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North by Northwest
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Quiet player

Analysis | Korea has been working slowly and steadily to create a specific identity for itself in the region
A journey of self-discovery (Screenshot)

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Kim Chan-woo, ambassador for Arctic affairs, Republic of Korea, addressing the 2016 Arctic Circle conference

Araon and Rediscovery of North Pole Routes

As the Arctic Council prepares for its upcoming ministerial meeting in May, which will be held in Fairbanks and will see the United States transfer chairmanship duties to Finland, it is likely that much attention will also be paid to the non-Arctic formal observer governments, including those which have attained that position and others, such as the European Union and Switzerland, which are still seeking that status.

China has been by far the most visible of the Arctic Council observers to date, but others including India, Japan and the United Kingdom have also sought to carve out specific niches via their distinct Arctic policies. South Korea, however, is another example of a non-Arctic state and Arctic Council observer which has endeavoured to create a specific identity in the region, but it has done so through both quiet diplomacy and with a focus on the possibilities for scientific co-operation with both Arctic actors and its Asian neighbours.

South Korea has been regularly viewed as the ‘subtle’ participant in Arctic affairs, especially in comparison with its East Asian neighbours. However, Seoul’s Arctic interests have been developing at an accelerated pace since gaining observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013 along with China, India, Japan and Singapore.

SEE RELATED: Enter … Pyongyang?

Seoul was the first of the East Asian council observers to public a governmental white paper on its Arctic policies, (unabashedly referred to as the ‘Master Plan’), in 2013 which outlined Korean interests in building partners with other Arctic players for scientific and economic co-operation. The Korean government also offered its support to the council and other regional regimes, as well as new initiatives such as the emerging Polar Code, and since that time has also welcomed the founding of the Arctic Economic Council.

Seoul also maintains an Arctic research base in Ny-Ålesund, namely the Dasan Research Station, which was founded in April 2002, via the Korea Polar Research Institute (Kopri), 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, including the King Sejong (built in 1988) and the Jang Bogo (2014) research stations. In 2009, the icebreaker Araon was launched and has been active in developing Korean polar research.

The country has also been well represented at major ‘track II’ conferences on Arctic affairs including the Arctic Circle in Reykjavík and Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø. One of the keynote speakers at the 2016 Arctic Circle was Kim Chan-Woo, the country’s ambassador for Arctic ffairs, who delivered a presentation (see video, above right) titled ‘Korea’s Contribution to a Sustainable Arctic Future’.

In his speech, Mr Kim stressed that in order to best address the Far North’s challenges and opportunities, ‘science, technology [and] investment are the keys’. The Korean Embassy in Copenhagen has also supported a ‘Korea Corner’ at the Ilisimatusarfik/University of Greenland in Nuuk to educate students and staff about Korean history and culture.

SEE RELATED: "For Asians, Arctic shipping already a “reality”

In short, Korea has been in a significantly strong position to develop ‘scientific diplomacy’ in the Arctic region, and it has done so not only through track II avenues but has also sought to establish a government-level dialogue with China and Japan to better co-ordinate Arctic scientific projects. The first Trilateral High-Level Dialogue on the Arctic took place in Seoul in April of last year, producing a short press release which promised further dialogue on areas of scientific co-operation and research.

A follow-up Arctic meeting between the three governments was expected to take place in Japan this year, but further progress may be hampered by a string of political troubles facing Korea over the past few months. Last week, after a series of corruption scandals, President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office, with a snap election called for May to choose a successor.

At the same time, the decision by the Park government earlier this month to deploy an anti-missile system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) in South Korea, in partnership with the United States, met with harsh opposition from China (and Russia). Beijing expressed concerns that THAAD, designed to intercept missiles from North Korea, could also be used to gather information on Chinese weapons emplacements and degrade the reliability of the People’s Liberation Army’s missile forces.

Over the past two weeks, Beijing has implemented a series of punitive economic measures against South Korean firms in protest over THAAD. Moscow also criticised Seoul’s actions, stating that THAAD might trigger a regional arms race. With all of this upheaval taking place, it is uncertain when the political atmosphere both within Korea and between Beijing and Seoul will be calm enough for the next inter-governmental dialogue on Arctic co-operation to take place.

SEE RELATED: China: Respect, co-operation and win-win

Beyond scientific concerns, Korea also joins its East Asian neighbours in expressing interest in the economic potential of the Arctic, especially in the areas of shipping. Korea can ill-afford to ignore the opportunities presented by the Northern Sea Route, which may soon offer new transit opportunities between East Asia and Europe. Korea’s shipping industry went through an extremely difficult period with the 2016 bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping, which had been South Korea’s largest container firm but filed for receivership in August of last year. Arctic shipping could therefore be a potential new frontier for the troubled industry.

As well, Korean shipbuilding interests have also turned to the Arctic of late, with the most visible example being an icebreaking tanker built by Seoul’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME), as a liquefied natural gas carrier and owned by the Russian shipping firm Sovcomflot. The vessel, named the Christophe de Margerie, commenced sea trials at the beginning of this year and will be used to transport LNG from the Siberian coast to Asia-Pacific markets.

The Christophe de Margerie is designed to operate in temperatures down to -50°C and break through ice at least as much as 1.5 metres thick and would operate as part of the Yamal LNG project in Siberia which was expected to commence later this year.

As Arctic regional relations continue to be complicated by both environmental and political concerns, developing a regional identity in the face of increased competition continues to be a priority for non-Arctic states. Since 2013, Korea has developed a ‘slow and steady’ policy of Arctic engagement. Time will tell what sorts of benefits this quiet diplomacy will bring.

The author is a senior lecturer (China, East Asia, Polar Affairs) at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University, in Auckland, New Zealand.