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KEI Spotlight

[Op-Ed] Need for US-Korea-EU trilateral cooperation

June 13, 2024

This article was published in The Korea Times on June 12, 2024.

In the wake of rapprochement between Korea and Japan, much of the focus has been on the strengthening trilateral relations among Korea, Japan and the United States. However, in our increasingly interconnected world, Korea and the United States should aim to deepen cooperation with partners based on shared issues rather than limiting themselves to regional alliances. Within this framework, the European Union emerges as a promising partner.

Traditionally, foreign and economic policies have been viewed through a bilateral or regional lens, with the goal often being to strengthen bilateral ties on security or economic issues or to deepen cooperation among regional groupings. The evolution of U.S.-Korea relations over the last decade, which now encompass issues beyond security, exemplifies this bilateral approach to foreign policy. Although the United States and Korea may coordinate on certain international issues, the primary driver of their cooperation remains the deepening of bilateral ties.

At the regional level, we’ve seen the Quad evolve during the pandemic to include closer cooperation in healthcare, climate change, and emerging technologies and the development of the Chips 4 Alliance to coordinate semiconductor policies among key countries in Asia. But these are ultimately initiatives focused on the Indo-Pacific.

However, policy coordination between the United States, Korea, Japan and Taiwan on semiconductors highlights the importance of Seoul and Washington cooperating with the best partners rather than just regional ones. The Netherlands is arguably the most critical manufacturer of semiconductor manufacturing equipment, while Germany plays an important role in the production of optical lenses used in semiconductor equipment. A semiconductor alliance that embraces key partners regardless of region and includes the EU would be a more effective grouping.

Artificial intelligence (AI) further illustrates this issue. AI transcends boundaries, making regionalized AI cooperation impractical. The same holds true for managing the challenges posed by technologies related to climate change, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

In a globalized world, deeper cooperation between the United States, Korea and the EU makes the most sense in areas like technology innovation, climate change, cybersecurity and public health, as these challenges require collaborative, cross-regional solutions.

Technology, energy and climate change are issues where the EU, Korea, and the United States could build a foundation for trilateral cooperation. Semiconductors are clearly one promising area for technology cooperation. Late last year, the Yoon administration announced a semiconductor alliance with the Netherlands, while Korea is already working closely with the United States on chips. Expanding cooperation more broadly with the EU on a trilateral level with the United States would bring three of the key markets in the semiconductor industry closer together.

Beyond semiconductors, closer cooperation on AI would be beneficial. Korea just co-hosted the Seoul AI Summit – a follow-up to the initial AI safety summit – and is set to co-host a summit on the military uses of AI later this year. At the same time, the EU has been at the forefront of regulating AI to ensure it is deployed safely, while many of the world’s leading AI firms are based in the United States.

Each partner would bring different strengths to the table, but Korea and the EU also have commercial interests in deeper cooperation. Nvidia garners most of the attention for its GPUs powering AI applications. But those GPUs rely on high-bandwidth memory chips pioneered by SK hynix. While Europe is often seen as a tech laggard, France’s Mistral AI is one of the most promising AI firms along with the better known OpenAI. Deeper cooperation could help further each party’s strengths in AI.

Climate change and clean energy are also promising areas for collaboration. Korea, the EU and the United States each have ambitious climate change initiatives. Korea has pledged to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030 from 2018 levels. The EU aims to reduce emissions by 55 percent from 1990 levels, while the United States targets a 50-52 percent reduction from 2005 levels over the same period.

Achieving these goals will require deploying more clean energy sources like wind and solar, as well as advancing new technologies powered by hydrogen and ammonia. Each will also need to transition to electric vehicles, while making high-carbon-intensity processes, such as steel production, more eco-friendly. Making these changes economically viable will require developing carbon border adjustments for trade, especially to remain competitive against the highly subsidized and higher-emission competition from China. Each of these represents potential areas of cooperation.

Picking the right partners for the right issues, rather than regional partners, will be key to success in the 21st century. At times, this will mean trilateral cooperation will need to expand to include other partners, as is the case in semiconductors, but when supply chains and technologies are dispersed around the global rather than regionally clustered the old model of bilateral or regional cooperation will become increasingly less productive. Building effective trilateral cooperation between Korea, the United States and the EU is a first step in addressing these shifting realities.