Abstract. This article describes the formation and development of South Korea’s Arctic strategy. The author concludes that as compared to other Asian observers on the Arctic Council, South Korea has greater potential to develop successful national diplomacy. The country is gradually creating a favorable image and consolidating its political status as a world ecological intermediary implementing a progressive policy of sustainable development.

The Republic of Korea began to show interest in Arctic exploration from the mid-1980s. The country began its polar activity in the Antarctic with the ratification of the Treaty on the Antarctic in 1986. The Arctic did not draw Seoul’s attention until the early 2000s. True, in the works by Korean researchers we can find indications of their interest in the Arctic on the part of the Korean state as early as the 1900s.1 In 1920, during Japanese occupation, an article appeared in Seoul about research work in polar regions. In its author’s view, the idea of the Arctic and the Antarctic development should be used to restore and awaken the national spirit of Korea, which has lost independence.2

Beginning from the late 1980s, the polar activity of South Korea, like that of China and Japan, was concentrated mainly in the Antarctic. Officially, Seoul began to participate in polar regional studies after South Korea joined the Treaty on the Antarctic in November 1986. In March 1987, the Polar Research Center was set up at the Korea Ocean Research & Development Institute, and in August 1987, the Korean National Committee on Antarctic Research was opened. The setting up of the research station King Sejong in the Antarctic in 1988 showed that the Arctic was not a priority in the polar investigations of the country.3

In the 1990s, the first results of research by Korea in the Arctic could be found in the Fundamental Investigations in Arctic Research project organized and carried on by the Department of Polar Research and Development of the Korea Ocean Research & Development Institute (KORDI) at the Ministry of Science and Technology in 1993. In 1996, after the setting up of the Arctic Council, South Korea began its work in the Arctic jointly with Japan.

Due to the absence of a good research base and infrastructure, Arctic research by South Korea at that time were often made within the framework of joint international projects. For instance, in 1999, the first Arctic expedition of the Chinese Snow Dragon icebreaker included two South Korean scientists who carried out field research in the Arctic Ocean for the first time.4 In August 2000, joint research work with the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute was carried out.

Beginning from the 2000s, the Arctic region began to draw much greater attention of Seoul than the Antarctic. An interest to the North Pole was explained by a rapid ice melting in the Arctic and a better access to the natural resources in that region, which are many and varied. By the forecasts of the U.S.A. Geological Survey, the Arctic has up to 13 percent of the world oil deposits and 30 percent of gas.5 The South Korean government and business community representatives are well aware that access to oil and natural gas deposits in the Arctic can ensure the energy security and welfare of the Republic for many years to come.

Besides, climate changes and a decrease of the ice area of the Arctic Ocean open up vast opportunities to use sea lanes for South Korean ships. At present, the navigation route from Busan to Rotterdam seaport via the Suez Canal is 20,100-kilometer-long. The new, Northern Sea Route, is much shorter – up to 12,700 kilometers, which will make it possible to shorten cargo transportation by about 7-10 days.

In 2001, the Korean Arctic Research Committee was set up, which became the foundation of independent Arctic research in the Republic. In 2002, South Korea achieved a tangible success in its Arctic research work, having joined the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC); it also opened the Dasan research station in Ny-Alesund settlement on the Norwegian Island of Spitzbergen. In 2008, South Korea took part in meetings of the Arctic Council as a special observer for the first time.

From 2008, the activity of South Korea in the Arctic has noticeably broadened. It applied for an observer status to the Arctic Council and did receive it in May 2013.

In 2009, South Korea built an Araon research icebreaker which it is using until now for doing research in the Arctic Ocean. Thus, in 2010, South Korea achieved a prestigious researcher potential, which enabled it to carry on independent research in the Arctic region. The results achieved have been published in the leading scientific journal Science and Nature, which contributed to thebroadening and strengthening of joint research and cooperation with the countries of the Arctic Five.

In 2012, President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea made working visits to Greenland and Norway as a result of which a number of memorandums on mutual cooperation were signed with certain Arctic organizations of these countries. His visits were widely discussed by the Korean mass media, which contributed to better knowledge of the Korean public about the Arctic policy of the country. Against the background of these developments, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport of the Republic of Korea published a Master Plan of Active Policy for the Arctic.”6

On May 15, 2013, South Korea received an observer status at the Arctic Council. The Korean public and mass media were quite satisfied with the news as a major step along Korean expansion into the Arctic. After receiving this status, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries of Korea announced on July 25, 2013, the plans for a further comprehensive Arctic policy. In 2013, the Korean government held meetings with specialized ministries and research bodies with a view to evolving an ultimate Arctic strategy. As a result, on December 10, 2013, the Master Plan for Arctic Policy of South Korea was announced.7 The Korean Master Plan consists of a concept, political goals, strategies for reaching political goals, and 31 detailed tasks set to each ministry in its specialty and competence. The concept of the Master Plan is as follows: “Korea is a leading country ensuring a stable future of the Arctic. The Master Plan expresses the striving of South Korea for the sustainable development of the Arctic and contribution to preparations for the favorable future of the region with a view to further flourishing of the region and the whole of humanity.”

The Korean Master Plan included three basic principles of Korean policy in the region (formation of Arctic partnerships, comprehensive scientific research and creation of new Arctic industries), as well as four key strategies aimed at making the country the leading one of the Arctic region ensuring a stable future for the Arctic.

The first of these four key strategies is the strengthening of international cooperation beyond the Arctic Circle with a view to creating an Arctic network. For this purpose, the Korean government has created a system of cooperation with the member countries of the Arctic Council at multilateral and bilateral levels. Besides, the Korean government has actively participated in the work of the Arctic Council and its working groups, and at the same time, made efforts to create an infrastructure of cooperation with new observer states in the Arctic Council.

Another key strategy is the strengthening of research activity in the Arctic. This task included a broader scientific research work with the use of special infrastructure, broader studies of the Arctic regions, research into the influence of climatic changes on ecosystems and the oceanic environment, enlargement of the Dasan station, and construction of another icebreaker.

The third key strategy is the development of an Arctic business model. With a view to developing new routes in the Arctic Ocean by Korean shipping companies, it was envisaged to create different types of state support: expert training for Arctic voyages, incentives to cargo transportation on the Northern Sea Route in the form of port duties discounts for Arctic ships, marketing research, consultations for simplification of transit procedures.

The fourth strategy was the improvement of laws and the institutional foundations of arctic policy. For facilitating scientific research activity in polar regions, the government deemed it necessary to revise the legislation. The three goals corresponding to the concept of arctic policy were as follows: the creation of Arctic partnership making a contribution to the international community; development of scientific research helping solution of problems shared by the global community; creation of new arctic branches of industry. These political goals disclose the main direction of the Master Arctic Plan: the joining of Korea to the working group of the Arctic Council; formation of relations of trust with Arctic countries by supporting local communities, elaboration of joint agreements at different levels; preparation for receiving economic profit by using new Arctic Ocean lanes, and also the development of energy and mineral resources of regions.

The realization of the Master Arctic Plan was assigned to six ministries of South Korea, as well as on specialized scientific centers. One of the most popular South Korean centers studying Arctic science is the Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI), in the seaport of Inchon, numbering over 200 research associates, fully financed by the government, and serving as the main body implementing the national Arctic program of South Korea.

The KOPRI is in charge of the questions of organizing polar scientific research and exploiting scientific infrastructure, such as the King Sejong and Jang Bogo stations. The KOPRI is also entrusted with utilizing the Araon icebreaker, consults the Korean government on polar matters, and organizes information and propaganda measures. Apart from its own research, KOPRI implements a multitude of international programs inviting researchers from Korean and foreign universities, especially young people. One of the well-known Korean programs organized by KOPRI is Pole-to-Pole Korea within whose framework it is possible to become acquainted with Korean Arctic and Antarctic stations in order to learn more in the sphere of environmental and climatic changes in Arctic regions.8 Apart from KOPRI, there are two more big scientific research centers in South Korea: Korean Maritime Institute with branches in Busan and Ulsan, and a Research Institute for Gangwon in Chuncheon.

Thanks to the scientific research infrastructure created in the country, South Korea is engaged in compilation of forecasts connected with climatic changes in the Arctic and supplies information on the thawing processes close to the Northern Sea Route, takes part in compiling topographic and digital maps of the Arctic Ocean relief, and also elaborates technologies for deep-water procurement of hydrocarbons in the Arctic region. Besides, South Korea took part in discussing projects of the International Polar Code, which came into force on January 1, 2017.

The ability of the South Korean government to carry on maritime activity in polar regions is concentrated around the Araon research icebreaker built in 2009 for navigation with a view to supplying polar stations with the necessary food products, equipment, and goods, and also carrying on research expeditions. The icebreaker has a special equipment which can be used for geophysical, biological, and oceanographic research. The icebreaker can also be used for prospecting for natural resources. The ship’s crew has a wealth of experience in the Antarctica and in the Arctic Ocean. The Araon took part in joint research with Russia and Japan in the Sea of Okhotsk, and also in the rescue of the Russian Sparta vessel stuck in the ice in the Antarctic in December 2011.9

The construction of another icebreaker which was mentioned in the Master Plan can be completed quite soon. In 2017, the Minister of Oceans and Fisheries of South Korea Kim Yong Chun at a meeting with the Minister for Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic A. Galushka reaffirmed the desire of the Korean government to build another South Korean icebreaker for the development of the Northern Sea Route by 2020.10

The Republic of Korea is also the leader on the market of building gas-carrying tankers: two-thirds of all such tankers in the world have been built in Korea. The share of similar Japanese and Chinese shipbuilders comprises 22 percent and seven percent, respectively. By the estimates of the Braemar Company, in 2018, the South Korean shipyards received 78 percent of all world orders for vessels capable of compressed natural gas (CNG) transportation.11

South Korea not only interacts with the international community in tackling global problems in the Arctic, but also as a member of the international community, strives to make its own contribution to the development of polar science, economics, and politics. Korea has exerted much effort to create a solid foundation for systematizing and improving Arctic research. In order to expand its Arctic programs, in November 2015, the Korean Arctic Research Consortium (KoARC) was set up. The KoARC meetings are attended by representatives of industries, scientific teams, and professional organizations representing the activity of Korea in the Arctic. For more efficient discussion and examination of interdisciplinary research subjects, the working meetings of the Consortium take place in the format of various sections: science, politics, and industry.12

One of the main tasks of South Korea as an observer at the Arctic Council is the strengthening of closer partner relations with all Arctic countries. With a view to a stably developing the region, Seoul is trying to take an active part in creating cooperation systems between the observer states of the Arctic Council and the full-fledged members of the Council, and also to participate in tackling the pressing problems of the region. For example, having a vast experience in tackling ecological problems, South Korea takes part in the environmental protectionactivity in the region, which contributes to the formation and strengthening of its favorable image.

Beginning from 2009, the Republic of Korea has implemented its National Green Growth Strategy in its domestic policy, within whose framework ecological and resource productivity is encouraged, carbon dioxide discharges into the atmosphere diminished, the environment improved, etc. The South Korean concept of Green Growth presupposes the formation of a social and production infrastructure preserving natural resources, the environment, and health of the population.13 Within this concept the “green” technologies are used as effective measures of reaction to the negative consequences of climate changes.

After the introduction of this paradigm inside the country, South Korea began to propagate the Green Growth concept among the international community, including through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In June 2009, at a meeting of the OECD Council of Ministers, thirty member states and five potential members approved a declaration in which they acknowledged the importance of the South Korean concept. Further on, the OECD member states evolved the Green growth strategy uniting economic, ecological, technological, and financial development aspects for the Regional Commission of the UN Economic and Social Council.14

Direct support in the formation and consolidation of the image of an independent and advanced ecological intermediary is given to South Korea by the Global Green Growth Institute and the UN Green Climate Fund stationed in Seoul.

South Korea is among the states which are engaged in active fishing and seafood procurement. From 2014, the Republic, on a par with other Arctic states, participates in negotiations on fishing control in the neutral waters of the Arctic Ocean. As a result, the European Council and nine more countries, on October 3, 2018, signed a treaty on banning uncontrolled fisheries in international waters of the central part of the Arctic Ocean.15 The countries of the Arctic Five – Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the U.S.A., as well as big fishing powers – South Korea, Iceland, Japan, China, and the European Union became parties to the treaty. Despite the fact that it was the position of Russia that made it possible to fix a special role of the coastal Arctic states, the decisions concerning the essential aspects of the agreement will be adopted collectively by all parties to the treaty.

South Korean scientists make their contribution to the creation and development of networks of Arctic organizations, and also the exchange of data on Arctic research. In Ny-Alesund township on Spitsbergen, South Korean researchers and government officials actively cooperate with their colleagues from Norway and China. Annually, Korean scientists take part in big international forums – Arctic Frontiers in Norway and the Arctic Circle in Iceland. From 2006, the number of Korean delegation members at the Arctic Frontiers Forum has constantly been growing,16 and the program agenda of the Arctic Circle Forum more and more special panels appear devoted to the interests of South Korea in the Arctic.17

From 2015, the Korean government has been realizing the Arctic Academy educational program under which students are annually invited representing the indigenous peoples from Arctic countries to study at special courses for broadening their knowledge and ideas about research and ecological policy of South Korea in the Arctic.18

South Korea regards Russia one of the main partners in the development of Arctic transportation routes and shipbuilding.19 Seoul envisages an opportunity to grant incentives to consigners who import cargoes along the Northern Sea Route and also teach personnel for navigation in the Arctic region. Such government policy has already yielded first fruits. Following the Master Plan with a view to studying a new “business model”, on September 16, 2017, the South Korean vessel Hyundai Glovis left the Russian port of Ust-Luga loaded with 44,000 tons of oil for South Korea. The ship successfully completed its voyage between Europe and Asia along the Northern Sea Route, having arrived in the South Korean port of Kwangyang on October 21, 2017.20

The shipbuilding industry of South Korea examines all potentialities of the Arctic Ocean. The enterprises of Samsung Heavy Industries, Hyundai Heavy Industries, and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) are the world’s three biggest producers of ships having a potential to build special vessels fit for the Arctic region (icebreakers, container cars capable of transporting CNG). One of the most successful examples of cooperation of Russia and South Korea in the Arctic is an order of Novatek Co. for the purchase of 15 tanker-icebreakers from the DSME shipyards for the Yamal CNG project. A great part of tankers is under construction now. Several have already been commissioned and carry gas along the Northern Sea Route in eastern and western directions. In the words of the South Korean representative in Russia Son En Gil, apart from 15 tankers, Russia has ordered another 29 ships in South Korea.21 It is indicative that this agreement was signed against the background of western sanctions against Russia right after the Ukrainian developments in 2014. The refusal of South Korea to join the sanctions against Russia shows its great interest in cooperation with this country, including in projects to develop oil and gas resources of the Russian Arctic. On the whole, Korea’s dependence on imported energy carriers is as high as that of other East Asian countries, such as Japan or China.

South Korea does not extract oil either on land or at sea, and it largely depends on the import of most minerals, and this is why the diversification of the sources of import is critically important for its energy security. The South Korean energy sector has been given guarantees by the government to increase direct participation in the development and import of the hydrocarbon resources of the Arctic. The biggest South Korean KOGAS gas corporation has taken part, from 2010, in the development of ore and gas deposits in Canada. In June 2018, a memorandum was signed in Moscow on mutual understanding between the Ministry of Trade of South Korea and the Ministry of Energy of Russia. Within the framework of the memorandum signed, the two sides should examine the purchase of a share in the Arctic CNG 2 project by the KOGAS Corporation.22 Apart from that, the memorandum envisages the possibility of the participation by the Korean side in infrastructure and logistics projects, as well as purchase and trade in CNG from deposits in the Russian Arctic.

* * *

Environmental changes, the need for scientific investigations, growing economic optimism concerning the Arctic region and pragmatic policy have brought South Korea to the Arctic. The compilation of the Master Plan for Arctic Policy has given South Korea an opportunity to organize and straighten out the procedure of Arctic undertakings pursued and supervised by government ministries and departments.

South Korea, as compared to other Asian observers at the Arctic Council, has a great potential for the development of successful “scientific diplomacy.” The Republic is gradually forming a favorable image of the country and bolsters up its political status as a world ecological intermediary implementing an advanced policy of sustainable development.

Slowly and cautiously the South Korean government is preparing for economic expansion in the Arctic. To get an access to the Northern Sea Route and resources of the region, South Korea is establishing relations of trust with coastal Arctic countries and indigenous peoples of the North. Doing its duty bona fide as an observer country in the Arctic Council, South Korea has pursued a consistent policy aimed at environment protection and also participates in measures connected with climatic changes in the Arctic. Gradually strengthening cooperation with Arctic countries, South Korea will continue to pursue a sound policy and observe treaties connected with the Arctic, as well as concerning new agreements. Inasmuch as the stepped-up activity in the Arctic will lead to greater requirements for regulating the Arctic Ocean regime, the new trend supported by South Korea envisages that the significance of international law in regulating the Arctic Ocean regime should become greater.

Implementing its Arctic policy, South Korea puts an emphasis on cooperation not only with the Arctic Five countries, but also with non-Arctic states – China and Japan. Coming out together, the countries of Northeast Asia will be able to exert greater influence on political and geoeconomic processes taking place in the Arctic region. Anyway, it can be assumed that South Korea wishes to become one of the chief architects of the world order and, possibly, an informal leader of the coalition of non-Arctic states pursuing the policy of regional internationalization.


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Translated by Yevgeny Khazanov