Russia planting its flag on the seabed under the North Pole during the Arktika 2007 expedition marked the unofficial beginning of the so-called ‘Arctic cold rush’ or ‘race to the Arctic.’ This feat drew the attention of countries beyond the Arctic states, including South Korea. Since that time, the prospect of commercial benefits from the Northern Sea Route and the region’s natural resources have heightened South Korea’s interest in becoming an observer to the Arctic Council.
Since its establishment in 1996, the Arctic Council has not only provided a framework for environmentally conscious development in the Arctic, but has also provided a model for green growth to non-Arctic states. But the institution’s ability to lead sustainable development in the Arctic was questioned when it decided to admit Asian countries such as China, South Korea, and Japan as observers. While the role of observer states is to attend Arctic Council meetings and contribute to the organization’s mission, environmentalists raised concerns that these nations’ rush for oil and gas could eclipse the objectives set by the Arctic Council. But while South Korea’s original intention might have been to leverage the Arctic Council to generate economic profit, the country has since adopted the regional body’s environmental mission. As an official observer since 2013, South Korea has become a role model for its peers in terms of its partnerships with indigenous groups and promotion of sustainable development in the region through a national Arctic policy.
South Korea has always been an energy-poor and export-oriented state. Seoul initially viewed climate change from a different standpoint than most Arctic states, considering the melting of the Arctic an opportunity to access shorter shipping routes and abundant natural resources. The country first expressed interest in the Arctic in 2002 by joining the International Arctic Science Committee and establishing its first Arctic research station, Dasan, in Spitsbergen, Norway. During this initial phase of engagement, South Korea saw the region primarily as a place for scientific research on topics ranging from biodiversity to climate change to potential oil and gas reserves.
But in 2008, when Lee Myung Bak was elected president, South Korea’s approach to the region started to shift. Lee would later become the first South Korean president to visit the Arctic on a trip to Greenland in 2012. With record-high oil prices at home at the start of his term, though, he started eyeing Arctic reserves as an investment to prepare for future shocks to the oil market. A 2008 U.S. Geological Survey report estimating Arctic oil and gas reserves further piqued Seoul’s interest. Second, government officials attended their first Arctic Council meeting in Norway. As a non-Arctic state, South Korea knew it would need to prove it could be an asset to the Arctic community. Yet making this case has not been easy—South Korea’s application to be granted observer status has been denied twice, once in 2009 and again in 2011.
Moving away from its previous focus on economic opportunities and scientific research, South Korea started to build relationships by becoming more involved in climate organizations and signing bilateral agreements with Arctic states. In 2010, aligning itself with the Arctic Council’s mission of sustainable development, Seoul established the Global Green Growth Institute to reduce carbon emissions and started funding the Global Climate Fund, headquartered in Songdo, South Korea, and established within the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The country worked with Denmark on environmental issues in 2011, and signed memoranda of understanding with Greenland and Norway in 2012. Moreover, when Prime Minister of Greenland Kuupik Kleist first visited South Korea in 2012, then President Lee expressedinterest in working with and supporting the rights of the Arctic’s indigenous communities. Later, in 2015, South Korea partnered with the Aleut International Association on Arctic Marine Indigenous Use Mapping, providing technological and financial support for a project to create digitized maps of the Aleutian Islands.
In May 2013, South Korea’s efforts to develop partnerships in the Arctic paid off when the country officially became an observer during the ministerial meeting held in Kiruna, Sweden. Since then, the nation has continued to focus on the Arctic. Then, under the leadership of President Geun Hye Park, whose term began in February 2013, the Arctic was named one of South Korea’s 140 main government tasks (each president names a set of priorities for his or her government) for the first time in the country’s history. Because the Arctic was included on this list, it became easier for research institutions and government agencies to seek funding on Arctic initiatives. South Korea has supported projects such as the Arctic Academy, which invites students specializing in the Arctic to study in South Korea, with priority given to indigenous students. In December 2013, Seoul’s seven ministries and agencies jointly released The Master Plan for Arctic Policy, which outlines a strategy to lead the sustainable development of the Arctic in line with Arctic Council priorities. The plan states the government’s intention to continue work on climate change in cooperation with the U.S. and U.K., as well as its aim to promote business in the region while adhering to environmental regulations. In July 2016, former vice minister of foreign affairs Tae Yul Cho stated, “The Korean government has been striving to play a greater role in enhancing international cooperation for the environmental protection and sustainable development of the Arctic region,” illuminating the country’s devotion to strengthen the Arctic community. In addition to continuing scientific research, South Korea now has signed onto initiatives like the Polar Code, an international regulatory framework for ships navigating the Arctic and the Antarctic.
Once treated as an outsider by the Arctic community, in less than 20 years, South Korea has become an important asset. Its transformation from a self-interested state to a proud member of the Arctic Council was facilitated by the Council’s framework for sustainable development in the region, which sparked South Korea’s interest in becoming more involved in the its wide range of activities. But despite this progress, the limited role of observers in Arctic Council meetings, financing projects, and decision-making procedures has raised concerns that these states’ interest in maintaining their status will wane. Additionally, a recent downward trend in oil prices throws South Korea’s support for the Arctic Council into question: Are the benefits of being a member still worth South Korea’s investment of time and money? If South Korea or other observer states leave the Arctic Council, it would be a loss not only to the Council but also to the entire Arctic community. Amid rapid environmental and economic changes in the region, the evolving relationships between observers and the Arctic Council could shape the future of the Arctic.
Jay-Kwon James Park is a M.A. student in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington focusing on South Korea’s interest in the Arctic. He has been working as an International Policy Institute Arctic Fellow since 2016.
Find the introductory article for this series here.
[Photo courtesy of Hannes Grobe]