Marine geophysicist Sang-Mook Lee has pushed for academic involvement in South Korea’s research ships. Credit: Seokyong Lee/NYT/Redux/eyevine

South Korea’s ocean-going research programme is changing tack. For more than two decades, it has focused on discovery and exploitation of minerals on the sea floor, but now a move is afoot to expand the research agenda. A 5,900-tonne ship — the Isabu — is being built with the capability to launch autonomous underwater vehicles, perform sea-floor-penetrating seismic surveys and collect sediment cores up to 40 metres long.

The current flagship, the 1,422-tonne Onnuri, spends about three-fifths of its time scouring the sea floor for mineral deposits under the direction of the deep-sea minerals group at the Korean Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) in Ansan. That heavy economic emphasis is set by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, which oversees KIOST as well as the nation’s ports and shipping.

The ministry’s hold is so complete that in 22 years of operation, no academic researcher outside KIOST has ever led a cruise. “This is really scandalous,” says marine geophysicist Sang-Mook Lee of Seoul National University. Although scientists at his university and elsewhere have been able to work aboard the ship, they have been frustrated by a near-complete lack of say in where the Onnuri goes or what research questions it pursues.

In March, that is set to change: KIOST will start to make Onnuri’s upcoming cruise tracks public, and will invite outside researchers to propose projects that can be done along the way, says Gi-Hoon Hong, who became the institute’s president in August and has supported broadening the constituency for its research vessels. Eventually, time on the ships, which currently costs up to US$12,000 per day, will be awarded through a merit-based system.

South Korea’s focus on mineral exploration dates back to the founding of KIOST in the early 1970s, when the nation was in the middle of a decades-long economic boom. At the time, polymetallic nodules — balls of manganese and other metals such as iron, nickel and cobalt that accumulate on the sea floor — seemed a valuable potential resource. Although international interest in the minerals waned over subsequent decades, the South Korean government continued to fund research on the nodules and other sea-floor mineral deposits.

Securing marine mineral resources is “considered very important to the Korean people, because of the scarcity of land-based natural resources,” says Jai-Woon Moon, the head of KIOST’s deep-sea mineral research group. And rising prices for metals have renewed the world’s interest: Nautilus Minerals of Toronto, Canada, claims to be two years away from starting to extract gold, copper and other metals from a sea-floor site off Papua New Guinea.

But there is widespread scepticism of seabed mining. Lee calls the promised economic benefits “a big lie that the govern­ments of Korea, China and India tell to their people”. Kyungsik Choi, a marine sedimentologist at Seoul National University, dismisses Nautilus Minerals and other commercial operations as not economically viable, and says that they will provide “nothing more than demonstrations”. Many in the Korean marine-science community say that KIOST itself is divided, with staff scientists chafing against the mining agenda imposed by the oceans ministry.

Public debate

The long feud between the ministry and its critics reached a flashpoint in 2008, with the proposal to build the Isabu. The Korea Development Institute, a think tank in Sejong that is charged with evaluating major government projects, sided with the critics, saying that the economic benefits of sea-floor mining were uncertain. It approved the ship’s construction, but on the condition that the academic community have access to it. A panel of researchers headed by Lee later recommended that the ship be managed by a committee with representatives from government, academia and industry. But in 2013, the oceans ministry transferred management to KIOST in a closed process. At the time, it was deemed most cost-effective for KIOST to both operate the vessel and direct its research, says Hyuntae Kim, director of the ministry’s development division.

Disappointed by the move, Lee turned to a public forum. As one of the nation’s most celebrated scientists and a well-known advocate for the rights of people with disabilities (he was paralysed from the neck down in a 2006 motor-vehicle accident), he testified in the national legislature on 24 October, accusing the oceans ministry of cutting a secret deal with KIOST. By the end of his appearance, then-minister Ju-Young Lee agreed to open up Isabu to the academic community, clearing a path for the merit-review process.

With the prospect of leading a major oceanographic cruise now open to him, Choi says that he hopes to take Isabu to the Indian Ocean. He wants to help nations in southeast Asia such as Myanmar and Bangladesh, which have extensive low-lying coastal deltas, to better understand the threat posed by sea-level rise and tsunamis.

Owing to his disability, Lee can no longer sail on cruises. But he says that he takes satisfaction in knowing that he has been able to wield his fame for a positive result. “I felt very good that, yes, this is compensation for my injury,” he says. “I felt redeemed.”