Air pollution

Toxic Air in South Korea

Yoki Ho, Clean Air Student Council



One of South Korea’s most serious environmental issues is air pollution. Millions of people’s health is affected, and daily life is disrupted. During polluted seasons, even basic activities like running outside or taking a family walk might be deadly. In Seoul, you see Koreans wearing dust masks and air purifier necklaces. How did Korea’s air quality deteriorate so drastically? What can we do to alter our damage done to the environment?


Korea’s status quo


In South Korea, a handful of domestic and international sources contribute to air pollution. Due to South Korea’s rapid industrialisation, several types of pollution have increased, particularly in Seoul and other major cities. Seoul, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is one of the world’s most polluted cities. Between 2009 and 2013, the city’s mean PM10 levels were greater than many of the world’s greatest metropolises, including Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris, and London. The poor air quality is also considered to have caused roughly 16% of deaths in the Seoul Metropolitan Area in 2010. [1]


Causes of Korea’s air pollution


A considerable number of locals in Korea suppose that the worsening air quality problem is due to China’s large-scale factories and coal-fired power plants. On average days, China contributes 30 to 50 percent of the PM2.5 in South Korea, while on bad days, China contributes 60 to 80 percent. [2]  Many analysts, however, argue that Korea’s significant reliance on coal-fired power plants and diesel fuel is also aggravating the situation. [3]


Another possibility is that there is too much traffic in Korea, which has very limited fossil fuel resources and imports all but 1% of its coal. Due to its booming economy and need for energy, the country is significantly reliant on fossil fuels, with oil accounting for 38% of main energy supply, coal for 29%, and gas for 15%. Aside from roadside air pollution caused by traffic, manufacturing cars and generating energy in power plants also liberate heaps of unwanted air pollutants. Namely oxides and nitrogen, carbon monoxide, particulates, and hydrocarbons are released into the atmosphere. [4] The number of automobiles on the road is growing rapidly. Imports and exports can enhance fossil fuel burning in a fast-growing economy. Rising pollution, especially in concrete jungles such as Seoul, will exacerbate both the environment and the residents’ health issues.


What has been done to improve Korea’s air


Back in December 2003, the Seoul municipal government devised a plan to minimise air pollution, particularly PM2. Five particles were to be targeted. However, improving the air quality is not just the government’s responsibility. It is vital for the citizens to understand current trends, present state, and main contributors to air pollution in order to bring the seriousness of the environmental problem to the public’s attention. At  present, 5-G linked robots with air quality monitoring sensors are patrolling the Jeonju industrial complex in South Korea, which began last year (2021). The data acquired will be used for the city’s environmental control because it is more efficient and can cover more locations than the inspectors patrolling the factories. [5]


In a nutshell, Korea is struggling with the worsening air quality while the economy continues to grow. Luckily the country has taken steps to ameliorate the hot issue and has seen improvements since then. We fondly anticipate more participation of the public to spread awareness of air pollution and learn to treat our environment better, not only in South Korea, but also in other parts of the world.