By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
EU presidents Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel have travelled to Seoul for their first summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. The summit is especially symbolic, since 2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and the EU. But the summit is also very important in that it is the first since Yoon took office, since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In this context, the two sides are emphasising the extent to which they are ‘like-minded’ partners, with shared values underpinning a bilateral relationship that is poised to continue to strengthen in the coming years. Indeed, this summit is dominated by security and geopolitics rather than purely economic matters, which underscores the closeness of a relationship that until recently continued to be based on trade and investment above all. For the South Korean side, the EU and Europe more broadly have become increasingly relevant partners in the context of seeking to diversify diplomatic and security relations. As for the EU and Europe, South Korea has become the bloc’s strongest partner in Asia together with Japan, based on shared interests, goals, and values, as well as its strong security, economic, and technological capabilities.
What are the key security issues discussed at the summit?
The key underlying theme dominating the South Korea-EU summit will be how to address the security dilemma posed by China’s security and foreign policy. Both Brussels and Seoul are becoming increasingly assertive towards Beijing, with the EU discussing a new China policy that would take a more confrontational approach and South Korea engaged in a diplomatic spat with the Chinese government due to its position on Taiwan, the South China Sea, or economic cooperation with the US. Thus, South Korea and the EU are boosting cooperation in how to manage what they see as China’s challenge, together with other partners such as the US or Australia, Canada, Japan, or the UK. Maritime and cyber security cooperation are areas of particular focus. At the same time, the Indo-Pacific strategies issued by both the EU in September 2021 and by South Korea in December 2022 leave the door open for cooperation with China when possible. Simply put, neither Brussels nor Seoul believe in direct confrontation with Beijing.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is another key area of focus for the South Korea-EU summit. Seoul’s robust response to the invasion has been welcomed by the EU and Europe, especially in the context of many other countries across the world taking a balanced approach towards what they see as a European rather than global conflict. The EU and Europe in general have welcomed, in particular, South Korea imposing sanctions on Russia in alignment with the EU itself and the US, Seoul’s strong condemnation of Moscow, and South Korea’s provision of military support to Ukraine – both non-lethal directly to Kyiv and lethal indirectly via third parties. On the latter, some policy-makers within the EU, and NATO, would like South Korea to provide lethal weapons directly to Ukraine, even if it is not a top area of discussion in Brussels. Arguably more importantly, Europe wants to ensure that the flow of tanks, howitzers, or artillery shells to countries including Poland, the US, Estonia, or Norway continues. Also Yoon’s meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the recent G7 summit and the hosting of First Lady and Special Envoy Olena Zelenska have further boosted Seoul’s stock in this area.
One last topic of discussion between the EU and South Korea is North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The EU’s ‘critical engagement’ policy towards Pyongyang calls for both carrots and sticks to ultimately convince North Korea to move towards denuclearisation – as unrealistic at this may seem in 2023. Thus, the EU’s focus has been on the critical component of the policy in recent years, particularly sanctions on Pyongyang. In this respect, Brussels policy aligns with Yoon’s tougher approach towards North Korea, even if support for inter-Korean engagement continues to be a feature of the EU’s approach. It should be noted that North Korea’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including credible reports of arms transfers from Pyongyang to Moscow, has further exacerbated negative views of North Korea across Europe.
What are the key economic issues discussed at the summit?
Economic security, and in particular supply chain resilience, is a key area of focus during the ROK-EU Summit. Both sides see the other as a crucial partner as they try to navigate Sino-American economic and technological competition, and in particular as they seek to diversify markets and manufacturing away from China. Europe would like to attract more investment and boost joint research cooperation with South Korean firms in areas such as semiconductors or electric batteries. And both sides see the benefits of boosting ties in areas such as the digital economy, AI, 6G, or robotics. Thus, we should expect strategic cooperation between the EU and South Korea to boost their economic security, together with other partners such as the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, or the UK.
Green growth and sustainable development is another area in which Brussels and Seoul want to boost cooperation. Most notably, they have announced the launch of a South Korea-EU Green Partnership to reinforce cooperation in this area, with a view towards transitioning towards a carbon neutral economy over the next two decades. In the case of South Korea, this will necessarily involve boosting the use of renewable energies as part of its energy mix – an area in which European firms have a comparative advantage over their South Korean peers. Having said that, from Brussels’ perspective the EU-Japan Green Alliance adopted in May 2021 offers a cautionary tale in that it has produced limited practical outcomes. The EU would like to avoid this in the case of South Korea. More broadly, this is an area in which Brussels and Seoul agree there is a need for multilateral cooperation with countries across the world, whether ‘like-minded’ or not.
Supporting WTO and broader trade and economic multilateralism is yet another priority area for the summit. Seoul and Brussels remain fully supportive of the WTO, but also understand that Sino-American competition has weakened this institution and multilateral economic cooperation more generally. From their perspective, the Joe Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act shows that there is now bipartisan support in the US for economic nationalism. And Brussels and Seoul also believe that China has not played by the rules of the WTO for many years. Thus, the EU and South Korea now seem to be focusing on how to reform trade multilateralism so that it remains relevant in an era of economic competition. In the case of South Korea, it is hosting a visit by WTO Secretary General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala this week, which underscores the priority that it gives to this issue.