An aerial view of the Korea Ocean Research & Development Institute (KORDI) in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province
By Lee Hyo-sik
South Korea, surrounded by the water on its three sides, should make more of an effort to turn the ocean into its future repository of food and natural resources amid rapidly depleting land-based reserves, the nation's leading oceanographer said.
In an interview with The Korea Times, Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute (KORDI) President Kang Jung-keuk said countries poor in resources, like Korea, must proactively explore the sea in order to continue sustainable development in the future, stressing Asia's fourth largest economy should spend more money to study the marine environment and develop state-
of-the-art technologies to secure deep-sea minerals.
``Many say that the 21st century is an `era of the sea' and I couldn't agree more. It has become inevitable for us to pay more attention to the ocean for survival in line with the rapid depletion of easily exploited resources and intensifying competition across the globe to secure food and energy on land. The ocean is our next frontier and our future depends on it,'' Kang said.
He said the institute has been playing a key role in promoting the importance of the sea to Korea's future through a wide array of oceanographic research, ranging from studies of the nation's seas and open oceans, and investigations on preservation, control and restoration of marine environments, to the development of marine energy resources.
KORDI is located in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, and operates three branch institutes across the country. It also maintains two overseas research facilities in the South Pacific and China. Its affiliate, the Korea Polar Research Institute, studies global environment changes and natural resource reserves in Antarctica and the Arctic.
``Our mission is to select and foster some of the most future-promising marine scientific technologies, and then turn them into the nation's new growth engines. Our research focus includes the monitoring of the marine environment and eco-system in coastal waters to effectively cope with unusual weather phenomena and possible pollution. We are also studying tidal currents to turn them into pollution-free and renewable energy sources,'' Kang said.
The institute is also trying to find ways of collecting minerals on the sea floor. ``We secured a mineral exploration site in the Pacific Ocean in 2002, while obtaining exclusive rights to explore waters off the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific in April 2008. We also successfully tested a deep-water mining robot, ``MineRo,'' in June last year,'' he said. The institute is currently developing an underwater unmanned submarine capable of operating in waters below 6,000 meters.
With the ongoing global warming and a range of subsequent changes in the marine environment as a result, including the rising sea levels and unusual weather phenomena, KORDI has been stepping up its monitoring of sea levels, water temperature, salinity and other oceanic factors to better understand changes in the global environment and protect human lives and properties against tidal waves, typhoons and other natural disasters.
``Temperatures in coastal waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula have been increasing at a faster pace than in other parts of the globe, severely affecting the marine environment here. We will continue to strengthen monitoring and studies of changes in the surrounding seas in a bid to better understand what is really going on. So, we can help policymakers make better informed decisions to preserve the marine eco-system in a more sustainable state,'' the oceanographer said
Additionally, the institute has recently bolstered studies on the marine environment surrounding the country's easternmost islets of Dokdo. ``We set up a center exclusively dedicated to studying the islets in 2005. It surveys the eco-environment surrounding the island, gathers various data, and publishes findings in international academic journals. All these activities have and will help us boost our sovereignty over Dokdo,'' the KORDI head said.
However, he said Korea still lags far behind advanced countries in marine science and technology. ``Our competitiveness in this field is only half that of the United States, Japan and other advanced economies. Additionally, only 2.5 percent of state research and development (R&D) funds are allocated to the marine science and technology fields.''
But Kang expressed an optimistic outlook for Korea's marine science and industry, saying the government and private companies are increasingly paying greater attention to the sector for potentially lucrative business opportunities.
``The country is already the world's largest shipbuilder and the world's sixth largest shipper. If we take advantage of these globally competitive industries, Korea will soon become one of the world's top five nations in marine industries,'' he said.
To turn KORDI into one of the world's top-notch marine research institutes, Kang said it will soon come out with a blueprint outlining major areas designed to transform the nation into a marine-based economy. ``The United States and Japan have already named ocean development as one of their main national growth strategies. China has also announced its intent to explore natural resources in the ocean. We should place top policy priority on developing a wide range of marine science and technologies to foster a competitive marine industry.''
Kang also said the institute will boost international cooperation with research centers in foreign countries and jointly carry out scientific research and resources exploration.