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South Korea’s Positioning in the Arctic

The World Policy Institute, in partnership with Ecologic Institute's Arctic Summer College, is proud to highlight the excellent work of 2015 Arctic Summer College Fellow Martin Kossa while promoting further valuable exchange in the Arctic region.

By Martin Kossa

Given South Korea’s geographical location outside of the Arctic region and its harsh security environment, it is obvious that the Arctic is not South Korea’s foreign policy priority. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the Arctic region, together with its opportunities and challenges, isn’t appearing in the South Korean political mainstream. After South Korea’s successful Arctic scientific undertakings in the early 2000s, the country started to take an active role in the Arctic governance structure by engaging the Arctic Council and Arctic states. A closer look at some of the foreign policy initiatives of the administrations of former President Lee Myung-bak (Feb. 2008 - Feb. 2013) and the current President Park Geun-Hye will reveal that these administrations were and still are using the Arctic to attain foreign policy goals.

The administration of Lee Myung-bak had introduced the concept of 'Global Korea' and the policy of 'Low Carbon, Green Growth' as the country’s new strategy for development and addressing climate change. Keun-Gwan Lee of Seoul National University noted, ''For Korea to grow into a genuine global player, it is advised to combine its formidable industrial prowess with a heightened sense of responsibility for the issues of general concern such as the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples.''

In the same manner, the former South Korean ambassador to Norway declared in his speech during the 2013 Arctic Frontiers Conference that the region will require innovative policies to promote sustainable development. His comments underlie the importance of the Arctic region in the fight against climate change while setting it as an example of a new growth engine.

Since President Park’s term began in Feb. 2013, there have been reports that his administration has ditched Lee’s green growth policies because they focused too heavily on economic considerations. However, it is safe to say that climate change issues remained on the national agenda even after the administration changed. South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yun Byung-se, stated in July 2015, ''We are committed to contributing to the science of climate change, as well as to broader research on the polar regions.'' The presence of South Korean scientists at its Dasan Arctic Research Station in Norway attests to the country’s commitment to studying Arctic environmental issues.

In that same speech, the foreign minister also pointed out that the Arctic is a part of the Eurasia Initiative, which President Park introduced in Oct. 2013. The Eurasia Initiative is a national strategy and a cooperative scheme promoted by the Korean government to build an integrated, creative, and peaceful Eurasian continent together with other countries in the region.

In relation to the Arctic region, the concept of building an integrated Eurasia or a “continent that is truly one” is particularly significant. South Korea is proposing the utilization of the Northern Sea Route to strengthen regional connectivity and to build networks with states along this route. To use the foreign minister’s words again, ''It is my dream to see the day when East Asia and Europe are connected both through the trans-continental railways and the Arctic waterways.'' In both instances, the Lee and Park administrations used the Arctic as a stepping-stone to achieve their national and foreign objectives.

The Arctic states have much to gain from engaging this high-technology, research-intensive, and innovative nation. South Korea can provide much needed Arctic technology like ice class ships and investments in resource extraction. It is also regarded as a potential export market for many Arctic countries. Korea’s Arctic endeavors are materializing in the form of close maritime and scientific cooperation with Norway and the Memorandum of Understandings signed with Russia, Denmark, and Finland regarding the development of the Arctic region.

Moreover, South Korea retains a certain level of transparency in pronouncing its Arctic interests by publishing policy documents like the Arctic Policy Master Plan. It also has its own Ambassador for Arctic Affairs, and it promotes its Arctic interests in a non-threatening way while acknowledging the rights and privileges of the core Arctic powers and indigenous peoples.

South Korea’s vision for the Arctic region is to be perceived as a reliable and responsible partner for Arctic cooperation. At present, it is in a very unique and advantageous position to attain this desired status. Its advantage stems from the simple fact that South Korea is a middle power, a medium-size country with proactive diplomacy and creative ideas. More importantly, it is perceived as such by the international community. Unlike China, it is not a rising power threatening to change the established order, and unlike Japan, it does not have any outstanding territorial disputes with any major Arctic power.

Arctic Council member states have been much more welcoming toward South Korea, unlike their reservations about China. According to South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, ''President Grimmson of Iceland named Korea as a model observer member of the Arctic Council. He commended Korea’s proactive contributions and activities in the Arctic. He also noted that Korea’s vision in the ‘Master Plan for Arctic Policy’ could serve as an example for other countries.'' The Plan promotes a sustainable future for the Arctic through cooperation at the global, regional, and local levels.

In the position of a middle power engaged in Arctic affairs, South Korea could be playing a bridging role between the new Asian observer states and the member states of the Arctic Council. This position could be similar to the nation’s role in the G20 between the established G7 and the rising BRICS, where South Korea is involved in information exchange and agenda-setting. At the same time, going beyond the policies of the Eurasia Initiative, South Korea could also facilitate cooperation regarding the Arctic between China and Japan as it already has a bilateral Arctic research agreement with China, and it has cooperated in the Arctic with Japan in the past. By developing policies affecting everyone engaged in the region, South Korea is further elevating its status in the international arena.

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Martin Kossa is a PhD candidate at City University of Hong Kong in the Department of Asian and International Studies. His research focuses on Asian engagement with the Arctic region.

[Photo courtesy of Republic of Korea]

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