Talking Arctic Affairs in Busan

The Korean Arctic Academy commences at KMI [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Last month, the Korea Maritime Institute (KMI), in cooperation with the UArctic educational network and hosted by the Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, held its fourth annual Korea Arctic Academy (KAA) in the port city of Busan (부산시), South Korea. This ten-day course brought together students and young scholars from all parts of the Arctic region, as well as from South Korea itself, along with Arctic specialists and scholars from around the world.

Among the speakers for this year’s event were embassy representatives from Canada, Denmark, Finland and Norway, as well as Korean Arctic officials from both the government and the Incheon-based Korean Polar Research Institute (KOPRI). Lecture topics covered a wide array of Arctic-related areas, including specifics on climate change in the region and Korean responses, legal and political cooperation via institutions such as the Arctic Council and the recently-implemented Polar Code, comparative Arctic policies, including Chinese polar diplomacy, and scientific and engineering topics including Korean shipbuilding.

It was also confirmed during the conference that the South Korean government was seeking to publish an updated Arctic strategy before the end of this year, which would define Arctic strategies for the next five years. This document would be a supplement to the  ‘Master Plan’ [pdf] released in 2013 as the country was entering the Arctic Council as an observer. The original policy paper stressed ongoing and potential Korean scientific contributions in the Arctic, as well as business opportunities including in the areas of fishing and shipping.

The potential opening of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to expanded Arctic shipping in the coming decades would place several Asian port cities in the position of being at the forefront of an additional sea route between Asia and Europe via an ice-free Arctic Ocean. Busan, (population 3.4 million), houses the largest port in South Korea, and acts as a terminus for regional seafood trade; two areas which will be greatly impacted by the ongoing opening of the Arctic.

Port facilities in Busan [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The Port of Busan was recently ranked tenth in the world in the annual International Shipping Centre Development Index for 2018, slipping past the Piraeus facilities in Greece which held that position last year, (Singapore was again in first place). Another indication of the Busan port becoming  a hub for future Arctic shipping was also demonstrated this week when the Chinese cargo vessel Tian’en (天恩), owned by China’s Cosco shipping, and the first vessel to be specifically built for Arctic cargo transits, stopped there for a final refuelling after launching from Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province. The vessel [In Chinese] is now embarking on a month-long voyage [video] through the NSR to Europe, and ultimately to the Port of Rouen in France.

South Korea is often referred to as a ‘quiet’ Arctic player, given that its engagement of the far north has received less notice than thatof its Northeast Asian neighbours. As with Japan, there has been much focus in Seoul on the Arctic’s potential impact on maritime affairs, since while South Korea is technically not an island state like its neighbour to the east, its single land border with North Korea gives the South many de facto characteristics of one. (It’s only necessary to look at the iconic satellite photo of the two Koreas at night for evidence of this). This means that South Korea is highly dependent on maritime trade, and can ill-afford to ignore the emergence of new trade routes.

The Arctic is factoring considerably in the recent Northern Economic Cooperation strategy unveiled by South Korea President Moon Jae-in, which included [paywall] cooperation with Russia and China, as well as conceivably with North Korea, in the installation of gas pipelines and railway links, as well as making greater use of the NSR for cross-regional shipping. Arctic Ocean trade was incorporated into Seoul’s ‘Nine Bridge’ strategy developed last year for improving commercial ties with Eurasia, especially Russia.

However, as a 2014 article by Mia Bennett in the journal Strategic Analysis described [pdf, paywall], Seoul is also in a distinct position to provide particular economic goods in the Arctic, not only in the areas of shipping and ship construction but also in fossil fuels, as South Korea must currently import almost all of its hydrocarbon supplies by sea, and in the fields of polar science, education and research and development. All of these, the paper noted, were not only key to Korea’s constructing of an Arctic identity but also necessary in order to improve the country’s access to key resources and economic partnerships. 

Marc Lanteigne speaking at the July 2018 Korean Arctic Academy on the inclusion of the Arctic within China’s ‘Belt and Road’ trade initiatives [Photo by KMI]
Current events, including the still-fragile peace process on the Korean Peninsula, potential Korean cooperation with Russia in natural gas development, signs of a drawback of American foreign and security policy in the Asia-Pacific and the emerging Washington-led ‘trade war’ which has impacted several East Asian economies, further underscore the need for Seoul to take advantage of new economic opportunities developing from the direction of the Arctic.

Busan Skyline [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The country has placed a great deal of importance of late on various educational initiatives designed to better connect Korean and Arctic actors, in preparation for a moreprominent Korean presence in the far north. The program has grown over the past few years to become a major component of South Korea’s ‘Track II’, non-governmental diplomacy in the Arctic, as well as creating links between Arctic academics/students and regional policymakers. Like other non-Arctic states in Asia including China and Japan, South Korea has been seeking to develop a more multifaceted Arctic policy as the region continues to become more environmentally, and economically, crucial on a global level. These events have also served to demonstrate expanding Korean expertise in key sectors of Arctic development.

As a chapter by Jong Deog Kim and Jeehye Kim in a December 2017 joint study by KOPRI and the East-West Center noted, while KOPRI remains at the forefront of Arctic research cooperation, other actors such as Yonsei University and the Korea Research Institute of Ships and Engineering (KRISO) have also developed various areas of expertise in Arctic affairs, and Korea has also increased its presence in the Working Groups affiliated with the Arctic Council since becoming a formal observer. The country also has an icebreaker, the Araon (아라온), operated by KOPRI, which commenced its ninth Arctic exploratory mission in July of this year to examine the impact of sea ice erosion. A second icebreaker is being planned, and is scheduled to enter into service in 2022.

Busan skyline [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The upcoming revised Korean policy paper on the Arctic will likely further elucidate the potential for future cooperation with Arctic and non-Arctic actors. What is confirmed is that the fifth KAA course will be taking place in July 2019, likely with many new topics ready for discussion at that time.

[The editor would like to give many thanks to the Korea Maritime Institute and their fellow organisers of the Korean Arctic Academy for the invitation to speak at this year’s course, and to Mingming Shi for her assistance with the researching of this post.]