South Korea

Facts & Figures

AC Observer: 2013
Active Polar
Icebreakers: 1

The Republic of Korea, hereafter described as South Korea and Korea, began its engagement in the Arctic in the 1990s through a number of unilateral and multilateral scientific studies, including a preliminary scientific study between 1993 and 1995 and joint research with Japan following the creation of the Arctic Council in 1996. Since the early 2000s, South Korea’s interest in the region has gradually grown with the promise of an ice-free Arctic and the fiercely coveted Arctic sea routes. The country organized the Korea Arctic Science Council in 2001 to both continue Korea’s scientific endeavors in the region and pursue research on the potential of the sea routes. Through the Council, South Korea conducted marine research with the Geological Survey of Japan and dispatched two researchers to a Chinese icebreaker to explore the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

In 2002, South Korea began to build its international commitments in the region by becoming a member of the International Arctic Science Committee and inaugurating its first research station in Svalbard, the Arctic Dasan Station. 2009 saw the completion of the Araon – Korea’s first research icebreaker – and the vessel’s maiden voyage. Since its launch, Araon continues to conduct annual research activities in the Arctic between July and August.

Former South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, a strong advocate of Arctic engagement, visited Greenland and Norway in 2012 to discuss Korean involvement in polar research and development. President Park Geun-Hye, who took office in 2013, announced the Arctic as a priority for the national government to achieve a “creative economy” early in her tenure.

South Korea gained observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013, and has since been actively engaged in the economic activities, policymaking, and research detailed in the other sections of this backgrounder.

South Korea’s economic interests in the Arctic revolve around three key areas: (1) energy; (2) sea routes; and (3) technology.

South Korea is one of the world’s leading energy importers. In 2015, South Korea relied on imports to meet about 97 percent of its total primary energy consumption. Some 84% of of the nearly 2.4 billion barrels per day of petroleum and other liquid fuels consumed in Korea is imported from the Middle East. As such, South Korea is actively looking for ways to diversify its imports beyond Middle East petroleum, and has accordingly been watching Arctic oil and gas developments. The Korean Maritime Institute calculates that if Arctic oil replaced just 10 percent of Korea’s Middle Eastern oil imports, it would save approximately one billion dollars annually in transportation costs. Towards this goal, in 2011 the South Korea Gas Corporation acquired a 20 percent stake in the Umiak gas field in the Northwest Territories of Canada. However, due to the boom in shale gas production in North America and the subsequent downturn of LNG prices, the Umiak field has suspended development in the short term. In 2013, the Araon led a research survey into the Beaufort Sea to look for sub-sea permafrost and methane hydrates. As with most methane hydrates exploration, extraction and production are still seen as future possibilities.

Korea is also highly interested in the potential for ice-free Arctic shipping routes in the near future. In 2013, Korean shipping interests completed the country’s first freight cargo voyage through the Arctic, taking only 35 days to travel from Port Ust Luga, near St. Petersburg, to the Gwangyang terminal south of Seoul, using the Swedish icebreaker Stena Polaris. Korea is so deeply invested in the Northern Sea Route’s potential, specifically, because it is geographically positioned to make significant gains from a shift in maritime traffic patterns from Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia. Traveling through the Arctic could decrease transportation distance by 40 percent and reduce travel time by up to 10 days between Asian and European markets, reducing fuel costs by 25 percent. Opening up the Arctic sea-lanes would allow ships to avoid the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Suez Canal, all of which have heavy traffic and some security concerns. Instead, ships would use circumpolar maritime navigation and most likely use South Korea’s large Busan Port en route.  Busan Port currently ranks fifth in the world in terms of cargo. Current container traffic between Asia and Europe is 26 million twenty foot equivalent units (TEU) and is expected to increase four to six fold by 2030. If the Northern Sea Route was developed, the Busan Port could see a significant portion of the more than 85 million tons of cargo predicted to travel via the Northern Sea Route. It would also increase the competitiveness of South Korean products in European markets by cutting down on transport costs. The Korean Maritime Institute has published a number of papers on the opening and prospects of the North Sea Route for South Korea.

Finally, South Korea is interested in economic gains from specializing in Arctic navigation technologies. To operate in the Arctic requires special vessels and related technologies, such as icebreakers, container ships with icebreaking capabilities, icebreaking tankers, and fuel ships transporting liquefied natural gas. South Korea hopes to capitalize on the need for such technologies and the increase in demand for offshore platforms for petroleum exploration and extraction as Arctic sea ice retreats. Hyundai Heavy Industries, Samsung Heavy Industries, and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Maritime Engineering are among the most competitive companies in the world for the production of polar capable ships and support. In 2014, for example, Daewoo won a $300 million order from Russia’s state-owned shipping company Sovcomflot to construct an icebreaking liquefied natural gas carrier.

South Korea’s previous President, Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), played a formidable role in fostering the country’s interest and engagement in the Arctic. During his tenure, South Korea applied for observer status with the Arctic Council and Korea has attended Arctic Council ministerial meetings since 2008 as an ad hoc observer. The country engaged in other international scientific and diplomatic endeavors such as participating in the International Arctic Scientific Committee and regional conferences including Arctic Frontiers. Former President Lee Myung-bak also actively engaged in bilateral diplomacy with Arctic nations. In October 2010, for example, South Korea signed an agreement with Russia on maritime transport and agreed to construct a gas pipeline.

In 2013, South Korea unveiled an Arctic Policy Master Plan. The Plan was developed with pan-government collaboration and the support of government-affiliated institutions focused on the Arctic, including the Korea Maritime Institute and the Korea Polar Research Institute. The overarching vision of the Plan is for South Korea to work towards a sustainable future in the Arctic through (1) building Arctic partnerships to contribute to the international community; (2) enhancing scientific research to resolve common issues of mankind; and (3) developing new industry in the Arctic by participating in economic activities. The Plan goes on to detail four diplomatic, scientific, and business, and challenges for South Korea in the region, with specific tasks or plans to be implemented over the next five years. For example, in 2014 the Plan called for South Korea to participate in the activities of the Arctic Council working groups and Arctic-related organizations and conferences; initiate a study for building a second icebreaker; and conclude a memorandum of understanding with Russia for the development of three major Russian ports along the Northern Sea Route, which has since been completed. The policies and calls to action in the Plan are written with an understanding that the Arctic will  not bring tangible benefits to South Korea in the short term.

Korea’s current Global Korea Initiative and its Low Carbon Green Growth initiatives highlight the Arctic as both an important consideration in the fight against climate change and as a potential growth engine for the globalized Korean economy. The Arctic also plays a prominent role in Korea’s Eurasia Initiative, a national strategy to build an integrated, creative, and peaceful Eurasian continent, as it is seen as a regional connection by water, rail, and culture between European and Asian countries.

South Korea has proven itself to be a reliable and responsible partner in the Arctic for over two decades in scientific, maritime, and diplomatic cooperation. It has engaged all Arctic countries and many Arctic observer states in business and scientific endeavors, with particular cooperation with Norway, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Japan, and China. In order to follow through with its Master Plan, South Korea must allocate enough funds to meet its set long term regional and global goals and make a strategic choice of which Korean port is best poised for Arctic development.