President Lee Myung-bak visits Ilulissat, Greenland, on Monday with Danish Crown Prince Frederik (left) and Greenland Premier Kuupik Kleist. (Yonhap News)
Korea and Greenland plan to step up cooperation for environmentally friendly development projects as Seoul seeks a slice of the resources-rich region’s research and business boom.
President Lee Myung-bak and Kuupik Kleist, prime minister of Greenland, a Danish autonomous territory, forged four agreements Sunday on mineral and resources exploration, geological survey and science and technology. They also agreed to work together on green growth and Arctic shipping lanes.
Earlier in the day, Lee landed on Ilulissat, part of the Greenland section of the Arctic, to have a firsthand look at one of the world’s most vulnerable places to climate change.
His arrival marks the first Arctic trip by a Korean president. Lee was accompanied by Kleist and Danish Crown Prince Frederik.
The UNESCO World Heritage site shot to fame with its ice fjord and is regarded as one of the best locations to observe melting Arctic glaciers and icebergs.
“This is a scene of tragedy,” Lee said, referring to the region’s quickly melting ice caps due apparently to global warming.
“Korea wants economic development that helps Greenland keep its green. We’re willing to actively cooperate on turning Greenland’s environmental crisis following climate change into economic opportunities, and balancing between economic growth and climate change response.”
Greenland saw a record thaw this summer. Satellite images showed on July 8 that about 40 percent of the entire ice sheet had melted away at or near the surface. Only four days later, the ratio shot up to 97 percent. A massive glacier twice the size of Manhattan has recently broken off from Greenland, scientists said.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts that the Arctic’s sea ice will be gone completely by 2030. Other surveys based on the thickness of ice sheets claim its first ice-free summer could come as early as 2015.
The global debate remains fierce over whether the Arctic has touched a string of “tipping points” that could activate a rapid domino effect of mass-scale climate change across the entire planet.
“Residents here experience climate change every day,” Kleist was quoted as telling Lee.
“The look of glaciers today is different from a few days ago. If glaciers melt, water levels change and weather changes too. Residents have always to adjust to and overcome this.”
Seoul has been looking to expand partnerships with Nordic countries, focusing on sharing knowhow in scientific research, renewable energy and other clean technologies. It is also striving to beef up its Arctic research and business in collaboration with Denmark, Sweden, Finland and other stakeholders in the region.
In Greenland, Lee put forward his signature “low-carbon, green growth” policy, aimed at stimulating the economy and creating jobs through investment in clean technologies and industries.
Denmark is also one of the firmest sponsors for the Global Green Growth Institute. The Seoul-based think tank was founded in 2010 by the Korean government to help countries share their experiences and technological expertise for eco-friendly development.
The two countries formed a “green growth” alliance during the president’s visit to Copenhagen in 2010.
“There’s potential for enhanced cooperation,” said Lars Rasmussen, a former Danish premier and current GGGI chairman, in an interview with The Korea Herald late last month.
“There are only like 5,000 people living in Greenland. They want growth as well. They want better infrastructure and better living conditions but they are living in a very vulnerable environment. So I think right now they’re looking all over the world.
“How can they do that in a sustainable way rather than a shortsighted way going for easy money and destroying the country in a long term? For that reason, they look to Korea among other countries.”
With melting ice caps opening shipping routes and access to underlying untapped resources, competition is heating up among traditional Arctic powers and mineral-hungry economies rushing to develop the region, of which sovereignty has yet to be fully defined.
The U.S., Russia, Canada and Norway are beefing up their maritime forces and carrying out naval drills to help hedge against potential territorial disputes.
Meanwhile, China, Japan and European countries have dispatched researchers and icebreakers and formed partnerships with Arctic nations.
“The Arctic is not a mere underdeveloped region,” said Kim Youn-gyoo, an energy and geopolitics expert at Hanyang University in Seoul.
“It can be seen as a subject of geopolitical conflict or governance but in fact it also deals with naval power, resources development and marine transportation. The two core issues are resources and new sea lanes.”
Korea has been conducting environment and climate studies with international teams in the region. In 2002, it set up the Arctic Dasan Station on a Norwegian island. In 2004, it spun off the Korea Polar Research Institute from the Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute. Since 2010, it has been operating ARAON, the icebreaker built by Hanjin Heavy Industries.
It also aims to acquire a permanent observer spot at the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum intended to address Arctic issues.
In 2008, Seoul became an “ad hoc” observer along with China, the European Union, Italy and Japan. Their applications for a status upgrade were previously declined. The council will decide on their memberships at its ministerial meeting in Canada, the next chair, in May 2013.
On the business front, the country is betting on future sea routes to prop up domestic energy supplies and shipbuilding, logistics and trading industries.
“Korea, China and Japan are among the most interested (non-stakeholders),” said Lee Sung-woo, director of international logistics at the Korea Maritime Institute in Seoul.
“When the shipping lanes open, Korean shipyards and will see a spike in demand for ice-class ships, icebreakers, offshore plants and other special purpose vessels.”
New commercial trans-Arctic routes could shorten the distance between Europe and Northeast Asia by up to one-third, he said. That may result in a sharp fall in demand for Middle Eastern crude from Korea and its neighbors as Russia ramps up its oil and gas output.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic is estimated to hold about 30 percent and 13 percent of the world’s untapped natural gas and oil reserves, respectively.
Korea is the world’s No. 5 crude buyer and the No. 2 importer of liquefied natural gas. It imports almost all of its oil needs.
“Though unit costs have not been fully analyzed, Korea will likely have to take sea lanes along the Russian coast not just for container ships but for mining-related use, especially if it wants to participate in resource projects in Russia,” said Kim Hak-ki, a researcher at state-run Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade in Seoul.
Greenland is the second leg of Lee’s four-nation tour that took him to Russia’s Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok last week for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. He is scheduled to stop at Norway and Kazakhstan later this week.
By Shin Hyon-hee (email@example.com)