By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
EU President Ursula von der Leyen and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol announced the launch of the EU-ROK Digital Partnership in a joint statement released on November 28th. Under intense discussion and negotiation in recent months, this is the EU’s second digital partnership in Asia after the one launched with Japan in May of this year. For the EU, the partnership with South Korea is a milestone since it proves that it is a model that can be applied to more than one country in Asia, and its Indo-Pacific strategy included a commitment to sign digital partnerships with multiple countries in the region. For South Korea in general and the Yoon Suk-yeol government in particular this is a diplomatic and economic victory, since cooperation in the digital and cyber domain was lagging behind other areas of bilateral relations. More generally, the digital partnership between the EU and South Korea opens the door for strengthening diplomatic, trade, investment, and security links at the bilateral but also minilateral and, potentially, multilateral levels.
What is the EU-ROK Digital Partnership?
Digital partnerships are an EU instrument to boost digital and cyber cooperation and connectivity with partners in a flexible way and with concrete deliverables in mind, moving beyond dialogue but without the formal obligations and enforcement mechanisms that a trade agreement entail. From the perspective of the EU, digital partnerships are a tool to boost ties with key partners in a context in which well-functioning multilateral cooperation in this domain seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. From the perspective of partners such as South Korea or Japan, digital partnerships offer stronger links with one of the ‘big three’ global economies, potentially boosting bilateral digital trade as well. On the latter, the accompanying Digital Trade Principles agreement focusing on standards to create open digital markets signed on November 30th will be key.
In the case of the EU-South Korea digital partnership, a key aspect is joint R&D and projects in high-tech sectors such as semiconductors, 5G and 6G, cloud computing, data quantum, AI, or High-Performance Computing. There is a widespread perception in the EU that certain Asian countries, including South Korea, and the US are more advanced in these high-tech sectors. Thus, the digital partnership can help to narrow the technological gap. In fact, the EU specifically labels South Korea ‘technologically advanced’ in the context of this partnership, a clear statement from Brussels. Furthermore, in private many EU and European officials and private firms are concerned of the growing investment of South Korean and other Asian high-tech firms in the US—as well as the semiconductor Chip 4 framework that the Joe Biden administration is developing with South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. The digital partnership serves to partially address these concerns. From Seoul’s perspective, the digital partnership can help diversify links in high-tech sectors and gain access to European know-how from the public and private sectors.
Another key component of the EU-ROK Digital Partnership is standard setting in the digital and cyber domains. The EU would rather have multilateral bodies and agreements such as the Budapest Convention set out multilateral standards. However, this is unlikely in the short-term. Thus, the digital partnership with South Korea allows the EU to discuss, agree on, and promote digital technology standardisation on the basis of an ‘open’ internet, as well as to deepen cooperation in multilateral bodies. The EU-South Korea data adequacy decision whereby Brussels recognises that South Korean laws and regulations meet its own data protection standards is an example of how the EU seeks to promote its preferred digital standards via bilateral agreements—leading to cooperation at the multilateral level, since its partners then have an incentive to ask other countries to meet the stringent standards that their own firms have to comply with. For South Korea, bilateral standard setting smooths private firm access to the EU market. There is thus a clear economic benefit.
Cyber security cooperation is another key area in which the digital partnership should help to boost bilateral ties. Arguably, cyber security is one of the areas in which EU-South Korea security cooperation is less developed, partly as a result of Brussels’s slow-moving progress in this domain and partly as a result of Seoul’s relatively recent prioritization of it. The EU’s Strategic Compass strategy to become a more capable security and defence actor, announced in March of this year, specifically prioritizes cyber security and cooperation with partners. As for South Korea, the Yoon government is building on the efforts of its predecessors to develop a well-rounded cybersecurity strategy. Since both Brussels and Seoul see China, North Korea, and Russia as cybersecurity threats and are seeking to boost ties with partners such as the US, Australia, Canada, or Japan, it makes sense to focus on this area. Practical steps include information and intelligence sharing, joint table top exercises, disinformation prevention, capacity-building including in third countries, or standard setting.
How does the EU-ROK Digital Partnership fit within their overall bilateral relationship?
South Korea is the only country with the three key agreements covering economics, politics, and security with the EU in place, building on their 2010 Strategic Partnership. These are the Free Trade Agreement entering into force in 2011, the Framework Agreement entering into force in 2014, and the Crisis Management Participation Agreement entering into force in 2016. However, bilateral relations in the areas of digital and cyber had become outdated. Most notably, the digital chapter in the South Korea-EU FTA is underdeveloped compared to the agreements that the EU signed with countries such as Canada, Japan, or Singapore later on. Updating of the South Korea-EU FTA has been marred by delays, and the digital partnership serves to partially address this.
In addition, the EU is prioritizing cooperation with like-minded partners with similar interests and strong capabilities. This is the result of its push to pursue ‘strategic autonomy’ or, in other words, an independent foreign and security policy. The push for strategic autonomy is the result of several factors including Sino-American competition, a growing perception that China is becoming a more aggressive international actor, Russia’s actions including the invasion of Ukraine, disagreements with the US especially during the Donald Trump presidency, or, more generally, the belief that it makes sense for the EU to match its economic power with diplomatic and security strength. For the Yoon government, cooperation with the EU makes sense in the context of its goal to become a ‘Global Pivotal State’. Even though Seoul has been prioritizing the ROK-US alliance as the cornerstone of its GPS, South Korea needs to boost links with other partners as part of its push to become a more important global actor. More generally, previous South Korean governments, both conservative and liberal, also sought to strengthen links with the EU and Europe.
Finally, in recent years the EU has become more willing to make values a more integral part of its approach to international relations. Likewise, the Yoon government is also emphasizing values as a core component of its foreign policy pitch. And indeed, the EU-ROK Digital Partnership emphasizes the theme of values, with Brussels labelling Seoul a ‘trusted’ partner. Critics will point out at burgeoning relations between both of them and Saudi Arabia or Vietnam, for example, as proof of the gap between rhetoric and reality. Yet, common values allow EU-South Korea relations to be both deeper and wider than they would be otherwise.