President Yoon Suk-yeol’s participation in the Madrid NATO Summit


President Yoon Suk-yeol has participated in the NATO Summit held in Madrid on June 29th-30th, along with the leaders of the organization’s three other key Asia-Pacific partners: Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. This is the first time that the leaders of the four countries have been invited to attend a NATO summit, a symbol of the growing ties between the transatlantic security organization and its four Asia-Pacific partners. During the summit, President Yoon delivered a speech focusing on the history of South Korea-NATO cooperation, potential cooperation between his country and Europe, and NATO’s involvement in dealing with North Korea. The president also held several bilateral meetings, as well as a much-anticipated trilateral meeting with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio—the first South Korea-US-Japan trilateral since September 2017. President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida also held a brief bilateral meeting during the gala dinner that King Felipe VI of Spain held for visiting leaders. This was President Yoon’s first foreign policy trip since taking office in May, and proved to be a busy one.


Why was President Yoon Suk-yeol invited to participate in the NATO Summit?


South Korea and NATO first launched a bilateral dialogue in 2005, and then signed a Partnership and Cooperation Programme in 2012 that they last renewed in 2019. President Yoon has vowed to upgrade the programme before the end of this year. Furthermore, South Korea has been increasing engagement with NATO in recent years as the organization has started to also focus on China—particularly since Donald Trump became US president—North Korean activities have become an area of greater interest for NATO members, and many of the organization’s members other than the US have worked to boost military ties with South Korea. Only last May, then Foreign Minister-Chung Eui-yong became the first from South Korea to attend a NATO Foreign Ministers meeting, along with his counterparts from Australia, Japan, and New Zealand.


From NATO’s perspective, engagement with South Korea is primarily driven by an interest in strengthening cooperation in the cybersecurity and non-proliferation domains. Both of them have a clear North Korea focus, which only boosts the interest of NATO members to engage in discussions and information sharing with the South Korean government. But they also have a China and Russia angle, and from NATO’s perspective it makes sense to also engage with South Korea since it is on the receiving end of their cyberattacks and feels threatened by any proliferation activities they may facilitate or even conduct. South Korea becoming the first Asian country to join NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in early May symbolizes this growing cooperation.


In addition, South Korea is an arms exporter to and importer from NATO members. Certainly, South Korea still has very strong links with the US in this area, and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. But in recent years South Korea has also imported substantial arms, weapon systems, and military technology from other NATO members, such as France, Germany, or the UK. Plus, South Korea is also exporting or planning to export its arms and military equipment to NATO members such as Poland, Turkey, or the UK. The relationship in this area has become more important for NATO given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the possibility that South Korea may provide lethal weapons to the latter via NATO members such as Canada or Poland.


Why is South Korea interested in strengthening cooperation with NATO?


From a South Korean perspective, there are certainly many reasons to boost ties with NATO. Starting with political and diplomatic links, stronger South Korea-NATO ties help to further strengthen the ROK-US alliance. This is due to the US being the main champion of NATO-Asia-Pacific partner relations, both under Trump in the past and under President Joe Biden currently. At the same time, stronger South Korea-NATO ties are also beneficial for Seoul’s relations with other NATO members, especially some of those in Europe seeking to boost their presence in the Indo-Pacific such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, or the UK. South Korea’s links with NATO add another layer to security relationships across Europe that remain underdeveloped compared to economic or purely political relations. Certainly, stronger links with NATO members also has the subsidiary benefit of helping Seoul to hedge against potential overdependence on the ROK-US alliance. All of this fits well with Yoon’s push to make South Korea a ‘global pivotal state’.


Another reason why the Yoon government is seeking to strengthen ties with NATO is the possibility of getting support for its North Korea and China policies. As explained, the transatlantic organization is increasingly focusing on what it sees as a security threat from both of them—particularly China. As the Yoon government signals that it will be less willing to accommodate the provocations of South Korea’s two neighbours, having NATO issue statements on the two countries implicitly supports this approach. Most notably, NATO’s new Strategic Concept released during the Madrid summit calls North Korea by name in relation to its nuclear and CBRN weapons. In addition, the Strategic Concept is highly critical of China, with what can be described as confrontational approach towards the Chinese government.


Greater military cooperation and technical expertise sharing are two interrelated areas that also benefit from closer South Korea-NATO ties. Other than the arms exports and imports mentioned above, South Korea is now looking at greater engagement in areas such as joint military technology research, cybersecurity table top exercises, non-proliferation activities, aerospace threats and technologies, defence against CBRN weapons, or joint naval exercises, among others. Some of these are conducted within the aegis of NATO per se, while others involve a substantial number of its members. Either way, the ROK Armed Forces, intelligence officers, cybersecurity experts, and other groups are able to interact with their NATO counterparts on a regular basis. This helps to explain why in recent years the ministries of National Defense and Foreign Affairs have been keen to emphasize the material benefits for South Korea of engaging with NATO.

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