Israel, in early April this year, commemorated the 60th anniversary of its ties with another economically and technologically advanced nation in East Asia: South Korea. Cooperation between these countries is on an upward trajectory, and this coincides with the rising prominence of some of the other major South, Southeast, and East Asian economies in the global geostrategic and geoeconomic environment.
Currently, most of the Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, are expanding their political and economic engagements with the Asian countries, notwithstanding their decades-old partnerships with traditional Western partners. Likewise, the wider region is steadily emerging as an important destination for trade and business for the Asian countries, paving a way toward strategic cooperation. The overtures of Israel and South Korea are part of this larger background.
Despite a considerable lull in relations, mainly between the 1960s and late 1980s, Israel and South Korea began to rekindle their ties from the 1990s onwards, particularly following the initiation of a peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, under the aegis of the United States. The then-emerging dynamics in regional geopolitics gave leeway for both Israel and South Korea to explore opportunities for engagement. Since then, both have carefully crafted their foreign policies and have become two of the most robust partners from their respective regions. The location of both countries in an adversarial and hostile environment, facing constant security challenges, became one of the important factors for strengthening their overall cooperation.
For a significant period, Israel-South Korea ties have been somewhat dominated by the military-security dimension. This is mostly due to the presence of hostile neighbors, which has given rise to a greater demand for weaponry. As a result, Israel’s defense exports to Seoul have become lucrative and gained significance, particularly since the onset of the new millennium. This has also highlighted the degree of importance Israel attaches to the South Korean defense market. Meanwhile, Israel’s cutting-edge military-industrial advancement has lured the defense policy planners of South Korea, which has resulted in imports of several Israeli-made military platforms, including air defense systems, radar, missiles, and so on.
Importantly, owing to the unabated tensions with North Korea, one of the foremost objectives for the South Korean government is to enhance its early warning capability and to build robust air defense systems. This is an area where Israel’s military industries have carved their own niches by designing and manufacturing some of the world’s finest weapons systems and technologies. For instance, in late 2018, Seoul decided to purchase two Green Pine Block C radar systems, built by the Israeli firm ELTA (which is a subsidiary of the Israel Aerospace Industries). In addition to the Green Pine systems, a few noteworthy defense items imported by South Korea from Israel between 2009 and 2020 included EL/M-2032 radar, SandCat Spike-NLOS (Non Light of Sight) Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) launcher, Spike-NLOS SSM/Air-to-surface Missile (ASM), EL/M-2248 MF-STAR multi-function radar, Heron UAV, etc.
Indicating a maturation of ties, the Israeli-South Korean defense cooperation does not only revolve around the arms trade. The two countries are gradually expanding toward joint collaboration, co-production, and upgrading programs. In March 2021, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Elbit Systems and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) was signed for a joint collaboration in categories pertaining to unmanned airborne intelligence, surveillance, targeting, and reconnaissance (ISTAR). This initiative, upon fruition, will likely open doors to international customers. It is worth mentioning that this has been an emerging pattern that could also be seen in the case of countries like India, Singapore, and Vietnam with whom Israel has undertaken several joint ventures, mostly in the fields of aerospace, missile and anti-missile systems, arms and ammunitions, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Lately, concerted efforts have been made to boost economic cooperation between Israel and South Korea. In what could be considered as a major breakthrough, a free trade agreement between the two countries was signed in May 2021 (and reportedly ratified in early 2022). This is the first such pact to be inked by an Asian country with Israel.
Even before the FTA was signed, bilateral trade between the two was on the rise. In 2020, Israel’s exports to South Korea were worth approximately $890 million, while its imports from South Korea (mostly cars and electrical goods) were estimated at $1.5 billion. What has further aided economic cooperation is the Korea-Israel Industrial R&D Foundation (KORIL-RDF), founded in 2001, that has been promoting and supporting various technological collaboration between the companies of the two countries.
Now, with the signing of the FTA, both sides are aspiring to take the bilateral trade volume to over $3 billion annually. Importantly, it should also brighten the prospects for Israeli firms to enter into the South Korean markets. Overall, the steps taken by the respective governments have clearly reflected the economic and technological importance accorded to one another, a timely strategic decision.
The ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic has also brought Israel and South Korea closer, raising prospects for cooperation in the health sector. In July 2021, they became the only countries in the world “to swap COVID-19 vaccines, showing the world a new, effective mechanism for running the global health economy.” This deal, as the Israeli embassy in South Korea put it, was a “mutual vaccine supply agreement which will facilitate the effective utilization of the present and future vaccine inventories of both countries.” As a part of the agreement, Israel was to transfer approximately 700,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to South Korea by the end of July 2021.
Furthermore, cooperation in the health sector as well as in logistics, agriculture and livestock, and domestic services (including assistance to people with disabilities) has been given an impetus with the launch, in April 2022, of a new program called the “Lighthouse Program” (an initiative of KORIL-RDF). The Lighthouse Program will offer funding of up to $5.3 million per joint robotics project over a period of between two to four years.
There is also a possibility of this project expanding toward autonomous and hydrogen technologies. This bodes well considering the importance the countries place on promoting the use of clean energy to curb climate change. For that matter, forging partnerships in the renewable energy sector has also gained increasing traction in Israeli foreign policy, and South Korea can be a potential partner in this domain.
The burgeoning Israeli-South Korean relationship has come about at a juncture when there is a significant geopolitical realignment underway in the wider Middle East. The growing political recognition and acceptance of Israel in its region in recent times could open avenues for “minilateral” partnerships, which has become a trend in the emerging world order. For instance, Israel’s normalization of relations with countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain in 2020 should push South Korea and these states to explore opportunities for joint collaborations in sectors like trade, health, science and technology, security, energy, innovation, etc.
In view of the above, there could be a productive combination of investments from the affluent Gulf states, Israeli and South Korean-origin technology, and their manufacturing skills. As it is, the Israeli ambassador to South Korea in December 2021 briefly talked about the prospects to form an “alliance” involving Israel, South Korea, and the UAE, with an objective to usher in “economic and defense benefits and strengthen Israel and Korea without harming other interests.” Forging such minilateral partnerships, without targeting any particular country but for the larger strategic and economic interests of the countries involved, should be explored.
Lastly, the existing direction of the overall cooperation between Israel and South Korea signals both countries’ investment in relations. There is a political goodwill from both sides to scale newer heights. Certain political differences of the past have diminished, and the growing convergences of interests have the potential to push their partnership even further forward. It now appears that the signing of the free trade agreement will contribute immensely toward building strong bilateral partnerships. The relationship will also continue to be driven by close defense ties and shared national security challenges. Presently, there is a visible display of realpolitik in the conduct of any country’s foreign policy, and this is exactly what Israel and South Korea are adopting to reap the maximum benefits of their cooperation.