Gwanghwamun Democracy 2.0: Air Pollution Roundtables

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Jongno, where Gwanghwamun Square is located, is one of Seoul’s most polluted and heavily congested districts. So when I heard that a huge outdoor event on air pollution was taking place on the square, I raised my eyebrows.

“Isn’t it sad that we’re here to discuss fine dust, and as we speak cars are driving past, emitting exhaust and contributing to the problem?” said Goo Gyo-hyun, a 41-year-old employee at a labor rights NGO. Goo was one of the thousands of Seoulites participating at the “Roundtable for 3,000 Citizens,” organized by Seoul Metropolitan Government on May 27.

Luckily for Goo and the 3,000 people gathered on the historic square, which has been the crucible of many of the country’s biggest civil demonstrations, air quality was actually pretty good that day.

I’ve been to the candlelight protests that took place every weekend in Gwanghwamun before Park Geun-hye was ousted from office in March. I’ve seen the square packed with hundreds of thousands of people, demanding that the corrupt president step down. I remember being awed and even frightened by the collective wave of LED “candles.” There was so much anger, hope and a strong sense of empowerment rising from the belief that power lay with us, the people.

The roundtables last Saturday carried a similar spirit of democratic idealism. The square was filled with citizens of different backgrounds debating the city’s worsening air pollution, hoping their voices would make a difference. At one table, a group of elderly Seoulites was arguing about the feasibility of giving benefits to households voluntarily taking part in energy conservation measures.

“Look here, look here,” a man said. “I agree with you in theory! But do you seriously think it’s practical in real life?”

At another, a kindergarten teacher was saying, “It’s so sad when I have to tell the kids that we can’t go for a walk because the air quality is bad.”

(Haeryun Kang/Korea Exposé)
(Haeryun Kang/Korea Exposé)

“Citizens feel the seriousness of the fine dust issue. We want to listen to their voices,” said Cho In-sik, a representative from Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG)’s Environmental Policy Division.

Cho was one of 130 or so staffers running around the square, trying to ensure the discussions moved along in a timely manner. The event was well-organized: A huge screen presented the topics for each timed debate, while SMG facilitators at each table moderated and typed up the different opinions, which were showcased in real time on a big screen. Comedian Kim Jae-dong, a rarity in South Korea’s mainstream celebrity world for speaking openly about his political views, was the official M.C.

(Haeryun Kang/Korea Exposé)

“People! What are you doing here on a Saturday afternoon? Have you nothing else to do?” mayor Park Won-soon joked on stage at the end of the event. After two hours of discussions, he said, tens of thousands of citizen perspectives were gathered. “We’ll prioritize them and choose our policies accordingly.”

“This was a lot of fun,” said Jeong Seon-hee, a 47-year-old housewife who came with her 11-year-old son. “At our table, there were three parents with young children. All of us said that our kids’ nasal inflammations had gotten worse in recent years. Now that I’ve taken part in these debates, I think I’ll be more engaged in how my opinions get reflected systematically in policy measures.”

(Haeryun Kang/Korea Exposé)

Mayor Park promises to designate fine dust as a natural disaster, implementing a forecast system for air pollution and handing out masks and air purifiers to people in need. He plans to reduce the amount of congestion and traffic — albeit through voluntary civic participation — and make it mandatory for construction companies to use environmentally friendly equipment.

But he admitted he couldn’t do much about the bigger policies, like implementing an environment tax, strengthening the lax government standards for air pollution, and putting pressure on China.

“Who do you think has this authority? My neighbor here,” Park said, pointing to the presidential palace, which stands about 1.5 km away from the square. Then, he laughed. “Luckily, we’re good friends. We’ll try our best to implement these policies at a national level.”

Last week, Seoul enjoyed a surprising number of blue-sky days. Today, the gray heavens are back. Air quality in Seoul is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” I knew it was too good to last.

 

Cover image: Around 3,000 citizens participated in roundtable discussions on air quality on May 27. (Source: Pixabay)

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Haeryun Kang is a freelance journalist based in Seoul and contributing editor at Korea Exposé.