Looking to the Future: Korea and the Antarctic

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Friday, April 29th, 2016
Yoon Hae-ree

Recently, the students in my school science club had the opportunity to listen to a lecture about the Antarctic. Mr. Lee Dong Hwa of NamKyung ENG, was one of the first Koreans to go to the Antarctic. He came to my school and talked about the promise that the Antarctic holds and what Korea is currently doing there.

The lecture gave me two clear ideas. First was that the Antarctic holds great economic and academic potential. The other was what Korea should do to take part in exploring the Antarctic even after the Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048. (As I will explain later, the Antarctic Treaty is a treaty that governs all activity in the Antarctic.)

The biggest reason why countries are so interested in the Antarctic is its natural resources. Although only 1% of the continent has been properly explored, it is believed to hold 90 billion barrels of oil and 30 per cent of the world's yet-to-be discovered natural gas resources. However, this is not the only reason that the Antarctic is valuable. It will open a new field in almost every imaginable line of work. Clothing suitable for extreme weather, food that can be shipped or grown in the Antarctic, and even medical procedures will be different from what they’re like in Korea – or in other countries for that matter.

The living organisms in Antarctica will be of great biological value too. When people first found life near volcanos and other environments where they didn’t think life could exist, it redefined the idea of life. By studying life in Antarctica, we will be able to study species of animals that can survive in harsh environments. For example, a US National Scientific Foundation-funded expedition recently found fish that live without sunlight under almost half a mile of ice in 28° F (-2° C) water.

It will also serve experimental purposes in cases where a pristine environment is needed – to study those species that have lived on a continent without outside intrusion for centuries. These are just an extremely small part of what we could do in the Antarctic. There are countless other fields of research – from meteorites to climate change – that can be done in the Antarctic.

Whether it’s economic or academic, the Antarctic holds great potential. The problem is, you can’t simply go there and start exploring it. All activities within the Antarctic are strictly restricted by the Antarctic Treaty. The Antarctic Treaty is a treaty that was signed in 1959 to ensure “in the interests of all humankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene of object of international discord”, allowing complete freedom of scientific research and forbidding military measures, new territorial claims, mining, and nuclear explosions.

Ellsworth Range

The Ellsworth Mountains are the highest mountain ranges in Antarctica (uk.wikipedia.org)

There are currently 53 parties that are part of the treaty, and Korea is one of the 17 countries that have earned their status as Consultative Parties by demonstrating their interest in Antarctica by carrying out substantial scientific activity there. There are now only seven states that have a territorial claim on Antarctica and the treaty clearly states that no new claims can be asserted while the treaty is in force, which is until 2048. This means that even entering and exiting the Antarctic needs the unanimous consent of its members. Attempts to exploit the resources of the Antarctic, or to secure a claim on it will definitely be noticed.

So does Korea actually have a chance of making use of the Antarctic? Yes, it does, since Korea is one of the 29 countries that have the right to participate in the decision-making in the Antarctic. This means that we should start thinking about what will happen after the treaty expires.

Already, many countries are trying to become involved in the talks that will be held in 2048. As a country that was only just accepted in the treaty in 1989 and has no territorial claims, Korea’s only chance of being deeply involved is by preparing the technology and infrastructure fit for use that no other country has in the Antarctic. However, according to Mr. Lee Dong Hwa, Korea still lacks high-quality human resources in the area. For example, he told us that not even one person applied for a job at a national research center as a glacier expert. Also, there are no universities in Korea where students can learn about the polar regions.

To solve this, Korea should work on two things: developing technology specifically for the Antarctic and stimulating academic interest in it. For example, considering Korea’s strengths in the semiconductor and telecommunications industries, we could try to eliminate the risk people face when traveling in the Antarctic. White outs and crevices are one of the biggest dangers of traveling in the Antarctic.

When people pass unfamiliar areas, they currently rely on more experienced people to see if there are any crevices or dangerous landscapes. Developing technology to detect the exact locations of such dangers would certainly help with accuracy to ensure the safety of people who work in the Antarctic.

Also, stimulating academic interest will increase awareness about the Antarctic and will be the first step towards conducting significant scientific research there. For example, people in psychology or medicine might raise the question of how the lack of sunlight for long periods of time, isolation, or even the absence of green plants may have unpredictable effects on people. New types of diseases or injuries might necessitate new treatments. The environment of the Antarctic could be used to plan explorations to other extreme places such as space or the deep seas.

Getting the public informed and interested in the importance of the Antarctic will help with these issues. As I mentioned earlier, Korea has earned its status as a Consultative Party by carrying out scientific activity there, and while all other activities are strictly controlled in the treaty, the treaty ensures complete freedom of scientific investigation. Scientific research clearly seems like the best way Korea can secure its permanent presence in the Antarctic.

The economic and scientific value of the Antarctic is quite exciting, but starting projects aimed to secure a permanent status in the Antarctic will require a lot of time, money, and most of all, public interest. Support from the government, public, and the participation of various companies are needed to push this forward. The basic requisite for this is public awareness. If Korea wishes to take part in the exploration of the Antarctic, its first task should be getting the public informed and interested in the Antarctic.

By Yoon Hae-ree (Daejeon Jijok High School)