The Korean Peninsula in Euro-Atlantic Relations 

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The Korean Peninsula in Euro-Atlantic Relations 

Insights from Antonio Fiori.

The Korean Peninsula in Euro-Atlantic Relations 
Credit: Photo 214041116 © Wirestock |

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners ,and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Antonio Fiori associate professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna, and co-editor of “The Routledge Handbook of Europe-Korea Relations” (2024) – is the 409th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

Explain the EU’s foreign policy toward South Korea. 

Although EU-Korea diplomatic relations were established in 1963, the relationship was quite limited, given that South Korea – a poor and backward nation – did not have much to offer and Europeans were not interested in expanding their relations with the country. Therefore, trade interactions between the two remained minimal. 

The first turning point concerns the EU’s commitment to Asian affairs with the publishing of its plan “Towards a New Asia” in 1994. With the specific goal of advancing the EU’s economic interests and thereby helping to regional political stability, the EU began to acknowledge South Korea as an important partner with which to collaborate. Since the 2000s, the two countries have engaged into multiple mutually advantageous partnerships, propelling both parties toward a more equitable and comprehensive alliance. 

The scope of collaboration has expanded to include economic, political, and even security issues. First, the FTA (applied since 2011 and formally entering into force in 2015) has strengthened bilateral economic cooperation. Subsequently, the FTA was supplemented by the Framework Agreement (entered into force in 2014), as well as the establishment of strategic cooperation, making these two agreements critical indicators in the EU-Korea relationship. Both the Framework Agreement and the strategic partnership increased and expanded the collaboration’s reach beyond commerce to include various issues, such as health governance and climate change. After the ratification of the Crisis Management Participation Agreement (entered into force in 2016) – strengthening joint cooperation in crisis management operations – security aspects have become pivotal to the collaboration. 

South Korea is the only country in the world with all three of the above-mentioned agreements with the EU in force, demonstrating the importance that Brussels places on its relationship with Seoul. Indeed, these agreements have helped to develop or strengthen a number of bilateral conversations on a variety of subjects, particularly in the areas of classic security challenges like non-proliferation and disarmament, as well as nontraditional security issues like cybersecurity. The agreements also permitted South Korea to participate in EU counterpiracy missions and crisis management activities. Brussels and Seoul are so dedicated to strengthening their bilateral partnership in security-related policy areas, which are currently at the top of the EU-Korea agenda.

Analyze intra-EU perspectives on how to manage North Korea vis-à-vis South Korea. 

Relations between Europe and North Korea began in 1948, when North Korea established diplomatic connections with seven Central and Eastern European governments. During the Cold War, several Western and Northern European countries established diplomatic and trade contacts with North Korea. North Korea, on the other hand, remained firmly rooted in the socialist bloc, which included Central and Eastern Europe. 

Official ties between the European Union and North Korea began in the years following the Cold War, precisely as the EU was developing its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). In 1995, the EU began providing help to North Korea, and in 1997, it joined the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). 

Between 1998 and 2001, the EU and North Korea initiated political and human rights conversations and established diplomatic relations. As a response to North Korea’s development of a nuclear program, the EU has maintained a strategy of “critical engagement” with the country since 2003. This has resulted in increasingly deteriorating relations. 

In 2006, the EU began imposing sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs. Human rights and political debates were halted in 2013 and 2015, respectively. In 2020, the EU imposed cyber restrictions against North Korea. One year later, it slapped more restrictions against North Korea in response to suspected human rights violations. Nowadays, the EU prioritizes pressure above engagement in its dealings with North Korea, and economic ties have weakened significantly since their high in the early 2000s. 

Initiating a thoughtful discussion about the contours of a new strategic approach is essential if the EU is to be better positioned to actively support the preservation of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. This strategy should specifically focus on the aspects of the conflict to which Europe can contribute concretely, identify initiatives that better support the accomplishment of the EU’s primary goals in the region, take into account the various roles and contributions that the various EU actors can make, and specify the point at which those initiatives are expected to be implemented. Naturally, this calls on the EU and its member states to finally assign the Korean Peninsula’s problems the high priority in Europe that they so richly merit.

Examine how China-U.S. strategic competition factors into Brussel’s position on Korean Peninsula security. 

Brussels’ stance on the security of the Korean Peninsula is greatly influenced by the strategic conflict between the United States and China for a number of interrelated reasons. First and foremost, Brussels works to uphold the stability and peace in East Asia, an endeavor that is essential to both the EU’s economic goals and international security. The Korean Peninsula is a major flashpoint in the area, and a conflict there may have an impact on trade and security not just in Northeast Asia but worldwide. 

Second, Brussels’ strategy is shaped by the strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China because of its effects on the overall global balance of power. Regarding security matters, the EU has always sided closely with the U.S. because it sees Washington as a vital ally in preserving international norms and the rule of law. Brussels, however, continues to have commercial relations with China and works to engage Beijing in a number of areas, such as trade and climate change.

Brussels has to tread carefully in its dealings with China and the U.S. in the context of the Korean Peninsula. Brussels shares Washington’s objective of preventing proliferation and preserving peace; therefore, on the one hand, it supports Washington’s efforts to uphold stability and denuclearization on the peninsula. Brussels and Washington might collaborate closely on diplomatic endeavors and sanctions aimed at North Korea. Brussels, however, also aims to avoid upsetting Beijing, considering China’s important role as the EU’s top commercial partner and its considerable influence in the area. Brussels might therefore support diplomatic efforts to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue that respect Beijing’s interests and entail interaction with Beijing, like encouraging communication and actions aimed at fostering confidence between North and South Korea.

Brussels’ stance on the security of the Korean Peninsula is often shaped by the geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China. This competition influences Brussels to strike a balance between supporting U.S.-led efforts for stability and denuclearization and interacting with China to encourage a peaceful settlement to the conflict. The nuances of EU foreign policy in a multipolar world are reflected in this sophisticated approach.

What message does NATO’s efforts to engage South Korea send to China, North Korea, and Russia? 

It may not be obvious why a strong security alliance between South Korea and NATO might evolve, given their geographical distance. Still, in January 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol welcomed NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to Seoul, where he emphasized that South Korea-NATO relations have recently deepened at a fast pace. 

Indeed, since February 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, South Korea’s and NATO countries’ views have been clearly aligned. Notably, South Korea joined the West in criticizing Russia’s actions, imposing sanctions on the Russian leadership, and providing financial and material help to Ukraine. 

President Yoon also attended the NATO summits in Madrid in 2022 and Vilnius in 2023, making history as the first South Korean leader to do so. In 2022, the South Korean government established a diplomatic presence in Brussels to coordinate its strategies with NATO. In the same year, South Korea became the first East Asian country to deploy cyber experts from its national intelligence service to participate in the work of NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence (CCDCOE), which is based in Tallinn, Estonia. NATO and South Korean military staffs began to consult on a regular basis on a variety of issues, including South Korean soldier involvement in NATO military exercises. South Korea and NATO also adopted the Individually Tailored Partnership Program in 2023, which includes bilateral cooperation in areas such as cybersecurity, disarmament, and nonproliferation.

Some of these changes are not unique to South Korea, and they occurred as part of NATO’s broader push to its Asia-Pacific partners, including Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

What distinguishes South Korea’s relations with NATO is the rapid growth of tight ties in recent years. South Korea used to lag behind other nations in strengthening its cooperation with NATO, but it has now caught up with NATO’s other Asia-Pacific partners and is even ahead in several areas. 

South Korea’s anxiety about Russia and China is exacerbated by prolonged tensions on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has expressed strong support for Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces as autonomous republics. North Korea has most likely delivered millions of artillery shells and missiles to bolster Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine, while Russia is expected to provide North Korea with fighter jets, nuclear-related technologies, and air-defense systems. Russia has also protected North Korea on the international scene by opposing additional U.N. sanctions against the North Korean leadership. Thus, for South Korea, Russia’s belligerence is more than just a threat to European security; it also has more local consequences.

Yoon could also be reacting to the weakening of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Since early 2022, the UNSC has been unable to respond to North Korea’s missile tests with fresh resolutions due to China and Russia’s consistent vetoes. Given this impasse, South Korea must seek a new global governance organization and new partners to counter North Korea’s rising threats. In this light, the Yoon administration’s turn to NATO, which came after successfully revitalizing U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation by restoring shuttle diplomacy between Seoul and Tokyo, reflects South Korea’s expansion of its diplomatic space to Europe in order to spark new international support on North Korean issues.

It goes without saying that Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang see the growing links between NATO and some Asian states – including South Korea – as a direct national security threat and obvious evidence that the United States, the main force behind the alliance, is determined to bring NATO to their doorstep. China, Russia, and North Korea are strengthening their ties with one another in response to the so-called NATO-ization of Asia.

Assess how the trend of “strategic autonomy” in the EU could impact Euro-Atlantic cooperation on mitigating geopolitical risks related to the Korean Peninsula. 

Within the European Union, the idea of “strategic autonomy” refers to the EU’s goal of becoming less dependent on outside actors, especially the U.S., in terms of its defense and security capabilities. This tendency may have a number of effects for Euro-Atlantic cooperation in terms of reducing geopolitical threats associated with the Korean Peninsula.

First, a greater focus on strategic autonomy could cause the U.S. and the EU to have different goals and objectives when it comes to East Asian security, particularly the Korean Peninsula. The EU’s pursuit of its own geopolitical objectives may result in divergent methods and tactics, making coordination and collaboration with the U.S. more difficult.

Second, the EU might try to take a more proactive role in the area, perhaps including participating in diplomatic initiatives to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, if it were to strengthen its own security capabilities. Depending on how well the goals and interests align, this might either support or undermine U.S.-led activities.

However, despite the possible challenges, there are also prospects for improved cooperation between the EU and the U.S. on managing geopolitical threats relating to the Korean Peninsula. The promotion of stability and denuclearization in the area is something that both parties are interested in, which may provide the foundation for future cooperation. Additionally, the EU’s diplomatic channels and economic clout might support U.S. initiatives to resolve the Korean Peninsula dispute.

In conclusion, there are prospects for ongoing cooperation between the EU and the U.S. on reducing geopolitical dangers associated with the Korean peninsula, even though the trend of “strategic autonomy” in the EU may complicate Euro-Atlantic cooperation. Navigating these obstacles and optimizing the chances for collaboration will need effective interest alignment and coordination.