


“Our Mom who is taking the bus or the subway is solving the problem of fine dust”

The implication again is that the primary issue is transportation, rather than the deregulation of factories. Such an argument is inherently dishonest.


This ridiculous article suggests that instead of regulating power plants and factories, the government should clamp down on standards for “anti-pollution  cosmetics” reads like the Onion. I am still scratching my head.



There has been an enormous increase in programs that let you know about the level of micro-particles in the air, and many advertisements for filters to be used at home are in the newspapers and television. But there are no applications telling you where the pollution comes from, the cancer rates district by district, the specific factories and power plants that pollute the most or other far more important information that would let citizens make real decisions.

A JoongAng Ilbo April 5 2018 article reported that there was a protest on April 2 in Gwanghwamun Square against fine dust that supposedly represented a group called “Dust Out” of some 44,000 women.

The Korean name is Midaechok 미대촉, or short for “Demanding policy responses to fine dust” 미세먼지대책을촉구합니다 –

A glance at their Facebook page shows a clearly dishonest intent in their efforts.


The image makes it entirely unambiguous that the cause of the health threat is not the unregulated factories, the horrible waste of energy, the culture of consumption and the radical increase in energy usage and coal-fired power plants in South Korea, but rather a foreign threat from China.

So extremely biased is this poster as to make us wonder whether it is akin to the effort to blame all security threats on North Korea, as opposed to the increasingly militarized and reckless United States.


Information for this article taken in part from:



South China Morning Post







On April 2, about 500 women marched at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, the site of the largest political protests in the country’s history, which ended with the removal and arrest of former president Park Geun-hye. This time, however, protesters gathered to oppose pollution.

The participants belonged to a civic group of about 44,000 mothers called Dust Out, according to the Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper. They demanded the government take action to fight pollution for the sake of their children’s health.

China vows fresh smog crackdown as toxic air shrouds capital

A man walks before the Seoul skyline shrouded in smog. According to the World Nuclear Association, power demand in South Korea has increased by more some 2.5 per cent per year since 2006. Some 97 per cent of the country’s fuel is imported. Photo: AFP

Meanwhile, a 380 per cent jump in nasal sanitizer product sales, a 213 per cent rise in nose masks and a 383 per cent increase in canned air also signalled growing concern over the pollution issue among consumers, according to the newspaper. And their concern is warranted. On March 21, Seoul recorded the second-worst air quality in the world, after New Delhi. Beijing was sixth.

Making matters worse, Seoul said there was not much that could be done about the problem, and claimed that about 80 per cent of the capital’s pollution was external in origin – mostly from China.

A woman wearing a protective pollution mask walks on a street in Beijing. Photo: AFP

The South Korean government has laid the lion’s share of blame on Beijing for years, ignoring the fact that coal and liquified natural gas (LNG) consumption have both skyrocketed over the past decade, according to the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

From 2005 to 2014, South Korea’s gas-fired power plants increased their output from 58,000 to 111,700 gigawatt hours, while coal-fired powered plants also increased from 134,900 to 203,800 gigawatt hours.

The government has even blamed cooking habits and automobiles for the pollution, despite the fact that coal power plants have been proven to be the country’s biggest polluters. A government report, released in May 2016, even went as far as to say the leading cause of indoor air pollution was “frying mackerel”.

How Beijing’s sky changes before and after major political meetings

People ride amid the smog in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

South Korea now has 53 coal power plants, the Financial Times reported last month. From 2005 to 2015, capacity rose from 17 to about 26 million kilowatts, then last year it spiked to 35 million kilowatts.

“The government is sitting idly by while passing the buck to China,” the Financial Times article quoted Kim Shin-do, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Seoul, as saying.

“Only after we handle our own air pollution problems can we grasp the extent of air pollution or fine dust [coming from] the deserts in China and Mongolia.”

But some of the blame rests with the public, too. Several summers ago, after Seoul shut down the country’s nuclear power plants, the government imposed a temperature limit on all of its buildings in an effort to save energy.

But trying to force workers to keep the temperature inside the buildings above a certain degrees proved unpopular, prompted widespread criticism and was eventually scrapped. Consequently, the government had to use more coal power to pick up the slack.

Mongolians march for action against air pollution

A Chinese softball player hits a ball during a sandstorm in Beijing. Photo: AFP

More recently, in response to public demand, the South Korean government has promised to shut down 10 of its older coal power plants by 2015. However, it also plans to build 20 new ones by 2021.

To be sure, pollution from China and yellow dust being blown into South Korea from Mongolian deserts every spring, do contribute to the poor air quality. But the government’s claim that only about 20 per cent of Seoul’s pollution is locally created compares starkly with one of its own reports, which estimates between 30 and 50 per cent.

For one thing, yellow dust causes pollution events in Seoul less than 15 days per year on average. Also, yellow dust is at its worst between March and May, but according to a white paper by NASA – published as part of the Korea-US Air Quality project – ozone and carbon emissions are at their worst after the season, around June.

Beijing’s ‘smog refugees’ flee the capital for cleaner air down south

Moreover, a July 2015 study published in Environmental Research found that the correlation between mortality and particulate matter (PM) in Seoul’s air was not affected by yellow dust storms. That is, yellow dust has not impacted on the health of people living in the city. Part of the reason, however, may be because people take additional precautions on those dusty days.

Min-woo Son, a climate energy campaigner from Greenpeace in South Korea, said things are improving. Following a recent campaign from the environmental group, the government did announce plans to reduce PM2.5 pollution.

But Son said it was too little, too late – after all, the number of coal power plants is still increasing and the newer facilities will have even greater capacity.

“On the surface, the Korean government looks cooperative,” Son said. “[But] the government’s stance is lukewarm.”

The recent demonstrations over former president Park Geun-hye proved that when South Koreans come together, they have enormous power. If they muster the will to address this issue, they can make a difference, and they can start with the May 9 presidential election.

Among the political parties on offer this election, Son said most were “cooperative and active on solutions for PM2.5 pollution and coal-fired plants”.

“But one party, the Liberty Korea Party, still doesn’t have a clear policy on PM2.5 reduction.” 


Here is a good working definition of PM


Besides gaseous pollutants, the atmosphere can also be polluted by particles. These particles (either in suspension, fluid or in solid state), have a divergent composition and size and are sometimes called aerosols. They are often catalogued as ‘floating dust’, but are best known as particulate matter (PM).

This floating dust is most often categorized based on their aerodynamic diameter. The aerodynamic diameter of a dust particle is the diameter of a sphere-shaped particle that shows the same behaviour in the atmosphere as a dust particle (which does not necessarily have a sphere shape). In the framework of air quality problems, particulate matter is the most important.

Particulate matter such as PM10, PM2.5, PM1 and PM0.1 is defined as the fraction of particles with an aerodynamic diameter smaller than respectively 10, 2.5, 1 and 0.1 µm (for your information: 1 µm = 1 millionth of a meter or 1 thousandth of a millimeter). In comparison, the average diameter of a human hair equals 50-70 µm (see figure below)

Bigger particles, after being emitted into the atmosphere, quickly get taken down by gravity or are washed out by rain. The finer particles can remain in the atmosphere for a longer time (a couple of days to weeks). As such, these finer particles can be transported over longer distances. Another consequence of this longer stay in the atmosphere is the possible alteration of composition and the change of characteristics of the particles because of physicochemical processes.

Such PM can enter the human (or animal) body much more easily than ordinary dust and cause any number of serious diseases.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: