Kicking the China behavior: South Korea hunts tungsten treasure

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  • S.Korean tungsten mine will get $100 million makeover
  • Dozens of recent mineral tasks launched globally
  • Inexperienced, digital booms gasoline demand for uncommon minerals
  • China is pre-eminent in vital minerals provide
  • GRAPHIC-S.Korea’s reliance on China:

SANGDONG, South Korea, Might 9 (Reuters) – Blue tungsten winking from the partitions of deserted mine shafts, in a city that is seen higher days, could possibly be a catalyst for South Korea’s bid to interrupt China’s dominance of vital minerals and stake its declare to the uncooked supplies of the longer term.

The mine in Sangdong, 180 km southeast of Seoul, is being introduced again from the useless to extract the uncommon metallic that is discovered contemporary worth within the digital age in applied sciences starting from telephones and chips to electrical automobiles and missiles.

“Why reopen it now after 30 years? As a result of it means sovereignty over pure assets,” mentioned Lee Dong-seob, vice chairman of mine proprietor Almonty Korea Tungsten Corp.

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“Sources have turn out to be weapons and strategic property.”

Sangdong is considered one of at the very least 30 vital mineral mines or processing crops globally which were launched or reopened exterior China during the last 4 years, in accordance with a Reuters overview of tasks introduced by governments and corporations. These embody tasks growing lithium in Australia, uncommon earths in america and tungsten in Britain.

The size of the plans illustrates the stress felt by nations internationally to safe provides of vital minerals thought to be important for the inexperienced power transition, from lithium in EV batteries to magnesium in laptops and neodymium present in wind generators.

Total demand for such uncommon minerals is predicted to extend four-fold by 2040, the Worldwide Power Company mentioned final yr. For these utilized in electrical automobiles and battery storage, demand is projected to develop 30-fold, it added.

Many nations view their minerals drive as a matter of nationwide safety as a result of China controls the mining, processing or refining of many of those assets.

The Asian powerhouse is the biggest provider of vital minerals to america and Europe, in accordance with a examine by the China Geological Survey in 2019. Of the 35 minerals america has categorized as vital, China is the biggest provider of 13, together with uncommon earth parts important for clean-energy applied sciences, the examine discovered. China is the biggest supply of 21 key minerals for the European Union, reminiscent of antimony utilized in batteries, it mentioned.

“Within the vital uncooked materials restaurant, China is sitting consuming its dessert, and the remainder of the world is within the taxi studying the menu,” mentioned Julian Kettle, senior vice chairman for metals and mining at consultancy Wooden MacKenzie.

The stakes are notably excessive for South Korea, residence of main chipmakers like Samsung Electronics. The nation is the world’s largest client of tungsten per capita and depends on China for 95% of its imports of the metallic, which is prized for its unrivalled energy and its resistance to warmth.

China controls over 80% of worldwide tungsten provides, in accordance with CRU Group, London-based commodity analysts.

The mine at Sangdong, a as soon as bustling city of 30,000 residents that is now residence to only 1,000, holds one of many world’s largest tungsten deposits and will produce 10% of worldwide provide when it opens subsequent yr, in accordance with its proprietor.

Lewis Black, CEO of Almonty Korea’s Canadian-based father or mother Almonty Industries, instructed Reuters that it deliberate to supply about half of the operation’s processed output to the home market in South Korea as a substitute for Chinese language provide.

“It is simple to purchase from China and China is the biggest buying and selling associate of South Korea however they know they’re over-dependent,” Black mentioned. “You need to have a plan B proper now.”

Sangdong’s tungsten, found in 1916 through the Japanese colonial period, was as soon as a spine of the South Korean economic system, accounting for 70% of the nation’s export earnings within the Nineteen Sixties when it was largely utilized in metal-cutting instruments.

The mine was closed in 1994 on account of cheaper provide of the mineral from China, which made it commercially unviable, however now Almonty is betting that demand, and costs will proceed to rise pushed by the digital and inexperienced revolutions in addition to a rising need by nations to diversify their provide sources.

European costs of 88.5% minimal paratungstate – the important thing uncooked materials ingredient in tungsten merchandise – are buying and selling round $346 per tonne, up greater than 25% from a yr in the past and near their highest ranges in 5 years, in accordance with pricing company Asian Steel.

The Sangdong mine is being modernised, with huge tunnels being dug underground, whereas work has additionally began on a tungsten crushing and grinding plant.

“We must always preserve operating this type of mine in order that new applied sciences could be handed over to the following generations,” mentioned Kang Dong-hoon, a supervisor in Sangdong, the place a “Delight of Korea” signal is displayed on a wall of the mine workplace.

“We’ve got been misplaced within the mining business for 30 years. If we lose this opportunity, then there will probably be no extra.”

Almonty Industries has signed a 15-year deal to promote tungsten to Pennsylvania-based World Tungsten & Powders, a provider to the U.S. navy, which variously makes use of the metallic in artillery shell ideas, rockets and satellite tv for pc antennae.

But there are not any ensures of long-term success for the mining group, which is investing about $100 million within the Sangdong venture. Such ventures should still battle to compete with China and there are issues amongst some business consultants that developed nations is not going to comply with by means of on commitments to diversify provide chains for vital minerals.

Seoul arrange an Financial Safety Key Gadgets Taskforce after a provide disaster final November when Beijing tightened exports of urea resolution, which many South Korean diesel automobiles are required by legislation to make use of to chop emissions. Practically 97% of South Korea’s urea got here from China on the time and shortages prompted panic-buying at filling stations throughout the nation.

The Korean Mine Rehabilitation and Sources Company (KOMIR), a authorities company liable for nationwide useful resource safety, instructed Reuters it had dedicated to subsidise about 37% of Sangdong’s tunnelling prices and would think about additional help to mitigate any potential environmental harm.

Incoming President Yoon Seok-yeol pledged in January to scale back mineral dependence on “a sure nation”, and final month introduced a brand new useful resource technique that may enable the federal government to share stockpiling data with the non-public sector.

South Korea shouldn’t be alone.

The US, European Union and Japan have all launched or up to date nationwide vital mineral provide methods during the last two years, laying out broad plans to put money into extra diversified provide traces to scale back their reliance on China.

Mineral provide chains have additionally turn out to be a characteristic of diplomatic missions.

Final yr, Canada and the European Union launched a strategic partnership on uncooked supplies to scale back dependence on China, whereas South Korea just lately signed collaboration offers with Australia and Indonesia on mineral provide chains.

“Provide-chain diplomacy will probably be prioritised by many governments within the coming years as accessing vital uncooked supplies for the inexperienced and digital transition has turn out to be a prime precedence,” mentioned Henning Gloystein, director of power and local weather assets on the Eurasia Group consultancy.

In November, China’s prime financial planner mentioned it might step up exploration of strategic mineral assets together with uncommon earths, tungsten and copper.

Funding globally of $200 billion in further mining and smelter capability is required to fulfill vital mineral provide demand by 2030, 10 instances what’s being dedicated at present, Kettle mentioned.

But tasks have confronted resistance from communities who do not need a mine or smelter close to their properties.

In January, for instance, stress from environmentalists prompted Serbia to revoke Rio Tinto’s lithium exploration licence whereas U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration cancelled two leases for Antofagasta’s copper and nickel mines in Minnesota. learn extra

In Sangdong, some residents are uncertain that the mine will enhance their lives.

“Many people on this city didn’t imagine the mine would actually come again,” mentioned Kim Kwang-gil, 75, who for many years lived off the tungsten he panned from a stream flowing down from the mine when it operated.

“The mine would not want as many individuals as earlier than, as a result of all the pieces is finished by machines.”

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Reporting by Ju-min Park and Joe Brock; Further reporting by Beijing Newsroom and Gavin Maguire; Enhancing by Kevin Krolicki and Pravin Char

Our Requirements: The Thomson Reuters Belief Ideas.

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