The Koreas

North Korea: The Missing Link in Northeast Asia’s Air Pollution Fight

South Korea and China have made progress in addressing the deadly issue of fine dust, but North Korea’s engagement is necessary too.

By for
North Korea: The Missing Link in Northeast Asia’s Air Pollution Fight

A man wearing a mask rides a bicycle along the Han river in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

According to the WHO, 89 North Koreans in every 100,000 died from ambient air pollution in 2016. China’s rapid industrialization and North Korea’s aging domestic thermoelectric power plants are mainly responsible for this health threat. Forest degradation is another contributing factor. In Asia, North Korea has become the country with the third fastest rate of degradation. From 1990 to 2015, North Korea lost the highest percentage of its forest in East Asia.

North Korea has taken very few steps to mitigate this issue despite its vulnerability. This vacuum of effective countermeasures exposes the North Korean population to the serious dangers of fine dust.

Fine dust is an extremely small particle that easily penetrates the respiratory tract and damages the system through direct contact with the skin, eyes, nose, or throat. Its diameter, usually smaller than 10 micrometers, is a fifth of the thickness of the human hair. According to the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention, fine dust severely increases the possibility of ischemic heart disease and stroke.

Despite the problem’s gravity, simple preventative efforts such as mask wearing are still not common among North Korean citizens. State media does not provide enough information regarding fine dust. A majority of the population lacks knowledge about the dangers and the protective measures that they can take.

As with many environmental issues, the problem is horizontal, affecting neighboring countries such as China and South Korea. All three countries suffer from massive smog with fine particles. South Korea had the worst air quality among the 35 OECD member countries in 2017 and a study shows that the negative effect of air pollution in China costs about $38 billion annually. Beijing and Seoul, however, are making efforts to counter the situation.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

As a result of several talks, there are projects already in process. Real-time air quality data from 38 cities in China and South Korea is directly shared. This information is used for joint academic research, policy decisions, and an advanced alert system. It also enables more effective and accurate preventive measures. Although not binding, numerous agreements are being signed and cooperation centers are conducting researches on the issue.

The two countries continue to strengthen cooperation. South Korea and China have held a number of ministerial- and working-level talks to boost cooperation to minimize the damage. According to the South Korean Ministry of Environment, South Korea and China will consult with each other on ways to jointly implement emergency mitigation measures and promote an artificial rainfall technology exchange. Such efforts are continuingas the National Council on Climate and Air Quality in South Korea is working to realize a visit to China to discuss further actions in coping with the challenge.

There is gradual progress in the Ministry of Environment’s plans to cooperate with China in order to minimize the influence of fine dust from foreign countries. It is expected that the accuracy of forecasting on fine dust will be improved through the full-scale operation of early warning systems. While efforts are being made to discuss concerted efforts and measures to reduce fine dust, more specific, long-term solutions and ongoing cooperation are needed. Joint response cooperation with China has great significance as the starting point.

In contrast to the policies that China and South Korea are pursuing, there is neither a well-established air pollution policy nor the ability to precisely measure air pollution in North Korea. North Korea remains reluctant to make data on fine dust public, while other nations are already far ahead, cooperating to identify the disaster.

It is critical that North Korea become part of the comprehensive efforts to combat the fine dust problem, which affects the entire region of Northeast Asia. This crisis calls for multilateral engagement from neighboring countries and should start with the sharing of data and academic exercises. Identifying and analyzing is the first step to addressing a problem. Without the disclosure of fine dust data, at least to Beijing and Seoul, there is no foundation for cooperation. This, along with minimizing the consequences of air pollution, would have another positive outcome. Amid sanctions leveled on Pyongyang, this effort is a way to offer indirect humanitarian relief to North Korean residents. Such cooperation also could act as a stepping stone for closing the technology gap among the countries. Lastly, the increase in constructive communication among the three countries will be the most important diplomatic victory for the international community.

Jihyun Cha is an Asan Academy Young Fellow and a student at Yonsei University.

Taeheon Lee is an Asan Academy Young Fellow and a student at Kyung Hee University.