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Oil dream revived, yet pitfalls remain

June 3, 2024 - 17:32 By Lee Sun-young

Importing nearly all the oil and gas it consumes, South Korea has long desired its own fuel wells. Yet, a discovery of one with massive deposits within its territory seemed almost too good to be true.

On Monday, President Yoon Suk Yeol reignited the country’s fading dreams of becoming an oil-producing nation with a surprise announcement that there could be a significant fossil fuel field off the coast of Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province.

The area circled in red shows possible oil and gas reserves in the East Sea, where deep-water drilling and exploration were approved by President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday. (Yonhap)

The promise is a reserve of 14 billion barrels of oil and gas, solely within South Korean territory off the southeastern coast, the findings of which have been, according to the president, “verified by leading research institutions and experts.”

Yoon said that would be enough gas for the entire country for up to 29 years, as well as oil for up to four years, unveiling that he has authorized deep-water drilling for its exploration.

This would mark the resumption of South Korea’s decades-old endeavor to explore the deep sea for fuel, a pursuit that began in 1966, intensified through the global oil crisis in the late '60s and '70s, yet often resulted in dashed hopes and unfulfilled promises.

In 1976, military dictator Park Chung-hee revealed during his New Year's address that oil had been extracted from an underwater field near Pohang, causing national excitement. This, however, turned out to be a hasty announcement, as the project ceased later, citing a lack of economic benefits to continue drilling.

In 1998, Korea discovered the Donghae gas field, also off the eastern coast near Ulsan. It depleted earlier than expected after producing commercially for 14 years until 2021.

As of today, no oil or gas is being produced here.

Further south to the East China Sea, or approximately 200 kilometers south of Jeju Island, South Korea has a joint oil exploration project with Japan which, despite having significant potential, has seen little progress over the past several decades.

The “Block 7” continental shelf is believed to hold huge amounts of oil, gas and other natural resources in reserves. However, its development is bound to be a joint effort by two countries under a bilateral agreement signed in 1978 and valid until June 2028.

Japan has, since the late 1980s, shown little interest in cooperating on this project.

A 2002 Korean inspection of a small portion of the joint development zone, conducted with the consent of Japan, found that there could be around 36 million tons of oil in that section alone.

Local experts have been urging the South Korean government to take action to resume exploration activities. They warn that once the current deal with Japan expires, a significant portion of Block 7 could be transferred to Japan under new maritime agreements.