South Korea’s Arctic Journeys

Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds, Seoul (Photo by Marc Lanteigne).

With the start of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyongchang, as well as historic meetings between senior government officials from North and South Korea after months of tensions in the region caused by North Korean missile and nuclear tests and harsh words between US President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un, many eyes are on the Korean peninsula this week. The unusually cold weather at the Olympic venue during the opening ceremonies was a reminder that Korea has much experience with subzero climates, including in the Arctic. This month will mark the thirtieth anniversary of South Korea’s polar research programmes, an event which will be marked on 17 February by the burying of a time capsule, due to be unearthed seventy years hence, at the South Korean facilities at King Sejong Station in Antarctica.

South Korea was one of the ‘Asia-Arctic five’, or AA5, along with China, India, Japan and Singapore, which were granted formal observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013. Much of the focus on Asia-Arctic relations since then has been on Beijing’s Arctic policy, due to the country’s great power status and its rapidly developing regional interests. South Korea, by contrast, has been commonly viewed as a ‘quiet’ participant in Arctic affairs.

However, Seoul’s Arctic policies have been developing [pdf] at an accelerated pace since gaining its observer status. The country was the first of the AA5 states to publish a governmental-level white paper on its Arctic policy in 2013. The document, ‘Arctic Policy of the Republic of Korea’ [pdf], also known as Seoul’s ‘Master Plan’ for the Arctic, stresses the policy goals of developing Arctic partnerships, expanding scientific research programmes, and exploring new business opportunities. South Korea has also been participating in trilateral talks on Arctic cooperation with China and Japan, despite political differences among the three governments over other issues, including security and maritime sovereignty.

As with several other non-Arctic states, South Korea maintains an Arctic research base in Ny-Ålesund, namely the Dasan Research Station which was founded in April 2002, under the aegis of the Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI), based in Incheon, to promote the scientific study of sea ice / glaciology, oceanography, marine and terrestrial ecology, atmospheric sciences, and the sciences of the upper atmosphere. KOPRI also oversees Antarctica projects as well as the King Sejong (1988) and the Jang Bogo (2014) Antarctic research stations.

In 2009, the icebreaker Araon was formally launched and has been active in developing Korean polar research. In September 2017, the icebreaker completed a more than two-month Arctic exploration mission, which included transits near the North Pole, as well as the Bering and Chukchi Seas, to study various aspects of local climate change and ice erosion. The ship then commenced a journey, expected to last about 220 days, to Antarctic waters in October last year.

Korea has also been well represented at major ‘Track II’ conferences on Arctic affairs including the Arctic Circle at Reykjavík and Arctic Frontiers at Tromsø. Also on the Track II level, the Korean Maritime Institute (KMI) has since 2015 sponsored Korean Arctic Academy (KAA) courses in Busan, via the UArctic Network, on an annual basis.

South Korea’s considerable shipbuilding and shipping capabilities are also being sought for potential Arctic projects, especially as the Northern Sea Route (NSR) begins to open to further commercial shipping between Asia and Europe. This month, Russia’s ambassador to Seoul, Alexander Timonin, expressed his country’s interest in cooperating more closely with Korean shipping firms to develop the NSR. South Korean shipping was battered considerably by the global economic slowdown after 2008, and so the Arctic has been seen as an emerging new business frontier.

In addition to economic interests, it can be argued that South Korea, as compared to other Asian observers in the Council, is in a significantly strong position to develop ‘scientific diplomacy’ in the Arctic region. Scientific diplomacy has been described as the use of collaboration among the physical as well as the social sciences to promote peaceful diplomatic exchanges between governments. The objective [paywall] of such diplomacy has often been to explore the nature of exchanges and negotiations between scientific actors as well as between such actors and policymakers in a diplomatic milieu. Under optimal conditions, scientific diplomacy not only creates added knowledge, but also a greater atmosphere of congeniality and cooperation which may spill over into other sectors.

The scientific-diplomatic approach has been very useful for both Arctic and non-Arctic states seeking to maintain peaceful relations in the region and to improve communication in Arctic affairs between Arctic and non-Arctic states. Several of the AA5 states have developed policies consistent with scientific diplomacy in order to develop a more visible presence in Arctic affairs, and China’s recent Arctic White Paper has also placed a great deal of emphasis on scientific cooperation to better understand changing conditions in the far north. Although Seoul is interested, along with its Northeast Asian neighbours, in the growing economic opportunities in the Arctic, scientific interests and cooperation have remains at the centre of South Korea’s approach to Arctic affairs.