Koreans have been bombarded over the past few weeks with non-stop news reports about the responses of former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye to the criminal charges they face for corruption. Although those individuals should be held responsible for their actions, one has to wonder whether the personal self-serving actions of those politicians are the most critical issue for the nation, or whether we are being distracted from a more serious problem: the collapse of governance.
Over the past 12 years, starting at the end of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the capacity of government to identify national problems, to formulate solutions and to implement them effectively over the long-term has declined precipitously. We have witnessed the degradation of the political status of qualified civil servants, the empowerment of big business and the appointment of unqualified political figures to high government positions who proceeded to undercut the authority of the government officials serving under them to do their job.
The promotion of a “pro-business” approach to governance that valued short-term profits over the long-term well-being of the nation did permanent damage to the government itself. Today, politicians spend most of their time trying to promote their image and little time coming up with brave and effective solutions to real problems. The low-key and complex process of solving problems is less important than the image perceived in the media.
At the heart of this war on government is the promotion of deregulation (which means literally de-criminalization). The result of deregulation is that government officials have lost the ability to serve as a check on for-profit organizations. Today, profits for business has become the critical issue in the policymaking process and consequentially the government has lost its ability to formulate and implement long-term policies.
That problem has been made worse because deregulation has been paired with privatization so that infrastructure is run for profit. Such an approach poisons attitudes toward the community at every level.
The clearest example of the collapse of governance in Korea is the inability of South Korea to respond to the devastating increase in fine particulate matter in the air. The government is unable to identify the sources of the pollution for the public, to formulate a long-term solution or to demand that industry make the necessary improvements required to address the problem directly.
There is an awareness of the health impact of fine dust, and more and more people employ nose masks, or simply stay inside. Yet government officials do not feel that it is their job to tell citizens how factory emissions have led to this dangerous situation. Seoul suffers through days that make it one of the worst cities in the world for air quality but the Ministry of the Environment is powerless to take steps to respond in earnest.
Government announcements present fine dust as if it were a new type of weather, like snow or rain, and suggest that all citizens can do is to wear a mask, like one might use an umbrella on a rainy day. Useless warnings are sent out to everyone’s smartphone, but policymakers are afraid to take real steps.
Signs on buses suggest that using public transportation is the only solution to fine dust in the air. But the Korean government has not been able to set deadlines for all buses, and automobiles, to be made electric or to make the use of solar and wind power to generate electricity a requirement.
Those are actions that only a strong government can do; industry pursuing profit is incapable of taking such a step.
The government has become so weak that Korea is in danger of losing the automotive market globally to Chinese competitors. China has ordered, wisely, a massive and rapid transition to electric vehicles through government policies and it is poised to become the global leader as petroleum cars are phased out over the next decade. Sadly, the business-friendly, short-sighted push to weaken government in Korea has profoundly reduced Korean competitiveness. Korean electric cars, the future of the automotive market, are almost non-existent.
But cars are not even the primary source of pollution. The South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy reported that gas-fired power plants have increased output from 58,000 to 111,700 gigawatt hours a year, while coal-fired powered plants increased from 134,900 to 203,800 gigawatt hours between 2005 and 2015.
South Korea now has a whopping 53 coal power plants. Korea is alone in the world in increasing, rather than decreasing, the use of coal over the past 10 years. There are plans to shut down 10 older coal power plants, but plans to add 20 more by 2021 have not been cancelled.
Koreans are unaware that the cost of electricity is subsidized to encourage its thoughtless waste. Every time a Korean uses a smartphone, or turns on a computer, in the absence of large-scale solar and wind power, he or she is creating fine dust. That obliviousness to the relationship between dependence on dirty electricity and air quality is why Koreans allowed power demand to increase by some 2.5 per cent a year since 2006.
A JoongAng Ilbo April 5 article reported that there was a protest on April 2 in Gwanghwamun Square against particulate matter that supposedly represented a group called “Dust Out” made up of 44,000 women.
The Korean name was Midaechok, or short for “Demanding policy responses to fine dust.”
According to the article, the group submitted a report demanding the use of air purifiers at schools and the analysis of fine dust and its sources. But there was no mention in the article 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 posters held up by the women of “Dust Out” blamed China, in accord with statements by the Ministry of the Environment. Local government and the central government in South Korea have made efforts to limit the use of automobiles by government, but have done little or nothing about the factories that are the primary source of the problem.
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 (according to the World Health Organization, a PM2.5 level above 10 micrograms per cubic meter is harmful).
We do not see environmental activists demonstrating against climate change in Korea, or demanding that coal power plants be shut down. The environmental movement in Korea grew out of the labor movement and focused on working conditions in factories and the industrial pollution that affected working-class neighborhoods. They have had less of an interest in the complex process of industrial policy. They have often less of a focus, or interest, in climate change or the more complex aspects of industrial pollution.
There has been an enormous increase in smartphone apps that let you know about the level of micro-particles in the air. Newspapers and television are filled with advertisements for filters that can be used at home. But there are no applications telling you which factories produce how much pollution or the cancer rates for each district.
Politicians have started mentioning particulate matter and there have been a few demonstrations. But granted that more than 10,000 people die a year from diseases that can be traced back to air pollution, it is shocking that the government cannot implement effective policies to address the threat head-on.
To start with, we must immediately cancel all plans for coal-fired power plants and provide massive public funding for solar and wind power to make Korea energy self-sufficient over the next five to 10 years. The more ambitious the plan, the more government officials and citizens will be inspired to work harder. Solar panels must be mandatory for all buildings, and solar film mandatory on all automobiles, planes and other surfaces.
Strict insulation regulations must be enforced for all buildings to dramatically cut the amount of energy wasted.
The ministry of the environment must have its budget dramatically increased and its authority expanded so it can conduct rigorous inspections (rather than rely on self-reporting by factories) and enforce increasingly strict regulations. That requires the creation, through a revitalized civil service system, of a powerful government sector capable of planning and regulation. We need a government that can say that petroleum-powered cars be replaced with electric cars within a year (with government subsidies).
And then there is the question of China. Although pollution does float over from China, most fine particulate matter is made in Korea. It is best treated by enforcing strict emissions regulations and designing factories so they do not pollute and designing cities so we can move away from cars.
If Koreans want China to do more to reduce pollution, complaining is not the most effective approach. China is constantly benchmarking Korean best practices. If Korea enforces extremely strict regulations for emissions, that policy will be benchmarked by China, thus creating a positive cycle.
Finally, public education is a critical role for a strong government. The government should announce publicly the exact levels of emissions from all major factories and make public assessments of the energy efficiency of buildings. Teach-in events to educate citizens about energy and pollution should be organized in which citizens come together, not to indulge in food and entertainment, but to learn about how to improve our society and what the causes of pollution are. Education for children should include an objective, in-depth analysis of the causes of pollution, and the solutions demanded.