A Semicircle Video: Antarctica Politics 101

Antarctica Flag
[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
In the first of an occasional short video series, Semicircle, the editor of Over the Circle, Marc Lanteigne, gives a short presentation on the basics of politics and governance in Antarctica.

This talk includes which countries have claimed lands on the continent, (and other states which are starting to increase their presence there), and the specifics of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and subsequent agreement which together make up the Antarctica Treaty System (ATS). As climate change begins to be more visible and measurable in Antarctica, what are the possibilities of expanded economic activities there in the coming decades, and what will be the effect on the local environment?

Semicircle: ‘Antarctica Politics 101’


(05.04 mins)


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.]

The United States’ Missing Arctic Policy

Washington Monument, Washington DC [Photo by Pixabay]
This week, the commandant of the US Coast Guard announced that a revised American strategy for the Arctic was in preparation. Describing the Arctic as becoming a ‘competitive space’, Admiral Karl Schultz noted an increasing emphasis on the role of the Arctic region in American strategic interests, and predicted the final assessment of changes to US policy in the far north would be published within the next three months.

It can certainly be argued that an updated strategic statement from Washington regarding the Arctic is overdue, especially given the extensive changes in the region since the Arctic policy written during the Barack Obama administration was published [pdf] in May 2013. Climate change continues to affect the Arctic, as demonstrated by the recent abnormally high temperatures in the far north, (as well as in much of North America). Relations between the United States and Russia, the two largest players in the Arctic, remain sour including a controversial summit in Helsinki between the countries’ leaders last month. Moscow has continued to increase its military presence in its Arctic regions, creating concerns in the West.

The anticipated ‘resource scramble’ in the Arctic Ocean ultimately did not materialise, (or at least not yet), as lower oil and commodity prices have dulled enthusiasm for large-scale mining and drilling. Non-Arctic states, led by China, which published its first governmental White Paper on Arctic Affairs in January this year, have begun to express greater interest in participating in future Arctic economics and governance. In many ways, Washington has been playing a game of catch-up in the region over the past year.

Current American policy in the Arctic in no way resembles what it used to be and may be considered a by-product of trends towards isolationism in overall US foreign relations. During the second term of the Obama administration, there was a noteworthy increased focus on Arctic concerns, illustrated especially by the President’s August-September 2015 visit to Alaska, (the first time a sitting president ventured north of the Arctic Circle). His keynote speech [video] at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage, outlined the challenges of climate change in Alaska and the Arctic region as a whole. Just before leaving office, President Obama signed a joint agreement with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, banning offshore drilling in the two countries’ Arctic waters as a further move against regional climate change effects, including the melting of the Arctic ice cap.

Also under President Obama, Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., was appointed as the State Department’s Special Representative for the Arctic in July 2014 and acted as Washington’s primary representative when the United States held the chair of the Arctic Council during 2015-7. He was the first, and so far only, person to hold that title, as at present the position remains vacant, despite the current administration being in office for more than eighteen months. During a speech [video] at the October 2016 Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, he lauded American contributions to the exploration and study of the Arctic, while calling for greater US collaboration with other states in future endeavours in the region.

Thus far, Washington’s contributions to Arctic policy over the past year have included a rolling back of the Alaska drilling ban, and a growing unease [pdf] over the increased levels of Russian military activity in Siberia and the country’s other far-northern regions, including near the Nordic region, an issue which will likely factor greatly into the next US Arctic strategy paper. A related matter has been the so-called ‘icebreaker gap’ between the United States and Russia.

As a new comprehensive report [pdf] on American Arctic policy by the US Congressional Research Service noted, the United States currently has two heavy icebreaking vessels, both of which were launched in the 1970s. However, one of the vessels, the Polar Sea, has been non-functional for more than eight years. Its counterpart, the Polar Star, is seen as having only a very limited operational lifespan at this point, a fact underscored by the vessel’s engine failure, coupled with flooding problems, during a mission in Antarctica in February of this year. The US Coast Guard also maintains a medium icebreaker, the Healy, which was launched in 1997.

Alaska-Siberia World War II Memorial, Fairbanks, Alaska [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By contrast, Russia has more than forty operational icebreakers, including nuclear powered vessels, with the latest such vessel, the Sibir (Сибирь), launched officially in September 2017 and a similar vessel, the Ural (Урал), being readied for 2021. Reports also appeared last month that China was seeking to develop a nuclear powered icebreaker, possibly in cooperation with Moscow or based on indigenous technology. China currently has a single icebreaker, the Snow Dragon (Xuelong 雪龙) with a sister vessel, the Snow Dragon II, under construction and in preparation for 2019.

There have been numerous calls since 2013 by various agencies within the US government for the construction of at least one and potentially more [pdf] icebreakers, but the budget and timetables remain uncertain. This week, it was reported that the country’s Congress was seeking to divert US$750 million, which had been earmarked for the icebreaker programme in February this year, to assist in the building of the contentious border wall between the United States and Mexico. That move could delay the deployment of a new icebreaker until the middle of the next decade.

When the revised American Arctic policy paper is released, it is likely to place less of a focus on environmental issues than its 2013 predecessor, especially considering the climate change skepticism omnipresent within the governing party, as well as the decision by the United States to withdraw from the Paris climate accords in June of last year. The other questions will be how the US will continue to interact with the other major Arctic states, given the precarious state of Russian relations, increasingly frosty relations between Washington and many European capitals, and the escalating Sino-American trade war.

Whatever the final draft of the new strategy document consists of, US Arctic policy has nowhere to go but up.

The Arctic’s (Hot) Summer of Discontent

Botanical gardens near Reykjavík, Iceland. [Photo by Mingming Shi]
After weeks of winter-like weather, and concerns about whether summer would actually arrive in Iceland this year, the sun finally came out last week on most parts of the island. Nonetheless, Iceland remained a comparative cool spot compared with other parts of the world, including North America (especially Québec, where more than ninety of heat-related deaths were recorded this summer), Western Europe, China and Japan, which were experiencing record high temperatures. More worrisome has been the fact that much of the Arctic has also been breaking temperature records, culminating in serious forest fires in far-northern Sweden and neighbouring regions.

Even before the fires in Northern Europe began, the Nordic Arctic had been experiencing unprecedented warm spells this summer, with the Finnmark region in Norway recording a record high of 33.3ºC last week, and Siberia also seeing unusually high temperatures in recent weeks, with Murmansk, currently experiencing ‘white nights’ , with the sun never going below the horizon, also recording temperatures well above thirty degrees in the daytime.

The fires in Sweden, which fortunately have not caused injuries, have been blamed on draught and high temperatures since the summer began, as well as a ‘heat dome’ which had situated itself over much of the northern part of Europe this month. There was also the suggestion that some of fires may have been set accidentally despite a ban [In Swedish] on disposable outdoor barbecues which had been put into place since the high temperatures began. Overall, it was reported that eleven of about sixty fires recorded were burning north of the Arctic Circle.

The Swedish government under Prime Minister Stefan Löfven called for international assistance to combat the blazes, and this weekend the European Commission announced that it would further coordinate a joint European Union response to the crisis. Fire-fighting aircraft have already been dispatched [video] from Italy and Norway over the past week. Although forest fires in Sweden are not unusual, this year was significant given the number of fires, and the wide land area affected. Next-door Finland and Norway have also recorded ‘hotspots’, and severe fires were also reported on the border between Finland and Russia in Sápmi (Lapland) regions.

These incidents may be the latest in a series of indicators of how climate change and the melting ice cap is beginning to have more visible effects on the Arctic. Despite ongoing climate change denial in some parts of the world, the evidence is mounting that the Far North is starting to experience the effects of changing weather patterns and warmer temperatures more acutely in recent years. For example, a warning bell was heard last year when Greenland experienced mass wildfires to a greater degree than ever before, raising fears of black carbon deposits which could further accelerate the erosion of the island’s ice sheet.

Greenland saw another giant piece of climate change evidence earlier this month in the form of a massive iceberg, weighing an estimated eleven million tonnes, which drifted close to the town of Innaarsuit, in the north-western part of the island, threatening a possible tsunami if the ice breaks or calves.

[Photo by Pixabay]
In 2014, the Northwest Territories in Canada reported more than a hundred forest fires which were caused by both lightening and human agency. It was also reported in an article in June of this year by Norwegian researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change that the Arctic Ocean might be taking on some of the characteristics of the adjacent Atlantic, with evidence suggesting that the Barents Sea may have warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past eighteen years. Other studies which were released at the recent Polar 2018 conference in Davos, Switzerland estimated that glaciers on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut showed signs of rapid diminishment between 1999 and 2015. And the summer is not over yet.

Interlude: Iceland at the World Cup


Football fever had too-briefly gripped Iceland over the past few weeks, as the country’s team sought to advance out of its original group of four in the World Cup and enter the final sixteen teams in the knockout round this weekend. Unfortunately, things went off script in unexpected ways. The 2014 World Cup runner-up, Argentina, played the Iceland team first, with the result being a promising 1-1 draw.


A great start, but then the team lost 2-0 to Nigeria and had to face dark horse Croatia, which was fresh from their 3-0 victory over a faltering Argentinian squad. The Croatian team beat Iceland 2-1 after a stressful match, culminating in the winning goal scored at the 90-minute mark, preventing the Icelandic team from advancing and disappointing many fans back home who were watching the match both in Iceland and in Russia.


Outdoor screens were set up at Hljómskálagarður Park as well as in other parts of Reykjavík, and football jerseys and other Iceland Football Association [In Icelandic] gear could be found for sale all over the capital.



Despite the loss, Iceland distinguished itself as the small country by population to enter the World Cup, and had quickly became known as the Cinderella story of this year’s event. The captain of the Icelandic team, Aron Einar Gunnarsson, expressed his satisfaction with the Croatia match, even though the results were not what was hoped.

Baktus the cat expressing some disinterest in the matches.

Meanwhile, Iceland’s fellow Nordic teams, Denmark and Sweden, did advance into the knockout round, playing Croatia and Switzerland (Hopp Schwiiz!), respectively next week.



[Reykjavík pictures by Marc Lanteigne] _