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Asymmetric barriers in atmospheric politics of transboundary air pollution: a case of particulate matter (PM) cooperation between China and South Korea


Existing studies have argued that regional cooperation is urgent in order to tackle transboundary air pollution. However, few studies have operationalized atmospheric cooperation steps and theorized the underlying logic of asymmetry as a barrier to further cooperation. Given that air quality degradation and its impact on neighboring countries have worsened around the world, it is imperative to identify a framework with which to analyze the degree of transboundary cooperation. This study aims to provide a general explanation of barriers to transboundary air pollution cooperation and test the explanation empirically through a case study of China and South Korea. Our findings suggest that asymmetric barriers—in state capacity, economic interests, domestic pressures, and international pressure—impede the process of cooperation in atmospheric politics. This systematic analysis points to policy suggestions including the improvement of regional epistemic community, economic co-benefits, and multilateral institution that enhance the chances of reducing transboundary air pollution.

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Fig. 1


  1. As explained below, our analysis focuses on the bilateral case rather than the multilateral case, which needs more theoretical sophistication.

  2. Note that financial support/subsidy transfer from the receiving country to the transferring country is another aspect of this economic-interest dimension. In fact, the case of China–South Korea experienced this economic interaction at a very low scale, which does not qualify as a game-changer due to the difference in size between the two countries and the sheer volume of air pollution in mainland China. If the receiving end is much larger economically and more capable of subsidizing the transferring end, this might be a critical factor in the game. This policy suggestion is applicable to the case of North Korea (source) and South Korea (receptor).

  3. The degree of domestic audience pressure depends on multiple factors (variables) such as the nature of the political regime (democratic or authoritarian), the level of economic development (poor, developing, or developed), and scientific information on the various features of the air pollution (transboundary, domestic-generated, atmospheric dynamics, impact on quality of life, etc.), which are beyond the scope of this paper.

  4. Note that in addition to the interviews conducted during the fieldwork, some interviews were conducted via email and phone to obtain more diverse interviewees in China and South Korea.

  5. July 3, 2014, Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Korea and the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People’s Republic of China on Environmental Cooperation; 2016 MOU for Collaborative Research Team on Air Quality of Korea and China.

  6. Interviews with South Korean experts, January 12, August 23, 2019; officials January 13, 2019.

  7. Despite a series of research efforts inside and outside of China, we could not find any data that reported the scientific evaluation of transboundary air pollution between China and South Korea. See Kim and Kim (2018).

  8. Hangyoreh Newspaper, June 19, 2018. China, Japan, and Korea’s collaborative publication of PM from China broken down. (

  9. Interview with Chinese expert, January 11, 2019; Chinese official, January 20, 2019. Cho (2019).

  10. Data retrieved from the World Bank Dataset ( and SIPRI dataset (

  11. Data retrieved from the Korea Customs dataset (

  12. Interviews with South Korean officials and experts, January 12, 2019; Chinese experts and journalist, January 8, 11, and 25, 2019.

  13. Interviews with Chinese experts and officials, January 8, 11, 20 and 25, 2019.

  14. Interviews with Chinese experts and officials, January 8, 11, 20 and 25, 2019.

  15. Interview with South Korean experts, January 13, 2019.

  16. By contrast, North Korea is a closed authoritarian state with an underdeveloped economy and little scientific knowledge. North Korea is not demanding that China settle this transboundary PM issue.

  17. Interviews with Chinese experts, January 8 and 25, 2019.

  18. Interviews with Chinese experts, November 16, 2018; January 9, 11, 20 and 25.

  19. Joint research projects (of China, Japan, and South Korea) for Long-range transboundary air pollutants in Northeast Asia recently announced the summary report of 4th stage (regarding PM) LTP project (Nov. 20, 2019). LTP (2019). While it was the first collaborative research outcome announcement, detailed contents on the influence of sources (Chinese cities) on receptors (South Korean cities) between China and South Korea estimates are not identical. In addition, transports of PM during high level seasons (from December to March) were not included in the report (Kim 2019).

  20. Interviews with Chinese experts, November 16, 2018; January 9, 11, and 17, 2019.

  21. Interviews with a South Korean expert, January 21, 2019.

  22. Interviews with Chinese experts, January 11, 2019; Chinese officials, January 20, 2019; South Korean experts, January 12, May 21, 2019.

  23. It is analogous to the certified emissions reduction issue in climate-change debate, because South Korea produced a massive amount of PM in the last several decades without being recognized as a source-transferor to its neighboring countries, but now blames China for generating and transferring PM to it.

  24. Hypothetically, if China was downstream and South Korea was upstream, there would be a much lower level of conflict revolving around the transboundary PM. Instead, China might be in South Korea’s position and be demanding a resolution to the issue. If so, South Korea would be under severe pressure to cooperate with its more powerful neighbor, and the asymmetric logic would run the opposite way, accelerating the cooperation process. From a different perspective, the primary receptors victimized by the massive PM transfer from China would be the countries of Central Asia and Southeast Asia.


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Appendix: List of interviewees

Appendix: List of interviewees

Interviews were conducted in a face-to-face manner with semi-structured questions concerning the causes or drivers of international cooperation over transboundary air pollution. Interviewees agreed to be anonymously interviewed. All interviews lasted between 30 min and 1 h or via email.

1Professor at a University in Northeast China (International Relations)January 8, 11 and 20, 2019
2Researcher at a University in South Korea (China Studies, China-South Korea Relations)November 16, 2018; January 25, 2019
3Journalist from a Newspaper in BeijingJanuary 25, 2019
4Local government official from Tianjin (External Affairs)January 25, 2019
5Chinese government official from the Ministry of Commerce January 24, 2019
6Scholar from a University in BeijingJanuary 26, 2019
7Chinese scholar from a University in Seoul January 9 and 17, 2019
8Local government official from Jilin (Environmental Affairs)January 20, 2019
9Professor of a University in Jilin Province (China Studies, China-South Korea Relations)January 20, 2019
10South Korean official (Foreign affairs)May 9, 2019
11Researcher at Hanyang University, South Korea (Environmental Politics)August 23, 2019
12Professor from Korea University (Energy and Environmental Politics)August 12, 2019
13Professor from Kwangwoon University, South Korea (Environmental Politics)July 4, 2019
14Environmental activist from South KoreaJuly 4, 2019
15Professor of Atmospheric science at Yonsei UniversityMay 21, 2019
16Researcher from the Korea Environmental InstituteMay 21, 2019

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Lee, T., Paik, W. Asymmetric barriers in atmospheric politics of transboundary air pollution: a case of particulate matter (PM) cooperation between China and South Korea. Int Environ Agreements 20, 123–140 (2020).

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  • Atmospheric politics
  • Transboundary air pollution
  • Asymmetry
  • China and South Korea relations
  • Interactions between domestic politics and international politics