Enter … Pyongyang?

Analysis | North Korea may seem an unlikely candidate to stake a claim to the Arctic, but the interest of a cash-strapped regime underscores the allure of the region’s resources

Kim Jong-un, looking at a way out of economic malaise(Photo: KCNA)

Marc Lanteigne

The Svalbard Treaty, drafted in 1920 to clarify the legal status of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, added an unlikely new signatory this week, namely North Korea. On January 25, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the country’s primary news service, announced the North Korean government had acceded to the treaty and thus was granted legal access to the islands.

North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), would join more than forty Arctic and non-Arctic states as a member of the treaty. As a signatory, under the terms of the treaty North Korea would have the right to engage in economic activities in Svalbard and surrounding waters, while recognising the sovereignty of Norway over the archipelago.

South Korea, which has developed a much more comprehensive Arctic policy over the past few years, acceded to the treaty in September 2012 and published its first governmental Arctic policy overview a year later.

Exactly what sort of activities would be undertaken in the region is a open question, given North Korea’s limited scientific capabilities and a decrepit economy, which remains centrally planned, lacks hard currency, and is subject to extensive international sanctions in response to the authoritarian regime’s ongoing nuclear weapons development. The country conducted its fourth nuclear-warhead test in January, and announced this week that it was planning a missille launch in defiance of international pressure. North Korea, led by President Kim Jong-un, is one of the most isolated states in the world, and its regime has been widely considered a direct challenge to Asian regional security.

The initial (Korean language) announcement by the KCNA about the decision by Pyongyang to pursue treaty membership included references to Svalbard’s rich mineral wealth, including coal supplies, as well as its fish stocks. This may suggest that North Korea’s decision to join the treaty was primarily due to economic considerations.

At present, only Norway and Russia are engaged in economic activities in Svalbard. For example, Russia operates a coal mining facility at Barentsburg, with another Russian mining site at Pyramiden shut down nearly two decades ago. With the recent drop in global fuel and commodity prices, mining in Svalbard has become far less viable. However, several more countries, including South Korea and other Asian governments, including China, India and Japan, maintain scientific research stations on the islands for various Arctic studies.

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North Korea is also one of several countries which have contributed to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, with 5,700 crops stored at the facilities. The Crop Trust, which oversees to Vault, also supports two projects in conjunction with the Pyongyang Crop Genetic Resources Institute (PCGRI) to preserve maize and rice samples. North Korea has also made use of of the Northern Sea Route to assist with shipments to Russia, one of the Pyongyang’s few trade partners.

With Arctic shipping becoming more viable in recent years, it is possible that North Korea, like many other non-Arctic states, is seeking to better position itself to take advantage of the Northern Sea Route’s emerging potential. Despite these developments, it is unlikely that North Korea will develop the same degree of Arctic diplomacy as its neighbours in East Asia.

However, the announcement of the Svalbard Treaty’s newest supporter speaks volumes to the growing international interest in the Arctic’s economic and strategic potential.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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