Newly inaugurated president Yoon Suk Yeol made his international debut at the NATO summit held in Madrid, Spain. South Korea and three other Indo-Pacific states were invited to summit ahead of publication of the alliance’s new “strategic concept,” that mentions China for the first time. Experts say South Korea can expand its longstanding relations with the region by contributing more to regional security, while Europe may increase its engagement with the Korean Peninsula.
The inclusion of four Indo-Pacific states demonstrates the NATO alliance’s adaptation to a new security environment three decades since the end of the Cold War. Back in February, Beijing and Moscow announced that their relationship had “no limits,” and China has continued to engage with Russia despite western condemnation of the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. Jacob Stokes, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security says closer Sino-Russian cooperation across a variety of policy areas lowers geography’s barrier to international cooperation. “I think there is a growing recognition that security issues in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific more broadly, are increasingly linked with security in Europe, and indeed across Eurasia,” he said.
A Korea that plays a more active role in international affairs is a goal set by the Yoon administration. In an article published by Foreign Affairs, the then candidate said Korea should become a “global pivotal state” that actively promotes “freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation.” News coming out of Madrid suggests the Yoon administration is making progress in realizing this vision. A presidential official told the Yonhap News Agency this week that President Yoon is looking to sign a “new cooperation program” with NATO later this year. Previously, Reuters reported that Seoul was talking with NATO about opening up a liaison center in Brussels, according to Korean National Security Adviser Kim Sung-han. The opening of such an office demonstrates that “South Korea wants to embed itself in a broader network of liberal democratic powers,” said Mr. Stokes.
But Korea’s contribution to European security is not limited to diplomatic and military engagement. Col. David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says Korea’s arms industry can also play an important role. “South Korean weapons are actually, in many cases, cost effective and practical for the smaller European countries that can’t afford advanced U.S. weaponry,” he said. And because they were developed by a close American ally, Korean arms are interoperable with the U.S. and its friends in Europe. “That really creates some synergy with potential relationships between South Korea and NATO, and can really enhance the South Korean defense industry,” said Col. Maxwell. Poland, already a buyer of Korean weaponry, is one example of states deepening their cooperation with Korea. President Yoon elevated that relationship to a “strategic partnership” after meeting with President Andrzej Duda, according to a Yonhap report.
However, it remains to be seen if Korea will involve itself more in Ukraine, the most pressing issue for European security today. Shipping in the Black Sea has been disrupted with the conflict, with Kiev accusing Moscow of a naval blockade, while Moscow says Kiev has fielded mines. NATO member Turkey is negotiating with them and the UN to create safe shipping corridors to facilitate the transport of agricultural products. If a deal could be struck, the Korean navy could be a participant in an international coalition to protect commercial shipping. Col. Maxwell says the Korean navy has a strong record of conducting anti-piracy operations with other navies off the Horn of Africa. Although the Yoon administration has stepped up its engagement over the conflict in Ukraine, Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and professor at American University, is skeptical Korea will contribute more than the humanitarian aid it has already sent to Ukraine. “After four months into the war, there have been few changes in the ROK position,” she said. “The likelihood of Seoul assuming a more responsible role to support Ukraine seems fairly low.”
On the other hand, there remain physical obstacles for Europe to address North Korea, a principal challenge for South Korea. “I think that’s been the domain of the United States, China, Russia, and Japan, to a lesser degree,” said Dr. Darcie Draudt, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Korean Studies at George Washington University. European states do pay attention to North Korea, such as the United Kingdom, which is a member of Five Eyes and has diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. There is also Sweden, the American’s protecting power and host for track 2 and 1.5 dialogues. Dr. Draudt says these connections may be helpful if and when North Korea chooses to reengage the outside world. “Given the country’s closure amid COVID, these pathways have been difficult for European countries,” she said.
Korea-Europe cooperation on China is a point of contention for critics of President Yoon. Ahead of the summit, Park Min-hee of the Hankyoreh newspaper lambasted his administration for not having “any sort of custom strategy or approach that takes into South Korea’s unique abilities and geopolitical position.” But Mr. Stokes points out that even Finland, the poster child of a smaller power acquiescing to its larger neighbor, is breaking with its past behavior in the face of changing threats to its national security. “I think that’s a very good example of a point where external factors are forcing countries to take sides,” he said. Although building relations with the west will necessarily ruffle feathers in China, experts say it is precisely the middle powers of Europe that Korea can use to gain flexibility in its foreign policy. “If Korea continues to balance or hedge between the United States and China, I think it’s going to find his hands tied in a lot of ways,” said Dr. Draudt. “It’s when it gets further afield…that South Korea might have some more control in its foreign policy.”
One possible obstacle to growing Korea-Europe relations is the relative inexperience of President Yoon, who does not have a long career in foreign affairs. Experts say that he can address those shortcomings by relying on capable people around him. Dr. Draudt points out that President Yoon has surrounded himself with capable people like Foreign Minister Park Jin and NSA Kim, both of whom have had long careers in foreign policy. “I think that with those kinds of advisors, he’ll be able to counteract his own inexperience if he leans on them,” she said. Col. Maxwell adds that we should also not discount the institutional knowledge possessed by members of the Korean Ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Defense, who serve dutifully across administrations. “There’s a lot of expertise depth in the Korean government that will be useful,” he said.
Based on his Foreign Affairs article, President Yoon certainly has the vision of a more proactive Korea. In a time of global disruptions, it is critical that Korea build relationships near and far that it can use to position itself to address new and emerging threats across policy spheres. “The establishment of long term relationships…increases the chance of cooperation in a time of crisis,” said Col. Maxwell. “It is much better to invest in those relationships now, than to try to build them after a crisis occurs.” Only time will tell if President Yoon will be successful in using this year’s NATO summit to lay the foundation of his “global pivotal state.”
Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.