By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
President Yoon Suk-yeol’s Special Envoy to the EU Kim Gi-hyeon is leading a seven member delegation to Europe from June 5th-11th. The delegation plans to visit Brussels and Strasbourg for meetings with leaders of the different EU institutions and NATO, as well as Paris for meetings with the Emmanuel Macron government and since France currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU. The visit to France is also part of South Korea’s efforts to secure the 2030 Expo for Busan, since the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) that will decide the host is based in Paris. Special Envoy Kim is a four-term National Assembly member from the ruling People’s Power Party (PPP) and former mayor of Ulsan. His delegation includes four other PPP National Assembly members, as well as two renowned professors.
Why is the visit of Special Envoy Kim Gi-hyeon significant?
The visit by Special Envoy Kim is significant in that President Yoon is the second consecutive South Korean president to send a special envoy to the EU and Europe shortly after taking office. Indeed, Moon Jae-in was the first South Korean president ever to send a special envoy to Europe. There were thus questions about whether this would be a one-off. The fact that President Yoon is also sending a special envoy is reassuring to the EU, and underscores the strengthening of bilateral relations between Seoul and Brussels in the years since both of them signed their Strategic Partnership and Free Trade agreements. The visit by Special Envoy Kim also suggests that there is a bipartisan consensus in South Korea that it is in the interests of the country to boost bilateral ties with the EU, as well as with NATO—with which South Korea has boosted security cooperation in recent years.
Furthermore, the visit by President Yoon’s special envoy is also significant in that the new South Korean president has only dispatched special envoys to the US and Japan so far. This suggests that President Yoon wants to boost ties, above all, with ‘like-minded’ partners with which Seoul sees the need to cooperate more closely. This is a reversal of prior South Korean foreign policy. For example, President Park Geun-hye dispatched her first special envoy upon her election to China, and also attended Beijing’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Since this height in Sino-South Korean ties, bilateral relations have deteriorated and Seoul has started to work more closely with other democracies. President Yoon’s choice of countries and institutions to which to dispatch his special envoys follows this pattern.
What are the main issues under discussion during Special Envoy Kim Gi-hyeon’s visit?
Even though it is early days in Yoon’s tenure, it seems that the three areas which the new president is going to prioritize in its cooperation with the EU include climate change and green growth, supply chain resilience and new technologies, and security in the Korean Peninsula and beyond. (For more on these, see this recent report published by the KF-VUB Korea Chair.) With regards to climate change and green growth, South Korea and the EU share a commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2050. However, it remains to be seen whether they can fulfil this pledge. Cooperation in joint research — for example, through South Korea’s potential participation in Horizon Europe — technology sharing, or expertise and know-how exchange would help both of them to try to fulfil their pledge. This is an area that Special Envoy Kim will discuss during his visit to Europe.
When it comes to supply chain resilience and the development of new technologies, South Korea and the EU are part of initiatives also involving Canada, Japan, the US, and other ‘like-minded’ countries to reduce reliance on China, build their own supply chains, and develop new technologies allowing them to retain a comparative advantage over other countries. The EU is particularly interested in tapping into South Korean expertise and technologies in areas such as next-generation semiconductors, 5G/6G, green shipping, electric batteries, or the digital economy among others. In particular, the EU is interested in joint research initiatives as well as attracting new factories from some of the chaebol leading in these areas. As for South Korea, it is interested in partnering in areas where it feels it can learn from the EU and benefit from its technologies, such as renewable energies or AI basic research. While there is also talk about cooperation in third regions such as the Indo-Pacific, it is still early days and it remains to be seen whether this will be possible in practice. In any case, this is an area that Special Envoy Kim will be discussing during his visit to the EU.
A final area that Seoul and Brussels want to prioritize is security cooperation. This would involve both bilateral South Korea-EU cooperation as well as collaboration between South Korea and specific EU member states, including but not limited to France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, or Spain. Dealing with North Korea is an obvious area for cooperation. This was a key focus of President Moon’s special envoy visit in 2017, and it continues to be the case during this visit by President Yoon’s own special envoy. In short, South Korea hopes that the EU will support its North Korea policy. Having said that, South Korea-EU security cooperation has expanded significantly in recent years. One issue that Special Envoy Kim is certainly going to focus on is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. South Korea is one of only two Asian countries imposing sanctions on Moscow and transferring non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine—along with Japan. Some EU officials and member states hope to convince the Yoon government to also transfer lethal weapons to Ukraine, even if via third countries such as Canada or Poland. In addition, Special Envoy Kim is going to discuss cooperation between South Korea and the EU in the Indo-Pacific, and in particular to deal with what both Seoul and Brussels consider to be China’s aggressive behaviour in the region. From South Korea’s perspective, the EU and its member states are good partners because they retain a commitment—at least in theory—to engage with China when possible, even if the focus is on competition and containment. As for the EU, South Korea is the only country in Asia along with Japan that shares interests and values and also has strong capabilities. Thus why cooperation with the Yoon government is a priority.
Security cooperation will also be the focus of the meeting that Special Envoy Kim’s team will hold with NATO. South Korea is one of four Asia-Pacific partners that NATO has been strengthening ties with in recent years, along with Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. The four of them are invited to the Madrid Summit scheduled for June 29th–30th, in what would be a first for NATO’s Asia-Pacific partners. Recently, South Korea became the first Asian country to join NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence (CCDCOE), a key cybersecurity initiative. For cybersecurity is one of the main areas of cooperation between Seoul and NATO, with China, North Korea, and Russia in mind. More recently, Seoul’s robust response to Russia’s aggression of Ukraine has strengthened the position of South Korea as a NATO partner. This will be a key area of discussion during the upcoming Madrid Summit, along with the deterrence of China. These are issues that Special Envoy Kim’s team is poised to discuss during its meeting with NATO this week.