Araon enables Korea take a step closer to Arctic ambitions, experts say
By Kang Hyun-kyung
The state-of-the-art icebreaker Araon has propelled Arctic bordering nations to rush and team up with Korea for scientific research in disputed territories there.
Among other nations, Canada appears to be most active in forging a closer Arctic partnership with Korea. Recently, the Canadian government has ratcheted up diplomatic efforts to court Korea to conduct joint scientific surveys in the earth's northernmost territories, a move to bolster its sovereignty there.
On Tuesday, the Canada-Korea Arctic Policy Symposium took place at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul with experts and government officials from both sides participating. The Canadian side expressed their deep interest to work more closely with Korea by making the most use of the cutting-edge technology on the Araon.
Lee Bang-yong, director of the Arctic Environment and Resources Research Center of the Korea Polar Research Institute, told The Korea Times that the format of such an event was "rare."
"It's not common for the Canadian government to invite Korean scientists to an event like that," he said. "In the past, we tried hard to have one of the Canadian officials at our seminars to discuss Arctic issues. Most of them were not enthusiastic about our offer. Their attitude has changed a lot. The Canadian Embassy voluntarily asked us to hold the symposium together to discuss relevant issues."
Korean and Canadian government officials and think tank experts gather at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul for the Korea-Canada Arctic Partnership Symposium held Tuesday. / Korea Times
Lee was one of the participants having presented the government's Arctic policy, including the icebreaker Araon's future expedition activities, at the symposium.
The event took place weeks after teams from Korea, Canada and the United States were on board the Araon to conduct a joint scientific research project in the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean.
The area is one of the world's most disputed areas. The United States and Canada claimed respective sovereignty of the Beaufort Sea.
Governments often conduct scientific surveys in disputed areas to bolster their sovereignty claims there.
During the symposium, Jeannette Menzies, the head of the Canadian International Center for the Arctic Region at its embassy in Oslo, Norway, described the area as "a well-managed dispute."
"Beaufort is where the United States and Canada are working together to resolve the boundary dispute," she said.
Menzies mentioned Hans Island, a small, uninhabited barren island in the Arctic Ocean, as Canada's other disputed territory with Greenland.
Boundary disputes in the northern territories have emerged as a salient diplomatic issue over the decades as the Arctic region has drawn growing interest from nations for its rich natural resources.
According to the Canadian government, about 13 percent of world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of undiscovered gas are under the Arctic seabed.
Canada, which took over the Arctic Council chairmanship from Sweden in May, has stepped up efforts to strengthen its sovereignty over the territories.
The keen interest in forging a solid partnership with Korea through Araon is seen as part of its strategy to bolster its sovereignty claims over the disputed areas in the Arctic.
Menzies noted enhancing sovereignty in Canada's north is one of the critical elements of its government's "Northern Strategy."
"This involves resolving international boundary disputes. What the Canadian government has undertaken in this regard is enhancing its defense capacity in the north, including the Canadian armed forces' training center, which restarted in August 2013. It's a yearly operation in which the government holds exercises in the Canadian north," she said.
Korea's 6,950-ton ship Araon, which was built in 2009, acted as a catalyst to facilitate Korea-Canada Arctic cooperation.
"The icebreaker is a floating lab equipped with all necessary cutting-edge technologies for oceanic scientific research," the scientist noted. "There is no doubt that Araon is the world's best icebreaker in existence. The ship has the facility to screen thoroughly the undersea areas of the Arctic and this enabled our team to find crucial evidence regarding Glacial Age."
In August, the Korean team from the polar institute, along with German scientists, discovered evidence of ice sheets in the East Siberian Sea, which offered a significant clue to understand climate change in the Glacial Age.
Due to the ship's scientific facilities, some foreign experts call the Araon "a dream ship."
Korea is one of the countries which have shown greater interest in the Arctic in the hope that possible cooperation with bordering states in exploiting natural gas and oil reserves there will create business opportunities for Korean firms.
In addition, scientists say Korea's partnerships with them will benefit the country as weather forecasting in wintertime would be more predictable. The scientific phenomenon called "Arctic oscillation" affects climate change in winter in Korea, they say.
In May, Korea, along with China, Japan, India, Singapore and Italy obtained permanent observer status of the Arctic Council. Eight countries ― the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland ― are the members of the leading body for international cooperation on Arctic issues.
Experts here said the observer status will help Korea move a step closer to its Arctic ambitions.