[New horizons] Korea’s Arctic ambitions begin with Norway
Scientists collaborate on research across borders, across seas
Korea’s first Arctic research station, the Dasan Station, was established in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in 2002.
To be fair, it was 1999 when the first scientists from Korea traveled to the North Pole, but they barely had sufficient research equipment, let alone their own icebreaker.
Korea’s Arctic program steadily expanded over the years that by 2010, the program had its first icebreaking research vessel, the Araon, which began traveling between the Arctic and Antarctic seas every year.
Within three years, Korea issued its first four-year national Arctic policy and signed up to be an observer state on the Arctic Council, the forum for Arctic nations and communities, to coordinate their policies regarding protection of the Arctic.
Korea was not alone in its efforts as a non-Arctic nation to contribute toward research concerning the region, and Korea’s efforts have increasingly been received positively by the traditional players in the Arctic.
“The vessel that brought the [liquefied natural gas] from Russia [was] built in Korea and jointly owned by Japanese and Chinese companies, and was a concrete example of an international effort that we’re going into as part of the future of the Arctic,” said former President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson during his visit to Korea in 2018 for the annual forum, Arctic Partnership Week. “Korea has demonstrated that even from Asia the constructive future of the Arctic can be created.”
Korean scientists have made several significant contributions to research in the Arctic in recent years.
The Korean government is looking to expand its funding for research in the Arctic in the following years. A bill on state funding for polar science research was drafted and approved by the cabinet in December 2020 and will be tabled for voting at the National Assembly once President Moon Jae-in signs it.
People-to-people exchanges with the Arctic communities, emphasizing those with the indigenous populations, have also been organized in Korea. An annual forum run by the Korea Maritime Institute called the Korea Arctic Academy invites students from the University of the Arctic to join the forum, ensuring that students of these indigenous communities consist of up to 30 percent of participants.
Northern nations aren’t the only agents in the Mosaic trying to save the ice
A group of researchers from Korea were among the hundreds involved with the project, the Mosaic Expedition.
“Researchers from 20 countries took part in the project — the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or Mosaic — for a year, including a group of Koreans,” said Kim Min-su, director of the northern and polar research department of the Korea Maritime Institute (KMI).
“The researchers used the satellite images from the Korea Polar Research Institute to make predictions of patterns of melting sea ice so that the research vessel can plan its trajectory.”
The expedition was inspired from Nansen’s trip on the Fram vessel from 1893 to 1896, when he and his team attempted to utilize the Arctic Ocean currents to drift to the North Pole.
The Mosaic is but one of many examples that speak for how the affairs of the Arctic no longer concern just the Arctic states, said Frode Solberg, ambassador of Norway to Korea.
“We need more countries like Korea that really understand the Arctic and have been engaging deeply and seriously with the region, not just for their self interests, but with the global society in mind,” said Solberg. “When it comes to the affairs of the Arctic, we put a lot of emphasis on facts, an approach which is very much shared by our counterparts in Korea.”
“We’ve had nearly 200 students from the Arctic and Korea gather in annual forums for the past six years,” Kim said, speaking of the Korea Arctic Academy with students of the University of the Arctic.
“When they come to Korea and meet with the scholars, they get a fresh perspective on the Arctic, one that they weren’t able to be exposed to during their studies in their home countries. They’re especially interested in hearing about how Korea, Japan and China can cooperate together in the Arctic.”
The Arctic is heating up faster than other parts of the world due to climate change, and its melting sea ice and rising sea levels are posing serious risks to nations far from the region, including those in Asia and especially coastal cities. The melting sea ice, however, has also provided opportunities in the form of new shipping routes through the once-frozen Arctic seas.
Solberg and Kim sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Jan. 28 to speak about the highlights of past multilateral cooperation on the Arctic and the possibilities for its future. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
Korea and Norway’s partnership on the Arctic has expanded over the past decades, starting from 2002 when Korea built its first Arctic research center in Norway. More recently, it was a major bilateral agenda during President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Norway in 2019. Why do you think Korea and Norway see each other as the right partner for cooperation in the Arctic?
Kim Min-su: Korea has a history of building cooperation on the Arctic with Norway. That kind of history helps the two nations have a good understanding of each other’s Arctic policies and makes them good partners in the region. Following President Moon’s visit, several institutes of Norway and Korea including KMI, the Korea Polar Research Institute and Norwegian Polar Institute have launched joint research projects on Arctic governance and ocean waste management. But Korea’s partnership with Norway in the region is not an anomaly — it is the Korean government’s objective to work closely with all Arctic states and with the Arctic Council.
Frode Solberg: There are several Arctic states working closely within the Arctic Council, but we need countries like Korea to show an interest in the Arctic region, because common challenges such as climate change not only affect the Arctic — it has an impact on the global society. The degree of knowledge and expertise, and the level of engagement from Korea on the Arctic, is impressive from the Norwegian perspective. Korea and Norway have been working very closely for years [...] and we have had an ongoing dialogue about the region — Arctic Partnership Week being one of the important platforms where Norwegian and Korean experts discuss technical research issues and political issues, as well as the Arctic Frontiers, where Korea has been a regular participant since 2013.
Arctic Frontiers, the annual multilateral forum on the Arctic in Norway, is held virtually this week due to Covid-19 restrictions. What are some topics the forum is focusing on this year?
Solberg: One of the topics tabled for discussions at the Arctic Frontiers this year is on how Covid-19 could lead to backlogs on research activities. Covid-19 has been felt in every community around the world, and the researchers in the Arctic are no exception. But like the rest of the world, the research environments are also finding new ways to communicate and share information. It’s also worth mentioning that the pandemic has had an impact on how we think and behave; for instance, we’ve found out that it’s possible not to have to take the planes every month for a business trip to a neighboring country. We’ve all seen the reduction in global emissions and the positive impact that’s been felt in environments including the Arctic, but we will have to work together to see how we can maintain some of these positive trends in the long term.
How likely is a government-level trilateral Korea-China-Japan cooperation on the Arctic?
Kim: The three countries have the platform to cooperate on the Arctic. The matter at hand is more about deciding on the content to cooperate on. Korea, China and Japan gained the observer status at the Arctic Council in the same year, 2013, and they established in 2016 a high-level, trilateral dialogue on the Arctic. The three have also signed the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean in 2018. Among the researchers, there is a group called North Pacific Arctic Research Community, which consists of scientists and organizations from the three countries, that has been active since 2015. A lot of the trilateral conversations so far have been about cooperating on scientific research on the Arctic. I think ocean waste management ought to be one of our major projects together.
The Arctic Council does not mandate the discussion of security issues, but some Arctic nations, in a Council meeting in 2019, brought geopolitical rivalries into the conversation. Questions were raised on whether a change to the mandate was needed. What are your thoughts?
Solberg: There is a general agreement among the Arctic states to keep the cooperation close in the region and to keep it low-conflict. I am a strong believer in dialogue and I am 100 percent sure that the dialogue for climate action is good in the Arctic region right now. The region is regulated by law and order, and claims that there is a void [of governance] in the Arctic is not correct. It’s important that all of us maintain the Arctic region as a low-conflict zone and work together for the region which is very vulnerable to climate change.
Kim: When we see what happened at the Council in 2019, experts studying the Arctic cannot but recall the Murmansk Initiative, which was the statement by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, a signal from then-Soviet Union to the rest of the Arctic nations, that it doesn’t want the Arctic to become another area of conflict but rather an area for peaceful cooperation. Some experts are watching the recent change in the U.S. administration and how that may have an impact on the conversations at the Arctic.
As a Korean expert on the Arctic, how do you assess the growth of Korea's Arctic policies over the years?
Kim: I know fellow researchers who have been part of Korea's journey since it joined the Arctic Council as an observer nation in 2013, and they've told me about how, at the time, they felt they had to explain why it was that Korea, a non-Arctic nation, was so keen on contributing to the Arctic. Much of that has changed. When I attended the Arctic Frontiers with a delegation from Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2018, a lot of the teams from the Arctic nations would approach us first and make proposals on projects to work on together in the Arctic. They were also well aware of the events we were hosting in Korea, such as the Arctic Partnership Week. I think part of the reason why Korea was able to win the trust of Arctic communities as a partner in the region was that a lot of the programs that Korea has been running on the Arctic — the contributions on scientific research and the annual events that invite indigenous communities from the Arctic and encourage dialogues between the younger generations of the Arctic states and Korea — actually don't have much to do with the self-interest of the nation. Korea is genuinely interested in the welfare of the Arctic, and I think more people know this now.