Children storm the DMZ

[This story was written originally in March 2013 reporting from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)  for The Korea Herald and later re-published by The Nation in Thailand.]

Children in DMZ
I took this photo at the amusement park near Paju when the kids were gathering up for the buses to take them back to Seoul after a day-long outing inside the heavily militarized Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea in March 2013.

A handful of tour buses carrying foreign diplomats, Korean reporters and children slowly lumbered across Unification Bridge into the demilitarised zone, carefully negotiating barricades assembled halfway along the bridge’s length.

The schoolchildren were fidgety and chattering excitedly, jumping out of their seats to peer out of the bus windows at sights they scarcely could have seen before – armoured vehicles, heavily armed checkpoints and nests of razor-wire, the legacy of a three-year civil war and 60 years of national division.

The schoolchildren, a dozen foreign envoys, and their entourage were part of March 21’s “International Children’s Peace Day”, a day-long tour of various tourist sites in and around Paju, a sleepy rural town north of Seoul. It was organised by International Cooperation of Environmental Youth, a US-based group led by organiser Lee Kyoung-tae and wife Melissa Lee.

The couple has made headlines over the years on peace and environmental issues, including a movement to build what the couple described as a “children’s peace forest” inside the DMZ.

“It is a great idea because peace is one of the most expensive ideas there is, and children can market the idea better than anyone else,” said Charitha Yattogoda, a diplomat from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Seoul.

“We also know how expensive peace can be in Sri Lanka. We had a civil conflict for 30 years and only recently achieved peace,” he said during the day-long event.

“We know how important it is, and we at the embassy immediately thought of joining this event to lend our support as best as we can.”

The DMZ can be a culture shock for any visitor. Barbed wire fences and security checkpoints abound, guarded by soldiers lugging machine guns.

The soldiers are not lonely, however, as busloads of tourists show up daily to gawk at the world’s most heavily fortified border, even as North Korea threatens to drown Seoul in a “sea of fire”.

“It’s a good experience for the children. This is not an easy place to organize a visit, so we appreciate the effort the organisers made for the children. Normally kids under 12 years of age are not allowed inside the DMZ,” said Wang Kai, wife of Austrian Ambassador Josef Muellner. Wang delivered welcome remarks at Imjinggak Pavilion at the start of the tour.

Imjinggak Pavilion was built “to remind Koreans of their painful past and their commitment to unification”, says the Gyeonggi provincial government.

The pavilion’s amusement park, fast-food joints and kitschy souvenir shops mix with an ever-present Cold War tension that is higher now than it has been in years, following North Korean outrage over UN sanctions and joint US-South Korean military drills that have included Cold War-style B-52 flyovers.

Sensing potential controversy, some foreign diplomats shied away from lending any insights about the divided Korea, the demilitarised zone or the North.

Most of them, however, realized the crucial role that today’s children must eventually take if peace and unification is to return to their country.

“War and peace is a game for politicians to play, but I think these young people will grow up to change the way the game is played,” said Sameer Alwahedy, an attache at the Jordanian Embassy in Seoul. “In Jordan, we believe in peace, everyone in the world has the right to live in peace. A children’s event like this could be a great help in the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well.”

It is easy to cynically dismiss the conflict-zone tourist industry that has slowly grown in the area, including the Dora Observatory, where one wave to soldiers and look at North Korea through binoculars for 500 won (Bt13), and the amusement park at the Imjinggak Pavilion, the start and end point for the day-long tour.

But the mix of tourist kitsch Cold War humor shows Paju’s residents are making the best of a bad situation, and it could offer hope.

“This event symbolizes to me the promotion of peace because, obviously, youth are the future. We have to make a commitment to conflict resolution and this is a conscious effort to promote peace,” said SU Ahmed, deputy head of mission at the Nigerian Embassy.

“Children are the ones who suffer the most in a conflict situation. That is why it is important to let them participate in being part of the solution in events like this one,” said Adamu A Musa, minister at the Nigerian Embassy in Seoul.

In addition to the amusement park, which is complete with rides and carnival booths, there are a number of other touristy things to do and see: take the bicycle tour; bang the Bell of Peace for 10,000 won; stroll on the Bridge of Freedom, which comes to an abrupt and symbolic dead end; and peer at the rusting steam engine stuck in situ since the end of the Korean War, riddled with bullet holes.

Musa, Ahmed and their wives returned to Seoul with souvenir DMZ baseball caps.


Korean Scientists Turn Greenhouse Gases Into Cold Hard Cash

This article appeared oringally in 10Magazine in April 2015.

A team of young scientists based in Daejeon are developing a cutting-edge plasma technology that converts either carbon dioxide and methane or low-grade coal and water into clean burning hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Could this technology actually help reverse global climate change?


The world reportedly pumped an estimated 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air last year by burning coal, oil and gas. That’s about 700 million tons of the greenhouse gas more than in 2013, an increase of two percent, and it’s projected to increase an additional 2.5 percent this year. Ice caps are melting, oceans are rising and animal species are going extinct on a regular basis; that’s been the veritable mantra among scientists and climate researchers. But in spite of these dire assessments why does nothing change?

One explanation is a fundamental human motive: profit. There’s simply no financial incentive to change. We are living in an energy-thirsty world and, let’s face it, the world appears to only get thirstier. An ever growing number of coal-fired power plants are producing greater quantities of electricity, and emitting more and more CO2, the main heat-trapping gas from human activity.

Friends from KAIST

Now a team of young scientists at a startup in Daejeon are developing an innovative solution that uses greenhouse gases to produce useful chemical commodities, and they hope to make oodles of boodle in the process. Dr. Uhm Sae-hoon, founder of EN2CORE Technology, was positively beaming when the 39-year-old scientist joined 10 Magazine for an interview at his lab at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Korea’s premier school for science and technology. That economic incentive could be a game changer, Uhm says. The profit potential could attract big players like the state-run Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO) to invest millions of dollars, helping the technology rapidly scale up and make a massive impact on both the environment and the company’s bottom line.

EN2CORE’s high-tech creativity centers around Uhm’s alma mater, KAIST. The science and technology university is a crucial source for the company’s talent pool and research and development. Indeed, when we visited him at EN2CORE’s lab, we spoke inside KAIST’s physics building, where much of EN2CORE’s research and development takes place.

It is not unusual for a KAIST facility to be used as an incubator for an ultra high-tech enterprise. Two KAIST professors, Dr. Chang Hong-yong and Dr. Cho Gyu-hyong, are also on board with EN2CORE as advisors. Besides KAIST there are an estimated 240 science related organizations in Daejeon, including ETRI (Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute), KARI (Korea Aerospace Research Institute), KAERI (Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute).

Carrying the nickname “Daedeok Innopolis,” nearly 30 high-tech R&D institutes are clustered together in Daedeok Valley in northern Daejeon where more than 20,000 researchers work, 7,000 of whom have PhDs. Dr. Uhm was confident that his team can bring EN2CORE’s CO2 converting plasma technology online by this time next year.

We entered the lab through a hole in the ceiling, descending a spiral staircase into a sprawling facility jam-packed with row after row of metal shelves stacked with machines, instruments and tools.

Dr. Uhm’s lab had more in common with Voldermort’s Lab of Harry Potter notoriety, more of a cluttered university graduate workspace than a well-stocked cutting-edge “Los Alamos” type research facility.

And yet, Uhm and his colleagues appear to be on the cusp of developing an ultra high-tech plasma device. The lesson here: it isn’t hardware that produces clever inventions, but a handful of smart people with enough space to do what they do. He and a few of his colleagues showed us the lab at KAIST as well as his reactor prototype.

Uhm led us to the back of the room where the plasma converter is. The machine itself was about the size of a refrigerator, not nearly as large or formidable as expected. Yet, it could very well be an eco-solution for coal-fired power plants in China, India and elsewhere emitting greenhouse gases.

EN2CORE is Uhm’s second business venture into plasma. He started his first company when he was still a student at KAIST. He and his classmate, Lee Yong-kwan, met while working on their PhDs focused in plasma at KAIST and launched Plasmart in 2000. Plasmart focused on monitoring and controlling plasma processes, diagnostic systems and atmospheric pressure plasma surface treatment systems. Their products served semiconductor and LED display industries until they eventually sold the company to MKS Instruments for $30 million USD in 2012.

On the heels of the success of Plasmart, Uhm and KAIST classmate Lee now run a venture capital group, Bluepoint Partners Inc., along with other colleagues from the prestigious science and technology university and outside investors. Bluepoint is a partner in EN2CORE.

EN2CORE’s Unique Plasma Gasification Technology


Plasma offers a unique way to induce chemical reactions because the electrons in a plasma can be excited to intense energy levels, easily creating a swarm of charged particles. These swirling charged particles react further, re-constituting into new molecules. It is an extraordinary process that results in new chemical products. In this way undesirable compounds like CO2 can be broken up and pieced back together into new and valuable chemical compounds through the magic of plasma technology.

EN2CORE’s unique plasma technology takes two different sets of raw materials and produces synthetic gas (aka “syngas”), which can then be turned into a variety of other products.

One of these processes takes carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) and turns them into carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2), which in and of themselves are highly valued commercial products. The cleanest coal fuel power plants in use today still emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide. Thanks to the world’s second largest carbon market recently created by the South Korean government, it now costs money to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. One method of limiting pollutants is for these plants to capture some of the CO2, liquefy it and then store it deep underground, in a process called “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), but this method can still eventually see CO2 resurface and pollute the atmosphere. EN2CORE’s initial profit will come from taking carbon dioxide off the hands of energy producers like the Korea Power Company (KEPCO) at the rate of $50 per ton – and using it as the raw material for this new process.

In addition to converting CO2 into useful chemical compounds, EN2CORE’s other key innovation allows it to take cheap, low-grade coal and process it with water to once again create carbon monoxide and hydrogen through plasma gasification.

Turning Syngas into Money

The resulting syngas can be used as a fuel source or further processed to create a wide variety of end-use chemicals. In both processes the resulting hydrogen can be used as a zero-emission fuel for combustion engines or in electrochemical cells. The syngas can also be converted into hydrocarbons, alcohols like ethanol and methanol, and organic acids such as formic acid and formaldehyde. Although organic acids are not chemicals that EN2CORE aims to focus on, such compounds are integral in the manufacture of everything from cars to clothes.

Uhm summed up just how profitable his new plasma gasification process has the potential to be  — not to mention the benefits of CO2 conversion into syngas and valuable chemical compounds — after the cutting edge tech goes online. “It is very possible to scale up this technology because unlike other carbon-capture and utilization processes, ours possesses an attractive economic value,” Uhm says.

Their initial plasma generator is set to go online in April of 2016, and Uhm says it will process the CO2 emitted from about 5 megawatts of power production annually. That would mean consuming 36,000 tons of CO2, likely raking in about US$5.6 million a year in profit. “It could be scaled up beyond the 10 to 30 megawatt capacity in three to five years. “We see a huge market in servicing small power plants in India and China,” said Uhm.

Once the plasma generator is up and running anywhere in the world, the initial products it produces include carbon monoxide at $365 a ton, hydrogen at over $1,000 a ton and methanol at $400 a ton. These gases can then be utilized as intermediate compounds in the production of such valuable chemicals as ventilation air methane (VAM), acetic acid, gasoline additive MTBE and olefin, which can fetch anywhere from $550 to $1,000 per ton.

GET PAID TOdispose of the planet’s trash and then turn it into cash. Can you get a better business plan?


What is “plasma” anyways?

Despite what you may have learned at high school, there are actually four states of matter: Solid, liquid, gas, and a fourth state: Plasma.

Matter’s state can change if heat is applied or removed. As heat is added to a solid it is transformed into a liquid. If more heat is added, then the liquid becomes a gas.

But if still more heat is added, the electrons of the gas are ripped away from their parent nuclei, leaving a sea of free-flowing positively charged nuclei and negatively charged electrons.

It is this sea of electrons that imbue plasma with its electrical conductivity, its magnetic field, and its sensitivity to external electromagnetic fields. To rip the electrons away in this way, you generally need a very high voltage or immense heat.

Plasmas are similar to gases in that they don’t have a definite shape or volume. But they also differ from gases significantly in that they are electrically conductive and produce a magnetic field.

Plasma gives neon and fluorescent lights their glow, is formed during lightning strikes, and is present in plasma television. In the case of plasma TVs, these excited electrons collide with mercury, producing ultraviolet light that collides with phosphors, which produce light.

Chemists also classify fire as a plasma under special circumstances, and — this will blow your mind — the Sun is a plasma. Indeed, the magnificent dance of the Aurora Borealis is a result of plasma from the Sun interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

The distinct glow of plasma is generated by the occasional recombination of the negatively charged electrons and positively charged nuclei. The color of the glow emitted is determined by the gas chemistry.

A plasma is produced by blowing a gas into a vacuum chamber and then igniting this gas with electric power. The plasma takes on exotically rich colors depending on that gas. For example, Argon emits purple light; nitrogen emits a reddish orange one; and the light that a fluorocarbon like carbon dioxide emits is blue.

Plasma can also be used as a controllable reactive gas. For example if an object is placed at the edge of a plasma, then the charged particles will bombard the object etching away at the surface. This basic concept has been integral in the electronics industry to produce ever smaller panels of silicon, which are used in laptop computers and cell phones.

Plasma processing has proved essential in the rapid miniaturization and increased performance of computers. The information revolution would have been impossible without knowledge of plasma.





Eco-leadership stalls in Assembly

Experts debate pros and cons of cap-and-trade as crucial deadline slips by

This article originally appeared in The Korea Times in January 2012.

By Philip Iglauer

Government officials are debating passage of an emissions trading scheme (ETS), called cap-and-trade in the United States, as President Lee Myung-bak’s year-end deadline to pass key legislation slipped by and the country lost out to Qatar in its bid to host the U.N. Climate Change Summit in November.

Officials close to Korea’s climate change legislation said the bill has little chance of passing this year, too, as the nation looks to two elections, and with significant industries opposed to the bill in its current form. Bureaucratic infighting is another factor weighing against a bill that bolsters the authority of the Environment Ministry.

Korea’s global leadership on the environment, as well as the country’s long-term economic growth, could be at stake.

President Lee announced in a speech on Aug. 15, 2008 that “low carbon, green growth” should be the country’s new development strategy.

The government then started the wheels of that policy moving by setting a target to reduce green house gas (GHG) emissions, setting up the Presidential Committee on Green Growth in January 2009 and enacting the “Framework Act on Low Carbon, Green Growth,” which Lee signed in January 2010.

That bill allocated billions of dollars to its No. 1 strategy and No. 1 policy direction: To coordinate the president’s green strategy through “the mitigation of climate change and energy independence” and “the effective mitigation of green house gas emissions,” according to its Web site.

In addition to laying down a legislative foundation with the Framework Act, the government also set up the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), which worked to bring the public and private sectors on board with its green growth strategy. GGGI has been instrumental in promoting Lee’s green growth economic vision in Korea and abroad.

But the most ambitious piece of the president’s green growth agenda is floundering ― its emissions trading mechanism for a national greenhouse gas emissions quota and trading scheme.

The government reasoned lean and green would not only be good for the Earth, it would also pay dividends in paving the way for economic growth in the long term.

Professor Cho Hong-sik of Seoul National University said the emissions trading scheme is the best tool Korea has to pursue a green growth strategy, which in turn is vital for the country to face what he described as an economic “triple crunch,” Korea’s energy challenge, climate change challenge and declining economic growth rates since the 1990s.

“I have engaged myself in this issue from the beginning. I know about the green growth strategy, and to accomplish growth and this goal, we need good policy tools,” Cho said. “The most important tool is ETS.”

The government missed the deadline, and most observers see little chance of the National Assembly taking up emissions trading this year, with two big elections approaching and opposition by the country’s largest business lobby, even though significant concessions have already been made to industry.

The Korea Chamber of Commerce & Industry (KCCI), which represents 15 business groups and includes the country’s largest firms, asked the legislature to again revise the bill.

Cho said that although corporate opposition appears natural, it is short sighted. Korea is now importing more energy for ever-diminishing economic output, and some 85 percent of that energy is derived from the volatile Middle East and energy prices are subject to violent fluctuations.
For Cho, an emissions trading scheme is not just good environmental sense, it is a matter of the nation’s long-term economic survival.

Cho said the number of days with precipitation over 80 millimeters in Korea from 1970 has increased by a factor of four, causing extreme weather events and 1.8 trillion won to the economy, a 430 percent increase from the 1980s.

Middle countries like Korea are particularly vulnerable to disasters caused by extreme weather, according to a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel’s special report in 2011 titled, “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events & Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX).”

The report estimated the disasters caused by extreme weather sapped 1 percent of GDP from middle countries from 2001-2006, compared with 0.3% for their wealthy nation counterparts.

Minister of Government Legislation Chung Sung-tae said, “It is necessary to pass the bill this year to implement ETS by the 2015 deadline,” in an interview with The Korea Times in November on the sidelines of international forum on environmental legislation in Incheon, 60 kilometers from Seoul.

The Korean government set a voluntary target of a 30 percent cut in emissions by 2020, and wants the bill passed by the year end to start the scheme from 2015.

For the last 20 years, local environmentalists and clean-energy activists have argued that the best hope of addressing climate change is for nations around world to come together under the auspices of the U.N. and recognize the threat that a superheated climate could pose to everyone, and then sign a legally binding treaty to reduce carbon pollution.

ETS is the system with the least sacrifice that will get the job done, Cho said.

“When compared to that of other systems, such as direct regulation and carbon taxes that have been established to reduce GHG emissions, two of the major advantages of ETS are economic efficiency and flexibility,” Chung said.

“The government believes that ETS is the most effective and efficient way to reduce GHG emissions at a national level. In the medium and long term, it is important to promote and the spread word that ETS can heighten the competitiveness of industries. Efforts are being put into place so as to pass the legislation at the National Assembly as soon as possible,” Chung said.

Currently 25 European countries and New Zealand have a national carbon trading mechanism in place on a national level. Korea would be the first East Asian country to enact such a mechanism if the bill passes.

Korea’s ETS bill was submitted to the National Assembly in April 2011.

Asked which companies oppose the bill, Han Yeong-soo, deputy director general at the Ministry of Government Legislation, said two industries in particular are opposed to ETS legislation.

“The electronics and steel industries are the principal opponents to the current bill,” Han said.

The government has already amended the legislation to increase free carbon allowances and softened penalties for non-compliance, after strong opposition from industry. Cho said the government already cut the mandatory emissions reduction from 15 percent to 5 percent to appease industry. A special legislative committee has been reviewing a revised bill since April 2011.

The Korean government, which set a voluntary target of a 30 percent cut in emissions by 2020, wanted the bill passed last year to start the scheme from 2015 and meet its reduction goals.

Cho said further accommodation could jeopardize the government’s carbon reduction goals.

According to Minister of Government Legislation Chung, it is essential to pass such legislation this year in order to build infrastructure and to properly establish the emissions trading markets.

“In addition, a positive signal needs to be generated to the industrial circles regarding the implementation of ETS through its enactment. It is crucial to thoroughly prepare in advance for the development of green technology and remodeling facilities,” Kim said.