By John Rodgers
For years I watched as more and more gray, and sometimes ochre, skies dominated days and thwarted outdoor plans. Spring had always been the time to expect a couple of bad days, with what was always the yellow dust or "hwangsa" blowing in from China, leaving a sulfurous sheen on cars and causing some to don masks. But that was about it; generally the rest of the year was alright.
Then more of spring's salubrious days were spoiled by noxious air, sometimes with stretches of days. Then would come some rain, rain that you wouldn't want to sing or dance in, to clean the atmosphere and deliver a few days of fine weather.
Eventually winter had more grey days, not the yellow dust from China but some toxic mix, at least half of it coming from Korean-based pollution producers (i.e., coal power plants and automobiles), according to research from Harvard University.
Summer suffered next, a season when the air is already muggy and sometimes suffocating. More "fine dust" and "bad air" warnings filled newscasts and more discussions of the who and what behind it began to take place.
Finally, the most resilient and invigorating season, when the sky is high and the horse is fat, as Koreans say, autumn, fell victim to particulate matter, to a smog that dared to enshroud the glorious mountains and valleys that draw countless outdoor enthusiasts, especially as foliage fills treetops. No time of year was off limits.
Soon, schools started issuing warnings, keeping students indoors on bad days, some installing air purifiers. People in general started checking websites and apps that provided the latest air quality reading, determining whether to wear a mask or not, closing any open windows, cancelling outdoor engagements. And as the populous grew more concerned, so the government announced more plans, beyond keeping some cars off Seoul's roads.
In 2017, NASA conducted flights over the peninsula to determine the source of the smog and found, as Harvard had, that "over half of the pollution is coming from local sources," which included automobiles (particularly diesels), industrial sites and power plants. Korea now has around 50 coal power plants.
The year 2018 began with four straight days of "bad air," the mountains nearby my Gyeonggi apartment pale, hid obscure figures. Hiking plans were dashed. In the news I read that the Moon administration still had a plan to reduce fine dust by 30 percent, though with little evident progress.
A year later I have seen those familiar headlines and photos, illustrating the worst smoggy stretch ever. The government reiterated its plans: temporarily shutting down old coal power plants; getting old diesels off the roads; seeding clouds to produce rain; building a massive purifier tower; working with China. Some sensible plans.
But nothing bold. No harnessing of the country's immense technological ingenuity on a grand scale. Why not task Samsung and LG with helping defeat this national threat? Why not utilize the knowledge of professors and students at universities across the nation to fight this menace? Why not mobilize engineers from Posco and Hyundai and Kia in a war against fine dust? It's past time for the government and private sector tounite in a broad and determined effort to save the air everyone breathes. Few have the option of escaping to cleaner climes.
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org) spent more than 10 years in Korea, where he taught English at both Daewon Foreign Language High School and the Hankuk Academy of Foreign Studies.