Smog from China brought a concentration of ultrafine particles in the Yeongdeungpo area of southwestern Seoul on Saturday that was 1.4 times the normal level, prompting health authorities to advise the weak and elderly to stay indoors. The concentration of ultrafine particles also surpassed normal levels in the Gangseo, Yangcheon, Guro and Mapo districts of the capital as well as in Incheon. On Oct. 29, the concentration of ultrafine particles in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province north of Seoul was 2.5 times the normal level.
The smog blows across the West Sea. It is now common in Beijing for the concentration of ultrafine particles to reach 10 times the safe level set by the World Health Organization. On Saturday, heavy smog there prompted authorities to close off 10 highways.
Such heavy smog is an ominous sign given that winter, when heating demand surges, has not even arrived. More than 40 percent of the pollutants in the air in Seoul are believed to have blown over from China.
Ultrafine particles are not filtered by the nasal cavity or bronchial tubes and go straight into the lungs, where they can be fatal for people with respiratory illnesses.
The smog is bad enough, but China also operates 15 nuclear power plants and has another 70 in the works. A nuclear disaster in China would drop the radioactive fallout right over Korea on the westerly wind. Maritime pollution in China’s Bohai Sea, which is surrounded by big cities with many factories, also poses a serious problem for Korea as it is adjacent to the West Sea.
Cross-border pollution is extremely difficult to deal with, since there is little the affected country can do if the country which is the source of the contamination resists, for example by claiming a lack of scientific evidence to prove liability. The environment ministers of Korea, China and Japan agreed in May of this year to form a consultative body to discuss pollution from China, but China is dragging its heels and the body has yet to hold its first meeting.
China has shown it is perfectly capable of bold steps to curb pollution, but only when its national image is at stake. For instance, it phased out 70,000 diesel-powered taxis when it hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics and ordered steelmakers on the outskirts of the capital to move elsewhere.
This suggests that Korea needs to keep alerting the international community of the severe impact China's pollution has on neighboring countries. Seoul should also try to harness environmental activists here to support their counterparts in China and win the support of the Chinese public.