South Korea explores Arctic shipping potential

South Korea and Norway held talks this month to discuss marine cooperation in the polar region.

Last year South Korea launched a pilot service on a new shipping route, which cuts the distance between the Asian country and northern Europe from the 22,000 km of the traditional Indian Ocean route to just 7,000 km.

New resources, new sea routes

As South Korea seeks to lessen its dependence on oil from the Middle East, it is attracted by the oil reserves and natural gas deposits of the Arctic.  In addition, its new Northern Sea Route (NSR) would reduce both travel time and fuel costs, bringing significant benefits to the country’s trade, the vast majority of which is handled by sea (with Northern Europe a vital trade partner).  In addition, Korea’s powerful ship-building industry is keen to profit from the increasing demand for offshore platform and ice-hardened vessels in the polar region.  In 2013 South Korea was granted observer status by the Arctic Council, a further step forward in extending its influence.

Arctic challenges

As climate change causes the ice cover to recede, the season for feasible commercial shipping is lengthening.  However, in winter Arctic waters will remain closed to shipping for some time to come.  Shipping companies require consistency, so the irregularity of shipping route openings even in season, along with the difficulty of accurately forecasting weather conditions, could dampen wider commercial enthusiasm.

Similarly problematic is the present lack of opportunities to drop off or pick up cargo while crossing the Arctic, which makes the scope for generating revenues along the route very limited compared to established long-distance routes.

A new Polar Code

Meanwhile, at its November meeting the International Maritime Operation’s (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee approved a Polar Code aimed at preventing accidents and pollution from toxic liquids and sewage in these ecologically unique regions.  Amendments to MARPOL, which will make the Polar Code’s environmental provisions mandatory, are expected to be given the go-ahead in May 2015.

The Polar Code sets out ship structure and stability, operational safety, training and other specifications for vessels operating in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

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