China’s assistant foreign minister visits Antarctica

A Chinese delegation led by assistant foreign minister (部长助理) Kong Xuanyou 孔铉佑 visited King George island, one of the South Shetlands some 120 km off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The visit was organised by the Foreign Ministry, the State Ocean Administration (SOA, 海洋局) and the Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Office (CFOA, 中央外办).

Between Dec 25th and 28th, the delegation visited Korea’s King Sejong Station (세종기지), as well as Russian, Uruguayan and Chilean bases, and of course China’s own Great Wall Station (长城站). After that, they set off for Punta Arenas, Chile, to visit that country’s Antarctic Institute (Instituto Antártico Chileno, INACH). Current cooperation in Antarctic science between China and Chile includes a recent scientific workshop in Punta Arenas and a joint expedition planned for this season.

Meanwhile on the continent, the 32th Antarctic expedition progresses inland, this year divided in two teams. One of them reached Kunlun Station (昆仑站) soon before the end of the year. They were expected to climb Dome A on Dec 31th, where they would plant a flag. Dome A, the highest point on the ice sheet and possibly the coldest place on Earth, has long been a focus of Chinese research. Kunlun station is just a few miles from the Dome. At over 4000 m above sea level, it’s the highest Antarctic station.

China is testing new toys in Antarctica this Southern summer. The country’s first polar fixed-wing aircraft, the Xueying 雪鹰 (‘Snow Eagle’) 601 reached the South Pole in late November. While the plane is American-made (namely a Basler BT-67), China’s first polar all-terrain vehicle, also being used for the first time in Antarctica on the 32th expedition, was developed by Jonyang 詹阳, a joint venture of Singapore’s ST Engineering with the Guizhou city government.

“we should focus on REE-rich Greenland”: Korean geologist

South Korea’s Electronic Times (전자신문) carried a piece by geologist Sung-Won Park (박성원) two weeks ago where he highlights the need for the country to get involved in untapping Greenland’s mineral resources, specifically due to the island’s “abundant rare-earth deposits”. Hi-tech industries in Korea depend on imports for important REE-based components, says Park, making actively exploring for the elements a necessity for the country. “Among Arctic regions, REE-rich Greenland is where we should be focusing most of our attention.”

Mr Park, a researcher at South Korea’s Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM, 한국지질자원연구원) Mineral Resources Research Division, has been involved in geological research in Greenland for several years. KIGAM and its local counterpart, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) signed an agreement to start joint research in 2012, during then-president Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the island. Talking to Greenland’s state-owned broadcaster KNR in 2013, Park was particularly enthusiastic about the REE potential in Kvanefjeld, one of the areas where the Korean team had been working.

Korea’s national miner KORES has been conducting joint exploration at the Qeqertaasaq REE+Nb project with NunaMinerals, whose prospects are now uncertain with the Greenlandic company still on the verge of bankruptcy.

South Korean ambassador keeps ‘close eye’ on KORES investment in Greenland

South Korea’s ambassador to Denmark Ma Young-sam 마영삼 was in Greenland last week in an official visit, during which he met with government ministers charged with foreign affairs, industry and natural resources, as well as with representatives from seafood producer Royal Greenland. There was talk of increasing cooperation in mining and fisheries (Sermitsiaq).

A more urgent concern than such future prospects is surely Korean state-owned miner KORES’ investment in the Qeqertaasaq REE+Nb project. KORES has been exploring at the site in partnership with Greenland’s state-owned NunaMinerals, a company in rather serious financial trouble that filed for bankruptcy. Talking to Greenlandic public broadcaster KNR, Ma said the Koreans are keeping a “close eye” on their country’s first investment in Greenland, since “many other Korean companies want to invest big in Greenland”.

Soon after Ma’s visit, news emerged that NunaMinerals are withdrawing their bankruptcy petition based on optimism about ongoing restructuring talks with Greenland Mining Management (GMM), a new-ish UK company seemingly wholly owned by Patrick Newman, a businessman who has been involved in a number of mining companies with interests in Greenland and elsewhere. GMM are proposing to invest in Nuna with an eye to the latter then making an offer for investment group Worthington, suspended from trading in London in Oct ’14 after an ambitious investment plan attracted regulatory attention as amounting to a reverse takeover. Worthington’s shopping spree included a stake in Greenland Rare Earth Projects (GREP), also led by Mr Newman, who hold an exploration license for the REE+Nb+Ta+U Paatusoq project in southeast Greenland.

South Korean interest in Greenland was displayed rather spectacularly in 2012, when then-president Lee Myung-Bak visited the island. The KORES-Nuna Qeqertaasaq exploration agreement goes back to Lee’s visit.

Ambassador Ma’s visit to Greenland appears to have gone unnoticed by the South Korean press, but Korean attention on the fate of KORES Greenlandic investment has been evidenced by news items on the website of the ministry of foreign affairs and other sources, as I reported a couple of weeks ago.

More attention has been dispensed to Mr Ma’s parallel career as an international ping-pong referee, in which capacity he took part in the ping pong championship in Suzhou, China, some ten days before heading to Greenland. An Chosun article compares him to Bao Zheng 包拯, a Song dynasty judge with a semi-legendary reputation for impartiality and the subject of a number of Chinese TV series that have enjoyed some popularity in South Korea. Ma Young-sam’s diplomatic career began in the Middle East.

Yakutia: cooperation with South Korean pharma, biotech

Officials from the Far Eastern Russian region of Yakutia (the Sakha Republic) were in Gangwon province in South Korea last month to discuss potential cooperation. The visit included meetings with local pharmaceutical companies, some of which seem to have an interest in Yakutian products such as (deer?) antlers and should refer to the Siberian musk deer (사향노루) or a similar animal (Sputnik 콜리아, ЯСИЯ). Among the Korean companies the visitors interacted with: Hamsoa Pharm (함소아제약), Regeron, Bifido.

Another topic of the talks was tourism. The Yakutians would like to attract South Korean visitors and there are plans to start offering charter flights between Chuncheon and Yakutsk.

Remarkably enough, an important component of tourist flow in the opposite direction, from Russia to Korea, is medical tourism. Around the time of the Russian visit to Gangwon, representatives from Heundae Paik Hospital (해운대백병원) in Kimhae and from a Korean medical tour operator were visiting Yakutia. No less than 13% of patients at that particular hospital come from Russia. Such a figure is of course not that common in the industry, but South Korea is an important medical tourism destination, most famously for plastic surgery. Most customers come from China, but the former Soviet Union also provides an interesting market, and sheer geography would suggest Korea might be attractive to patients in the Russian Far East, closer to South Korea than to their own country’s major population centres.

I’ve written recently about Yakutian efforts to attract investment from East Asia. The region, just like others in the Russian Far East, badly needs foreign investment that is unlikely to come from the West in the current geopolitical climate.

South Korean authorities are just as eager to increase cooperation with Russia in everything Arctic. For a recent sample of this: the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (해양수산부) Arctic action plan for this year, presented not two weeks ago, highlights cooperation with Russia, including Korean investment in developing and modernising ports in Russia’s Far East.

massive eucrite meteorite found by Chinese team in Antarctica

A 1299 gram eucrite meteorite found in February last year by the 30th Chinese Antarctic Research Expedition (南极科学考察) has reached the mainstream news (新华) after Miao Bingkui 缪秉魁 from Guilin University of Technology (桂林理工大学), where the meteorite has been studied, talked about it at an event in Caoyang 曹杨 Middle School in Shanghai. The meteorite, christened GRV13001, was discovered in Grove Mountains, Chinese finds from where have made news in the past.

Less than three pounds might not seem to qualify as ‘massive’ if we’re talking about meteorites in general (a Korean team has recently (video!) found a 36.7 kg meteorite some 300 km from the just opened Jang Bogo base (장보고 기지)), but it is significant for this specific type. The Meteoritical Society‘s Meteoritical Bulletin database registers only maybe a dozen heavier eucrites (out of a total of 310), with the heaviest one at 5.2 kg. The biggest eucrite meteorite from Antarctica is the 3.7 kg Thiel Mountains 07014, found by the Koreans in 2008.

Eucrites are pieces of basaltic rock assumed to come from 4 Vesta in the asteroid belt. This is quite serendipitous, as my previous post discussed how a thick layer of basalt is making it so hard for CNOOC and Ithaca to see if there’s any oil in their patch of the Icelandic Jan Mayen area.

The Chinese name for Vesta, 灶神星 Zàoshénxīng is a bit peculiar. Minor planets with names taken from Classical mythology generally have (informal) Chinese names that translate the name of the original deity, while in non-astronomical context names of Greek and Roman gods are generally transcribed. Thus Vesta, the goddess, is normally 维斯塔 Wéisītǎ, which sounds roughly like ‘Vesta’, while the 灶神 Zàoshén part of the name of the asteroid means ‘hearth spirit’. Now what’s peculiar is that in this case the astronomical ‘spirit’ name is actually a name for the Kitchen God of Chinese folk religion and Taoism, which might or might not have been intentional (those astronomical translations of mythological names generally have no connection with specific Chinese mythical entities).

Yakutia: enter China, Korea

After a well-deserved extended Spring Festival holiday, followed by a bout of the dreaded lurgy, I’m back to add a few snippets about non-Western investment in the Sakha Republic in far-eastern Russia, also known as Yakutia.

In an interview he gave last month to news portal yakutia.info, Aleksey Zagorenko Алексей Загоренко, head of Yakutia’s investment agency, addressed worries that Zhuoda 桌达 Group’s planned $500m investment to build and renovate homes and social infrastructure in the Republic’s capital might crush the local construction industry. Local home prices in Yakutsk are just as high as in Moscow, he retorts, and that can hardly be blamed on the trickier environment since other northern regions have more reasonable real estate prices. Zhuoda’s entry will likely harm some local actors, but the best will survive and as a result the market will be more “efficient”, and cheap. It’s a “change or die” question.

This echoes what we saw when I first wrote about Zhuoda’s Yakutsk project, where I quoted Aysen Nikolaev Айсен Николаев, the town’s mayor, who highlighted precisely such a desired effect on the local home prices: Zhuoda’s new homes might help certain local developers “sober up” and start selling a bit cheaper.

Chinese and other non-Western investment in Russia and specifically in regions like Yakutia is being increasedly sought for since the start of the Ukraine crisis, and Zhuoda is by no means the only big Chinese company with an interest in the area. I’ll hopefully find the time to refer to several others in future posts, but to stay within the topic of recent contacts with Sakha Republic authorities let’s mention state-owned conglomerate China Poly Group (保利集团), who met with Zagorenko in January to talk about potential investments in infrastructure.

Anyway it’s not just the Chinese who are increasingly attracted to the area. Contacts are also increasing with South Korean companies. Sakha Republic officials are scheduled to travel there in March, and further exchanges are planned during this year. Vladimir Vasilyev Владимир Васильев, the Republic’s minister responsible for foreign contacts, mentions Korean interest in biotechnology and health care.

According to Zagorenko, no less a company than Korean-Japanese conglomerate Lotte Group is considering taking part in local “medicine projects” and the construction of a hotel in Yakutia. I haven’t seen anything about this in Korean-language sources, but for one thing Lotte has been active in Russia for several years. They have built large malls in Moscow and are planning to acquire another one.

South Korea has produced some less-than-entirely-friendly statements towards Russia after the annexation of Crimea, and disagreements on political and military issues between the two countries do occasionally appear, but economic relations seem to have received a boost from Russia’s worsened relations with the West. Russian officials (specifically the Sakha Republic officials quoted above) talk of what I’d paraphrase as a need for non-Western industrial countries like China, Japan or Korea to fill the vacuum left by Western investors, given that foreign investment is absolutely necessary to develop Russia’s Far East.

A recent article by Hyun Seung-Soo 현승수 on Korean-Russian relations during the last year (“2014 한러 관계, 동북어 전력 환경 변화 속 지속 가능한 협력 모색”), in Russia-Eurasia Focus, published by Hankuk University’s Institute of Russian Studies, lists recent exchanges between the two countries, and points at Russia’s increased cooperation with North Korea as favouring the South’s “Eurasian Initiative” and creating business opportunities, especially trade in Russian natural resources through North Korea. Despite an increase in business exchanges, overall trade between Russia and the South remained stable during 2014, and Korean exports to Russia actually decreased.

My previous post on Yakutia has, to my great delight, attracted the attention of Mia Bennett’s Cryopolitics blog of which I’m a frequent reader.

[Updated on March 11 to add the link to Hyun Seung-Soo’s article.]

Faroe gives up on Icelandic oil exploration next door to CNOOC

Faroe Petroleum, a sixth of which is owned by Korea’s KNOC through subsidiary Dana Petroleum, have handed back the license they had been awarded to explore for oil and gas under the seabed in the Icelandic sector of the Jan Mayen area, Iceland’s energy authority informs.

Íslenskt kolvetni or ARC, Faroe’s minority partner in the license, explain their exit from Icelandic oil exploration by pointing to the disappointing results of preliminary studies, that indicate that neither seismic data acquisition nor any other exploration method short of just drilling will help ascertain whether there is any oil down there. As I said in a background article a year ago, estimates about reserves in the Jan Mayen area are loaded with uncertainty due to the presence of a thick layer of basaltic lava. Ketill Sigurjónsson from consulting firm Askja is calling this a “prophecy that regrettably came true”: it was clear from the beginning that you had to drill through all that basalt to find out if there’s anything worth the trouble under it, and that all that drilling would be rather onerous.

The elephant in the room is of course CNOOC (中海油), the holder of another of the three licenses off Iceland. Their licensed area, that’s just next to the one Faroe have just given up on, would seem to be just as tricky to explore. They seem more upbeat though: last October they met with their Icelandic license partner, Eykon Energy, who told Icelandic TV data acquisition in their patch would start next year. Eykon officials have a record of optimism, to put it mildly, about the area’s potential.