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[Op-Ed] Jeon Jae-gyu’s Dream

Posted June. 08, 2009 08:38,   


Captain James Cook was the first to discover Antarctica but not the first to step on it. On his journey to explore land and draw maps in January 1773, he approached the icy continent but had to pull back due to floating ice and severe cold. He got as far as the 160-kilometer point off the continent a year later, but was forced to withdraw again. According to his journal, extreme cold went as far as loosening nails on the ship. Nevertheless, he never imagined that the vast slate of ice floating on the ocean was a continent.

History could have taken a different course if Cook had an icebreaker. The world’s first steam-powered icebreaker was City Ice Boat No. 1, manufactured by the U.S. city of Philadelphia in 1837 to break small pieces of ice in coastal areas. When Antarctica turned out to be a treasure chest of crude oil and mineral resources, major powers quickly engaged in a fierce exploratory war. Consequently, demand for icebreakers grew. The United States built four icebreakers in the Second World War and the Soviet Union produced the nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin in 1959.

Korea is a leading global shipbuilder but not for making icebreakers due to low domestic demand since its surrounding waters rarely freeze. The country also finds it difficult to catch up with icebreaker powerhouses such as Finland and Norway. Korea, however, has begun to recognize the need for icebreaker production as the competition for exploring Antarctica has intensified. Without a powerful icebreaker, Korean research and exploratory activities will face limits even if it has the King Sejong Station on the continent. It is regrettable that the station has operated without an icebreaker, which is pivotal to research, since its opening in 1988.

In 2003, Jeon Jae-gyu, a 27-year-old researcher at the station, fell and died in the cold Antarctic Ocean on a rubber boat journey to rescue his colleague. The tragedy could have been preventable if the station had an icebreaker. In the hope of continuing Jeon`s legacy, Korea’s first icebreaker Araon is undergoing last-minute checks before its launch in August. An icebreaker sends water in a tank in the front to the back to lift its forehead. With weight concentrated on the back, it descends its body towards the slate of ice to break it. It shakes off pieces of ice stuck at the hull. Such complicated mechanism requires cutting-edge technology. Jeon’s soul will hopefully guide Araon’s journeys.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)