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Environment

Moon proposes artificial rain with China to clear Seoul air

Pollution worsens to record levels, exceeding New Delhi and Shanghai

Pedestrians cross a street against a background of smog in Seoul on March 5.
Pedestrians cross a street against a background of smog in Seoul on March 5.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- With the South Korean capital's air quality deteriorating to a never-before-seen level, President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday instructed ministries to draw up countermeasures such as artificial rain, in coordination with China, which is seen as a primary culprit.

The atmospheric concentration of PM2.5 -- particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, which can lodge deep in the lungs -- reached an average 135 micrograms per cubic meter Tuesday in Seoul, the Ministry of Environment said. The level exceeds the earlier record of 129 micrograms per cubic meter from January, and is nearly four times the South Korean standard for air quality.

Moon cited artificial rain over the Yellow Sea as an example of a countermeasure, even though an experiment failed in January. But it is still unclear whether that would deliver the desired effect. Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae said restrictions of car traffic and economic activities should be considered.

On early Wednesday morning, Seoul had the world's worst air quality in a ranking compiled by air-quality information provider AirVisual -- worse than New Delhi and Shanghai. Hazy visibility from even a few hundred meters away has not been uncommon here since last year. Stagnation of air flow due to a high-pressure system around the Korean Peninsula on Tuesday seems to have led to the high PM2.5 concentration.

Media outlets are reporting on air pollution as one of the top issues daily, showing pictures of people wearing respirators.

PM2.5, which the environment ministry calls carcinogenic, has become a source of serious concern for residents. Much of the pollutant is thought to come from China, as factory emissions and yellow dust from deserts travel to South Korea on the prevailing belt of winds known as the westerlies.

The Chinese side has given a mixed response. "I don't know if there is sufficient evidence in Korea that the smog in South Korea comes from China," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in his regular press conference Wednesday, adding that the cause of the pollution and how to effectively manage it must be investigated "in a scientific manner." But he also said cooperation among parties "is of course good."

Tackling air pollution was one of Moon's campaign promises in the 2017 election. Nearly two years into his tenure, his approval rating could take a hit if he fails to address the worsening problem.

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