One of my favorite childhood books is about animals who go on vacation from the zoo, temporarily returning to their natural habitats via a single airplane. Polar bears rejoice when they get to the land of icebergs, whereas penguins anguish through the heat on their winding way to the south pole via deserts and savanna. Through this book, at four years old, I learned that every animal is suited to a particular climate and region, the geographic locations for each, and that distinctive cultures of people exist in each location. I did not know then I would get to explore both polar regions, and many continents in between. Nor could I fathom how globalized the world is, or how complex are the dynamics within ecosystems or between cultures.
Gyeongbokgung Palace preserves Korean architecture and blends with natural landscapes
Geographically, the Arctic and Korea are not immediately associated, but globalization means this tiny Asian country has a high stake in the polar north; metaphorically putting polar bears on the Korean map. As part of its Arctic education outreach objectives, for five consecutive years, Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries has hosted delegates from Arctic countries at a Korean Arctic Academy (KAA) organized by the Korean Maritime Institute and University of the Arctic. Participating in KAA allowed me to expand my knowledge of Arctic issues, which had begun in earnest with a 2012 Students on Ice Arctic expedition.
Korea’s natural beauty
Polar bears won’t travel to Korea, but Korean ships do travel to polar bear habitat. Korea is invested in the Arctic for utilitarian reasons, and is equally concerned with the social and environmental issues that impact the Arctic region and its first inhabitants. Because of unresolved tensions between North and South Korea, The Republic of Korea has become a peninsular-island country, cut off from mainland Europe by its northern neighbour. As global warming melts ice and opens the Arctic to ship traffic, Korea has the potential to shorten its export route to Europe by using the Arctic oceans. This opportunity comes with a cost, though, as climate change is threatening traditional ways of life, wreaking havoc on vulnerable ecosystems, killing living organisms (including people), increasing the intensity and duration of storm events, disrupting security and reducing food production globally. To address these problems, Korea undertakes scientific research, networks globally, and supports indigenous agency.
Learning Taekwondo as part cultural exchange
The KAA allowed delegates like me to share our Arctic research and teach about our unique cultures (https://youtu.be/OxenRsFsqbw), to learn how Korea is addressing Arctic sustainability, to admire what Korea has built and preserved, and to absorb Korea’s natural beauty. It reminded me how, despite differences, we are all connected by global environmental systems that affect air, water, and climate commons, and by economic and political structures that directly or indirectly affect everyone’s quality of life. It underscored that our choices and actions impact others and that we need to cooperate to build global systems that address climate change and redress inequality. Such large-scale commitments, buttressed by individual action, will put every species and every ecosystem on the sustainability map of every country.
The Demilitarized Zone looking towards North Korea
Traditional Korean cultural activity in central Seoul