Since South Korea gained observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013, the country has cultivated strategic Arctic partnerships. Most of their involvement in the region depends on these partners due to their “near-Arctic” status. Korea is primarily concerned with Arctic energy, and outlined the region’s importance in their 2012 policy masterplan.
Energy Dependence and Diversification
Importing a whopping 98% of its fossil fuels (which account for a majority of the country’s energy consumption), South Korea is highly dependent on the Gulf states. The country’s leadership is looking to diversify its energy imports, as well as produce more of their own. As a result, Korea is turning toward Russia, China, and other Asian countries for their energy needs.
Korea, Russia, and the New North
Korea’s “New Northern Policy” aims to develop stronger bilateral ties with Russia in the face of Western sanctions. As part of this, the two countries agreed to the “Nine Bridges Initiative”, a series of Arctic-related, mutual projects. South Korea built two-thirds of the world’s LNG tankers in operation today. Accordingly, the Republic aims to integrate its own Arctic-capable ships further into Russian LNG shipping. On land, the two countries are partnering to construct an LNG pipeline originating in Russia, passing through North Korea, and feeding into South Korea.
The Asian Arctic-Adjacent States, Scandinavia, and North America
The Republic’s Arctic ties with China and Japan are mostly research-related, but are moving toward further commercial integration. All three countries maintain an interest in the opening Northeast Passage, which significantly reduces shipping times to Europe. The possibility of a sub-organization for the three Arctic-adjacent Asian states is hotly-debated, but not yet realized. In the meantime, Korea remains an active observer in the Arctic Council, and its leadership conducts goodwill visits to the Scandinavian Arctic frequently.
Korea’s Arctic Future
Korean involvement in the Arctic revolves around trade and energy. Korea’s future in the Arctic depends largely on how ownership of emerging energy resources is decided and managed. The country is not positioned to unilaterally project power throughout the region, but the formation of sub-councils for the Arctic-adjacent Asian states could give the Republic increased diplomatic leverage.