Currently the Arctic Council observers consist of 32 non-Arctic states, international organizations, interparliamentary organizations and NGOs, which is more than twice the number of Arctic Council member states and permanent participants combined. Of those, twelve are observer states: seven European and five Asian.
The Asian nations first obtained observer status in 2013, seventeen years after the inception of the Arctic Council. With the accession to the Arctic Council as observers by states located in the Far East of the Eurasian continent and on the coast of the Northwest Pacific, such as China, Japan, and Korea, a Northern Seas Network was formed, connecting the North Atlantic, the Arctic Ocean and the North Pacific.
The Arctic encompasses all political, economic, social, environmental and climate change-related challenges facing the global community. There are international political issues at play among states, vast potential for economic development, indigenous peoples’ ways of living that need to be respected, an attractive natural environment, and the fact that the Arctic is at the forefront of climate change effects. All of these challenges cannot be said to be the sole responsibility of any single Arctic state, and it is clear that Arctic states cannot overcome those challenges by themselves alone. Making up 44% of the world’s population (about 3.2 billion), the economic and ecological imprint of the observer states is significant, which makes their involvement, and that of the entire global community, in solving the broad challenges confronting the Arctic region crucial. This requires active participation and promotion of understanding among the Arctic states and observers, which could be better facilitated if a well-organized plan was in place that allowed for the utilization of observers’ capabilities.
However, the Arctic Council’s Rules of Procedure and the Observer Manual for Subsidiary Bodies only generally outlines the role of observers, and unfortunately does not provide for a specific action plan, such as procedures and follow-up measures for promoting and making use of observer participation. A more transparent and reasonable model for observer involvement could be devised if the above-mentioned shortcomings were complemented, and more specificity was provided.
Furthermore, the positive role of observer state participation could become more apparent if such projects are devised that enable the utilization of observer states’ capabilities, such as experience in polar science and observation, research icebreakers and scientific research stations. In addition, historically, the Arctic region has developed alongside the subarctic region through sharing culture and traditions, but now there is little way of promoting social understanding between the two regions through the means of culture. Exchanges between the Arctic and non-Arctic future generations are particularly limited. Recently through the University of the Arctic (UArctic) such needed exchange was begun. The Korea Maritime Institute, a non-Arctic member of UArctic since 2014, and the UArctic International Secretariat launched the first Korea Arctic Academy (KAA) in August 2015. Eleven students from seven Arctic states, including six indigenous students from Finland, Canada, Russia and Greenland, and nineteen Korean students and young researchers participated in the pilot program, becoming the “KAA 1st 30”. Through this opportunity, they had the chance to introduce their cultures to each other, and share challenges and possible solutions facing the Arctic region. Visits to Arctic-related institutions in Korea also showcased Korea’s capabilities as an Arctic Council observer state and our willingness to cooperate.
Going forward, observers should actively seek ways to more reasonably participate in the Arctic Council, contribute in scientific research, promote cultural understanding, and contribute in sharing visions among future generations. I am sure these efforts will help establish a solid foundation for better cooperation in the Arctic.