SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - A choking pall of micro-dust causing some of South Korea's worst air pollution in years has dented support for President Moon Jae-in, a new worry for a leader facing criticism for a slowing economy and cosying up to North Korea.
Mr Moon's government was dealt a blow when a summit it helped broker between United States President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un broke down in late February. Since then it has scrambled to manage pollution that has darkened skies and prompted national health warnings.
A weekly poll by Gallup Korea on Friday (March 8) showed Mr Moon's approval rate fell 3 percentage points from a week earlier to 46 per cent, while his disapproval rate rose 3 percentage points to 45 per cent - the highest in about two months.
The top reason cited by those who disapproved of Mr Moon was his administration's inability to tackle economic issues such as boosting job rates and managing fallout from a rapid increase in minimum wages.
The third-top reason was a perceived insufficient response to counter air pollution, according to the longstanding tracking survey.
Mr Moon's government has implemented measures such as shutting down parking spaces at government buildings, limiting the use of high-emission vehicles and banning some types of diesel cars from the roads. Mr Moon is also seeking an extra budget to battle the problem.
In the fight against pollution, schools cancelled outdoor activities and commuters in Seoul wore masks on the streets. Children and the elderly were advised to stay indoors. For several days, smog blanketing Seoul erased its skyline and sales of air purifiers spiked.
South Korea blamed the recent foul air on China, saying the pollution was caused by air that stagnated in Chinese urban and industrial areas and later drifted to South Korea. Toxic dust storms were linked to nearly 12,000 deaths in 2015, according to a Seoul National University study provided to lawmakers and cited by South Korea's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environment Ministry.
China has rebuked South Korea's claim, saying the cause is complex.
"I wonder if the ROK side has enough evidence to prove that their smog came from China," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a briefing on Wednesday, referring to South Korea's official name.
Mr Moon, seeking talks with Beijing, also ordered his government to come up with emergency measures with China, including joint research on artificial rain.
According to the Seoul city government, the average density of the ultra-fine dust that occurred between January and February this year was at its highest level in the last five years.
"To respond to the fine dust that is as serious as a natural disaster, a huge amount of budget is needed to install air purifiers at kindergartens, schools and senior citizen centres," ruling party leader Hong Young-pyo said on Thursday.