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The New Dynamism in Germany’s Relations With South Korea

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The New Dynamism in Germany’s Relations With South Korea

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has compelled Germany to alter its foreign policy and role in the world. This has also had repercussions for partners outside the EU.

The New Dynamism in Germany’s Relations With South Korea

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier meets with his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol during his state visit to Seoul, South Korea, November 5, 2022.

Credit: Facebook/Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier

In recent years, so-called strategic partnerships have become an important foreign policy instrument with which the Federal Republic of Germany structures its relations with other countries. Germany’s foreign policy now boasts numerous strategic partnerships spanning continents and encompassing a wide array of countries beyond its traditional Western partners. The most prominent examples are Brazil, China, and India. The German approach is inclusive, engaging democracies and non-democracies alike.

The intent behind these partnerships is twofold: to bolster bilateral ties and to contribute to the well-being of the global and regional communities. This policy aims at systemic improvements, addressing critical global challenges such as climate change, human rights, and regional stability, thereby supposedly furthering Germany’s strategic foreign policy goals.

Now, another possible strategic partner has appeared on the horizon. In a recent shift, Germany and South Korea appear to be moving toward the creation of a strategic partnership, a development underscored by recent high-level political engagements, such as a series of visits from key German figures to South Korea, including President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2022, followed by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Chancellor Olaf Scholz last year. The bond between these two nations is described by the German Foreign Office as being “close” and underpinned by “a spirit of trust,” a sentiment echoed on the other side of Eurasia. Given their shared experiences of destruction by war and division in the 20th century, Korea has long viewed Germany as a model for post-war rebuilding and reunification.

Central to this evolving relationship dynamic is Germany’s Zeitenwende, its historic strategic pivot in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In his policy statement to the German parliament on February 27, Scholz emphasized that the Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a crucial turning point for Germany. In response, he stated, Germany would fundamentally reconfigure its foreign policy and security strategy. Since then, Germany has been engaging in foreign policy with a vigor unseen since World War II.

As evidenced by the first National Security Strategy and the German China Strategy unveiled by the incumbent government in 2023, Germany’s foreign policy interests have been articulated with unprecedented clarity. These strategic documents are a significant milestone for Germany, delineating its international priorities for the first time. Consequently, Germany’s interests now transcend its boundaries – which is to say, Germany has interests in East Asia.

While the extent of Germany’s assertiveness in pursuing these articulated interests in practice remains to be seen, these developments undeniably signal a pivotal moment in the nation’s foreign policy narrative. And this policy shift is poised to also influence its bilateral relations with South Korea.

A term frequently used here by German foreign policy practitioners is Wertepartner (value partner), referring to a partnership where shared values and ethical principles play a central role. A Wertepartner not only shares common goals or interests but places particular emphasis on having shared values and moral convictions as the foundation for collaboration. This type of partnership is often considered sustainable, trustworthy, and long-term, as it is built on a strong framework of shared values. This term is now also increasingly used to describe Germany’s relationship with South Korea, implying a shared commitment to liberal democratic values. However, engagement between the two nations extends beyond value alignment. Their collaboration is predominantly issue-driven, with prospects for this cooperation expanding considerably.

Economically, Germany is, alongside France, South Korea’s principal economic partner in the EU, with bilateral trade exceeding €31 billion. This trade is characterized by a German trade surplus, driven by exports such as automobiles, machinery, and chemicals. South Korea’s main exports to Europe include electronic products, vehicles, and chemicals. Recently, South Korea has also increased its arms exports to the EU, most notably to Poland, adding a new facet to their economic relationship. Germany is now keen on advancing the EU-South Korea Free Trade Agreement to address challenges in supply chain resilience, digital trade, and decarbonization initiatives.

Both countries are also deeply engaged in the realm of technology and science. The annual Europe-Korea Conference on Science and Technology is one notable platform for their collaboration. Furthermore, in May 2023, Korea commenced formal negotiations to join Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship program for research and innovation. Existing cooperation spans several fields, including 5G, AI, nanoelectronics, and clean energy innovation. South Korea’s National Strategic Technology Nurture Plan, emphasizing domestic and international partnerships, is set to intensify this collaboration.

The German-Korean synergy extends into security and defense, as well. The Korean military is operating German-made weapons, including the currently highly media-present bunker-busting Taurus missile. Last year, Germany and South Korea took their security relationship several steps further. In May, both countries signed an agreement to exchange and safeguard military secrets to bolster their defense capabilities. Moreover, they also announced plans to enhance the efficiency of their defense industry supply chains.

The agreement was followed by another seminal step in August, when South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration announced that Germany planned to simplify its defense export procedures to streamline defense exports to South Korea. The goal here is to facilitate the acquisition of German components for Korean weapon systems amid Germany’s complicated arms export policy. These defense engagements can be seen as a part of a larger strategy to counter Chinese influence in the region. Increased military exercises involving South Korean and NATO forces are anticipated. The strategic dialogue between the two nations, particularly regarding North Korea’s missile tests and regional security, underscores the importance of their partnership.

From a status quo perspective, South Korea has emerged as a compelling partner for Germany, offering more than just mere casual exchanges on mutual matters like balancing China’s influence. South Korea has successfully navigated a very complex geopolitical environment, maintaining a balance between the two major powers of China and the United States for decades. South Korean experiences therefore also offer possible policy learnings for Germany when it comes to navigating the increasing global superpower rivalry.

In practice, this played out already during a visit of Foreign Minister Baerbock to Seoul last April. During the trip, she announced Germany’s support for a comprehensive partnership with South Korea. The collaboration would not only cover economic, climate, and security issues but also Germany pledged to assist in monitoring sanctions against North Korea, condemning Pyongyang’s missile tests as a violation of international law. Moreover, Baerbock expressed Germany’s intent to increase engagement in the Indo-Pacific, emphasizing the region’s significance. She thanked South Korea for supporting Ukraine and criticized China’s evolving policies, calling for economic security measures. So, while both countries already engage across various sectors, Baerbock’s proposed enhancements aim to elevate their partnership to a more strategic level.

However, Germany’s recent pursuit of a value-based or so-called feminist foreign policy presents a labyrinth of challenges to an interest-based partnership, particularly in its dealings with East Asia. The self-proclaimed commitment to the value-driven approach in its engagement with the region suggests a logical progression towards closer cooperation with South Korea, aligning with Germany’s stated value-based objectives. Yet, embracing this strategy in its entirety would almost naturally lead to new conflicts in fields where “warm” values and “cold” national interests collide.

Examples here are plenty, ranging from questions of energy production and sanctions policies against Russia to the Taiwan issue. Taking a strong stand on the latter would certainly provoke Beijing. Given the substantial dependency of the German economy on China, this approach risks significant diplomatic and economic repercussions abroad as well as at home: either the government risks political and economic setbacks due to its values-oriented foreign policy, or it acts in an interest-based manner, risking potential backlash from voters. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether Germany will adhere to its value-driven foreign policy, emphasizing only partnerships with nations like South Korea that share similar values, or if it will, like most other nations, gravitate towards a more pragmatic, power-politics approach, prioritizing national/economic interests.

South Korea, too, stands to benefit from deepening ties with Germany. The traditional Korean strategy of mainly relying on China for trade and the U.S. for security is becoming increasingly untenable under the Sino-American rivalry and an increasingly disinhibited Russia. Diversifying economic and security relationships beyond these dominant powers of our era seems therefore prudent. By doing so, South Korea can simultaneously reduce its dependencies while strengthening an already established relationship. As the world nervously eyes a possible second presidency of Donald Trump, there is certainly a need for South Korea too to get its bearings straight.

As Germany emerges from nearly six decades of a pacifist-leaning foreign policy, it may now be Germany’s turn to learn from Korea. Korea’s adept navigation of the complex and often turbulent waters of international politics offers valuable insights for Germany as it redefines its role on the global stage.

As they advance toward a strategic partnership, Germany and South Korea appear to be walking a path marked by shared values and extensive cooperation in economics, technology, and defense. This evolving alliance might herald a future of reciprocal development and adaptation amidst the evolving dynamics of global order. The 140th-anniversary milestone seems just the right point at which to do so.