North Korean authorities fail to combat fine dust

Deaths due to air pollution in each of the Koreas
Deaths due to air pollution in each of the Koreas. Graph: Health Effects Institute

The Korean Peninsula is facing some of the worst quality air ever due to severe levels of fine dust. North Korea is also impacted by fine dust, but the country’s government is failing to take any measures to combat the situation, both in terms of policy initiatives and public awareness.

“The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) or Rodong Sinmun (state-run publication) have talked about the severity of fine dust levels but it’s not not mentioned at all in state lectures or study groups,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK.

North Korean authorities are not taking active measures to combat fine dust despite some efforts to alert people to the dangers of poor air quality. Sources suggest that most North Koreans don’t know the dangers of fine dust because they rarely read the Rodong Sinmun page-by-page, or watch full news reports from state-media outlets.

Most North Koreans are unaware of the dangers of fine dust because the state has not conducted public health campaigns or made efforts to improve people’s awareness about the dangers of poor air quality. The government is not taking basic steps to protect its people against the negative impact of fine dust, according to a separate source in South Pyongan Province.

“Fine dust has become a bigger problem then before, but people don’t feel like it’s necessarily gotten worse. The air quality in cities outside of Pyongyang is so bad that people literally live covered in dust and are unaware of its damaging health effects,” she said.

“I heard Pyongyangites wear masks outside, but there’s been little increase in demand for masks at the markets. I’ve never seen anyone wear a mask in Pyongsong, Hyesan, Sinuiju or other major cities.”

100,000 deaths on the Korean Peninsula attributable to PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter)
Deaths in each of the Koreas per 100,000 attributable to PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter). Graph: Health Effects Institute

The American nonprofit environment and public health organization Health Effects Institute (HEI) published a report entitled “The State of Global Air 2019 that found 38,800 people died of poor air quality and another died due to ultra-fine dust in North Korea in 2017.

The yearly average amount of ultra-fine dust concentrations in North Korea’s urban areas is 31㎍/㎥. This is more than three times the 10㎍/㎥ recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Some North Korea observers argue that these high levels of ultra-fine dust are due to the country’s widespread use of wood and coal for fuel and the lack of air filtration units.

Many North Koreans suffer from breathing issues due to the country’s poor air quality and dilapidated health system.

“There hasn’t been much of a rise recently in those suffering from breathing problems,” said the North Pyongan Province-based source when asked if there had been an uptick in patients with respiratory issues recently, adding that “there are just a lot of people with pulmonary complications here to begin with.”

While the state promotes the spread of “sanitation-related know-how” during the “period of sanitation” in March and April, h e said, “they barely talk about lung conditions.”

Deaths attritutable to HAP from solid fuels in each of the Koreas
Deaths attritutable to HAP from solid fuels in each of the Koreas. Chart: Health Effects Institute
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