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Why South Korea Has Emerged as a Key Partner to the Transatlantic Community

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The Koreas | Security | East Asia

Why South Korea Has Emerged as a Key Partner to the Transatlantic Community

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and shared concerns over China are motivating South Korea to develop stronger partnerships with the Euro-Atlantic region.

Why South Korea Has Emerged as a Key Partner to the Transatlantic Community

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 29, 2023.

Credit: NATO

Just a few years ago, defense policymakers would have been forgiven for not paying much attention to South Korea’s role in transatlantic security. After all, despite being a U.S. ally, South Korea’s position in East Asia meant that its primary security concerns would not significantly overlap with those of the transatlantic region. However, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the potential threat of Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific, South Korea has emerged as an increasingly integral linchpin to securing the defense of Europe and the rest of the transatlantic community.

In fact, while the historic Camp David summit in August 2023 was primarily concerned with the Indo-Pacific region, the trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan entente that emerged there will have a major beneficial impact for transatlantic security, and ensure South Korea will develop stronger partnerships with the Euro-Atlantic region.

Despite not playing a major role in transatlantic security until recently, South Korea actually has had a long history of cooperation in that realm. In fact, the Korean War arguably helped cement NATO’s status as a collective security alliance against Soviet influence with the participation of ten out of 12 of its founding members in the U.N. Forces. Subsequently, between the latter stages of the Cold War and the late 2010s, much of South Korea’s security relations with NATO were mainly on a bilateral basis with individual NATO members, particularly on enforcing non-proliferation sanctions on North Korea.

However, South Korea already had a steadily growing role in transatlantic security before February 2022. Much of this was through its arms shipments, defense trade, and occasional R&D collaboration with individual NATO members, which grew throughout the 2010s. By 2021, the annual value of South Korea’s global arms exports totaled $7.25 billion, with SIPRI estimating that 24 percent of South Korea’s arms exports went to Europe between 2017 and 2021. Other security cooperation with the transatlantic community included participation in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013, the Partnership Interoperability Initiative since 2014, and the annual cybersecurity exercise Locked Shields since 2021, among other programs.

Because of its existing cooperation with the transatlantic community, South Korea was well-placed to provide military aid and deepen these existing ties with the commencement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Although Seoul refused to impose export controls on dual-use technologies like computers and semiconductors following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, South Korea quickly did so upon the commencement of the Kremlin’s aggression in February 2022, as well as joining the transatlantic community in imposing additional sanctions.

South Korea’s global arms exports additionally grew exponentially at the same time, reaching a staggering $17 billion in 2022. This included a $13.7 billion arms sale to Poland, consisting of South Korean rocket launchers and fighter jet shipments, as well as the licensing of South Korean arms for production in Poland from 2026. Similar defense trade agreements are under consideration in Estonia and Norway.

Still, South Korea has so far refused to directly send lethal military aid to Ukraine. Seoul has maintained its policy of not providing lethal military aid to countries at war, and has indicated concern with the Kremlin’s threats of “retaliation,” including deepening its existing cooperation with North Korea. Despite these factors, South Korea has allegedly turned a blind eye to the redirection of its ammunition sales to NATO members toward Ukraine. President Yoon Suk-yeol has even suggested that his administration is considering shifting its position toward sending arms to Ukraine.

South Korea also joined a NATO summit for the first time in Madrid in 2022 alongside Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, followed by attending the 2023 Vilnius summit as well. At the same time, South Korea opened an official mission to NATO and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Seoul for discussions with Yoon on cybersecurity, arms control, and non-proliferation, among other issues.

As well as providing increasing amounts of arms and defense technology to Europe and its allies, perhaps the most important role that South Korea will take on for transatlantic security is its leading role in two of the most important technologies that are shaping the modern manufacturing economy – namely, semiconductor and electric vehicle (EV) battery technologies. As the European Union looks to “de-risk” its trade relations with China, South Korea has emerged as a potential new trading partner in the major manufacturing supply chains and its key industries, such as automobile manufacturing and green technologies. South Korean firms like LG Energy Solution, SK ON, and Samsung SDI are looking to capitalize on the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act to increase their own production of batteries and compete more strongly against Chinese EV battery production. In fact, those three firms already together compose about 24 percent of the world’s battery sales.

Although there have been some concerns about how South Korea itself remains reliant on China for producing these materials, Yoon announced at the G-7 Hiroshima summit that South Korea was committed to reducing its existing trade dependence on China, particularly for semiconductors and critical minerals. Concurrently, South Korea has pursued strategic partnerships with critical mineral exporters like Australia and Canada, which have their own similar critical mineral arrangements with the transatlantic community.

The U.S.-South Korea-Japan Camp David summit was in many ways a culmination of these existing trends. Although Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union were not present at the summit, the entente paves the way for much deeper security cooperation between South Korea and the transatlantic community. This was especially demonstrated with the announcement of the “supply chain early warning system,” which explicitly named the EU as a potential partner in strengthening supply chain resilience.

Given these trends, it is highly likely that South Korea will use the Camp David agreement to build upon its partnerships with the United States and the rest of the transatlantic community. Still, these trends will not continue without a hitch. China has unsurprisingly not reacted well to recent developments, by calling the Camp David summit the start of a “mini-NATO” in the region and conflating de-risking with containment. There is also growing concern within South Korea itself that the Yoon administration is unnecessarily escalating tensions with China and encouraging Beijing to form a counter-alliance with authoritarian states.

The transatlantic community has seen the value in building its relationship with South Korea, though, and will likely aim to provide more incentives for Seoul to stay its current course. This will be a major factor in determining if the Camp David summit will succeed in its stated objectives.