The government is rushing to formulate its strategy for the Arctic as the nation now has a say on the future of the northern polar region as a permanent observer of the Arctic Council.
Korea won observer status to the council in May. Led by the eight Arctic countries including Russia, Canada and Norway, the council is an international forum that lays down the main policies for the polar region.
Last week, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries outlined the three goals of its Arctic policy ― building partnerships with other countries, stepping up research in the Arctic, and creating new businesses opportunities.
The ministry said it would release a detailed master plan fleshing out its strategy in October.
To strengthen its presence in the Arctic, Korea needs to boost cooperation with the eight Arctic Council members as they claim more than 80 percent of the area and waters in the polar region.
This means it is difficult for a country like Korea to access the rich natural resources in the Arctic on its own.
As vast oil and mineral deposits in the Arctic remain unexploited due to their inaccessibility, there is room for Korea to tap into these resources through joint development efforts with Arctic countries.
Korea also needs to boost research on the ongoing changes in the climate of the Arctic, which are a matter of intense global concern as they are having a huge impact on global climate.
Korea set up an arctic research center, Dasan Station, on Norway’s Svalbard Islands in 2002. But its activities have been far from brisk. The center should undertake in-depth research on the diverse aspects of the Arctic and share its findings with other countries.
The government should expand the center’s scope of research and help it launch international research programs. It also needs to staff the center with high-caliber scientists and experts in maritime policy and marine law.
The fast melting of polar ice, while heightening environmental concerns, offers at the same time new business opportunities by opening up the Arctic Ocean for commercial shipping.
Once commercialized, the Northern Sea Route along the Arctic coast of Russia would reduce the sailing distance between East Asia and Western Europe by 40 percent compared with the traditional route via the Suez Canal. It would also cut the transit time from the present 40 days to around 30 days.
The Seoul government is pushing domestic shipping companies to launch services on the Arctic routes. It has announced incentives for vessels that sail across the Arctic.
Encouraged by the government, Hyundai Glovis is to launch a pilot service on the Northern Sea Route next month, with other Korean shippers set to follow suit.
Arctic shipping is not economically viable at the moment. It involves high costs as shippers have to pay ice-breaking fees. They also have to use ice-resistant vessels, which incur higher fuel and insurance costs than ordinary ships.
Furthermore, these are not good times for Korean shippers to jump into a loss-making business, as they are in bad shape due to the prolonged global economic slowdown.
Nevertheless, they need to take risks to stay ahead of the curve. The government should help them rise to the challenge.