President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s potential approach to Europe
KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 05/2022
By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Yoon Suk-yeol was elected as the next South Korean president on March 9th. The election campaign did not focus on foreign policy issues for the most part, but president-elect Yoon has pledged to make South Korea a more active player in global affairs. We can expect this to include relations with Europe: European countries, the EU, and NATO. In fact, discussions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became part of the election campaign, which shows that South Korea’s more prominent role in global affairs demands that it pays more attention to developments in Europe. Indeed, the Yoon Suk-yeol and the Lee Jae-myung foreign policy teams kindly answered questions by the KF-VUB Korea Chair regarding their policies towards relations with Europe. Their answers are available here. This was the first time that South Korean presidential candidates’ foreign policy teams had answered this type of questions, which is a testament to the growing importance of South Korea-Europe ties.
What is the current state of South Korea-Europe relations?
Political, economic, and security relations between South Korea on the one hand and the EU, NATO, and European countries on the other have strengthened dramatically over the past ten to fifteen years. The South Korea-EU Framework Agreement, Free Trade Agreement, and Crisis Management Participation Agreement make Seoul the only EU partner with the three agreements covering politics, economics, and security in place. Meanwhile, South Korea and NATO have an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme in place, making Seoul one of NATO’s partners in Asia. Meanwhile, European countries such as Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, or Poland have either strategic partnerships or cooperation agreements and/or dialogues bringing them closer to South Korea. In other words, there is a strong framework for relations between South Korea and Europe.
Beyond the framework, however, the EU, NATO, and several European countries have singled out South Korea as one of their key partners in Asia. Along with Japan and Taiwan, from a European perspective, South Korea is the only country with strong capabilities, shared values, and a willingness to take a diplomatic stand in global affairs. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a case in point, with South Korea being one of only four Asian countries willing to join sanctions against Russia. NATO’s NAC+4 framework to hold regular meetings with South Korea and three other Asia-Pacific partners, the EU’s Indo-Pacific partnership prioritizing Seoul for cooperation in different areas along with a small number of other countries, or joint maritime exercises and port calls including the ROK Navy and the navies of countries such as Germany, France, or the UK show that South Korea-Europe relations are becoming stronger. Thus, European countries, the EU, and NATO will look at ways to build on this strong foundation to upgrade relations with South Korea once Yoon takes office. There is an expectation in Europe that Yoon will send an envoy to key European capitals and institutions before or shortly after his inauguration. This would be seen as a sign that relations will start from a very solid foundation.
What is the potential approach of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol to relations with Europe?
Based on Yoon’s foreign policy platform, the composition of his foreign policy team during the election campaign, and the answers of this same team to the KF-VUB Korea Chair’s questions about relations with Europe, we can expect the incoming South Korean president to cooperate closely with Europe. Certainly, the ROK-US alliance, managing relations with China, mending ties with Japan, or South Korea’s position in the Indo-Pacific or Southeast Asia will continue to be bigger priorities for Seoul. But relations with Europe should also be an important priority, among others because the EU, NATO, and several European countries are central to managing US-China competition and also have a greater interest and presence in the Indo-Pacific. Plus, the EU and some European countries could play a supportive role in any engagement process with North Korea.
We can expect Yoon to prioritize cooperation with Europe in three key areas: tech, cyber, and economic issues, US-China competition, and, North Korea. With regards to tech, digital, and economic issues, they have become intertwined under the broad umbrella of geoeconomics. While Europe does not see decoupling from China as realistic, there is certainly a push to reduce reliance on Chinese manufacturers. This plays to the strengths of South Korea, and Seoul has been willing to work with partners, including the EU, NATO, and key European countries, to develop new technologies, diversify supply chains, or develop multilateral rules and regulations in the digital domain. The Yoon government is likely to continue South Korea’s activities in these areas, including semiconductors, electric batteries, space technology, 6G, or green technology.
As for security issues, Yoon has indicated that he wants South Korea to be more openly aligned with the US in its competition with China. And relations between Seoul and Beijing have deteriorated in recent years due to issues such as China’s reaction to the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea, Beijing’s general (perceived) aggressiveness, or the COVID-19 pandemic. Yoon, however, has also indicated that he wants to maintain good relations with China. Thus, we can expect Yoon to work closely with Europe, as well as the US and other like-minded partners, in areas such as maritime security, cyber security, or third-party capacity building. We can also expect Yoon to join diplomatic and political calls on China to change its behaviour, along with Europe and other partners. But South Korea and Europe will probably also try to work together to keep channels of communication with China open.
As for North Korea, the Yoon foreign policy team sees a role for Europe to play in the implementation of sanctions, raising human rights concerns, and deterring Pyongyang’s actions. Thus, we can expect smooth cooperation between Yoon and Europe in this area. If there is an engagement process with North Korea, however, the potential role of Europe would be different. In this case, Yoon would probably seek the support of Europe in convincing North Korea of the need to move towards denuclearization—as well as in providing economic support to Pyongyang and ordinary North Koreans.