EU-Korea Security Cooperation and the War in Ukraine – A Double-edged Sword for Seoul?

As one of Asia's leading military powers and arms manufacturers, South Korea has developed a solid and growing security cooperation framework with the EU, with nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and cybersecurity at its core. In light of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Charles Michel’s and Ursula von der Leyen's visit to Seoul on 22 May 2023 may have given this close relationship a new impetus.

While the front lines in the Russo-Ukrainian war are largely stalemate and have remained without major changes since the Kherson counteroffensive launched by Ukraine, NATO has been seeking to strengthen and forge extra-European alliances with the aim of providing greater support for Ukraine and harsher retributions on Russia. One of the main focuses of attention in this regard is placed on South Korea, one of the key allies of the West in East Asia. So how has the European Union engaged with the Republic of Korea in security matters so far, what is at stake and what can be expected from any future EU-South Korea security cooperation? And what are Seoul’s options in the light of an increasingly assertive China and a more defiant Russia?

South Korea’s Pivotal Role

Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine has marked some clear dividing lines in the narrative of the war, not just in Europe, but also on the Asian continent. For instance, so far Japan and South Korea have mainly sided with Kyiv, while North Korea has been openly supportive of and even assisting Moscow. Moreover, under the prism of strategic neutrality, China has presented a 12-point peace proposal to end the war in an attempt to mediate in the conflict.

In addition, after more than a year into the war, Europe is struggling to produce sufficient ammunition to supply Ukraine and defend itself. Europe is also facing difficulties in keeping up the rate of arms aid it has been assisting Ukraine with for its defence. Hence, the search is on to find other sources of military supply for Kyiv. South Korea, as one of the largest arms manufacturers worldwide, has thus become a crucial focus of Western attention, with NATO eyeing Seoul as an arms supplier for Ukraine. South Korea has become the sixth largest military power in the world (by 2023) and has carried out extensive defence modernizations that could present a challenge to Moscow should it ultimately decide to send weapons to Kyiv. The Republic of Korea (ROK) produces K2 battle tanks and self-propelled K9 howitzer artillery systems, both of which have proven to be well-fit for Central and Eastern European states in their bid to deter Russia.

Overall, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a major headache for the current South Korean administration’s foreign policy modus operandi, since it has been seeking to play a more prominent role in the international arena despite its law prohibiting the shipment of weapons to war zones. The pressure the West is putting on Seoul to become more proactive in supporting Ukraine is thus adding yet another ingredient to Korea’s current dilemma and is a potentially double-edged sword for Korea.

From a delicate balance to a proactive (and more risky) stance

The traditional bipartisanship of South Korean parliamentary life is evident in understanding the Asian Tiger’s foreign policy. On the one hand, its politically liberal factions advocate for a hard-to-maintain equilibrium between the US and China and a more comprehensive approach towards North Korea. The conservatives on the other hand, among which current president Yoon Suk-yeol, support developing closer relations with the US and reconciliation with Japan, while holding hawkish positions on Pyongyang and other states that might jeopardise the rule-based international order. This disjunction has been characterising South Korea’s political spectrum.

Hence, the main external challenges to further South Korean engagement in Ukraine will come from the responses of Moscow and Beijing. Nevertheless, China has yet to make a move on the still hypothetical possibility of Korea directly assisting Ukraine in some form. China’s biggest concern regarding South Korea would be its joint military exercises with the US, which could undermine security stability in Northeast Asia. Russia’s reaction on the other hand could be and already is much more forceful.

Even though President Yoon Suk-yeol has made it a fundamental goal to reduce South Korea’s economic dependency on China in strategic sectors, Seoul cannot ignore that the health of the ROK economy largely depends on its neighbours. For instance, as a resource-poor country it relies heavily on Russian liquified natural gas. Moreover, in August 2022, Korea signed a 2.25 billion dollar deal with a subsidiary of the Russian state-owned nuclear energy conglomerate Rosatom. While this vulnerability can complicate Seoul’s position, European states are generally even more reliant on the import of fossil fuels, but have been taking strict measures to reduce this. However, Yoon seems intent on moving forward with his reinvented concept of Global Korea, a strategy aimed at increasing participation in peacekeeping, antipiracy, post-conflict stabilisation, and counterproliferation. In contrast to its past restrained global policies, Seoul seems to be trying to proactively align South Korean and Western foreign strategies more effectively and efficiently, increasingly taking a leading role in the defence of the liberal norms-based international order in Asia. After numerous pressures from NATO, South Korea has indirectly begun supporting Ukraine with non-lethal military equipment. Instead of donating weapons directly, Seoul has approved the sale of Korean-made arms to states supplying the Ukrainian military, prominent among them Poland and to a lesser extent Estonia and Norway, with multibillion-dollar deals that include tanks and ammunition.

The main shift came in the beginning of April 2023, when South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol left the door open to the possibility of sending lethal weapons directly to Ukraine if Russia would continue to orchestrate large-scale attacks on civilians in Ukraine. In an attempt to show a more proactive foreign policy, Yoon stated that this option was not ruled out, but that it would first be studied very carefully. This implied indeed a rethinking of the ROK’s position, since until a few weeks before Seoul had completely ruled out the shipment of weapons to Ukraine. The current South Korean government has made the firm decision of actively supporting NATO and its members’ position in the war in Ukraine, stating that Russia’s actions against Kyiv cannot go unpunished, and that South Korea cannot look the other way, taking into account that the survival of South Korea during the Korean War was to a large extent due to the help of the international community.

Yoon seems to be perfectly aware of the delicate geopolitical situation in which South Korea finds itself. Such support for Ukraine could leave the door open to retaliation from Russia. Russia’s former president Dmitri Medvedev has already voiced its response by publicly acknowledging that Russia would have no problem in militarily assisting North Korea if Seoul decided to get involved in the war, supporting Ukraine by sending weapons. Yet, a hypothetical military assistance from Russia to Pyongyang to intimidate Seoul could also lead to unexpected Chinese opposition, as China is actively promoting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

Where is Europe?

To date, all pressure on South Korea to directly send weapons to Ukraine has come mainly from NATO and, more specifically, from the United States. There was some expectation that US President Joe Biden would pressure Yoon to send weapons to Ukraine during his state visit to the United States in April 2023. However, the Ukrainian issue was only touched on superficially in the meeting between the two leaders, with North Korea and China garnering most of the attention in the talks between Biden and Yoon.

South Korea’s participation in the NATO summit in Madrid last June 2022 marked Seoul’s rapprochement with Europe on security matters. Korea positioned itself as a major arms exporter, with a particular focus on markets in Europe, as well as a subsequent opening of a Korean diplomatic mission to NATO in November 2022. In this context, the EU and its Member States, which until now have been largely absent in persuading Seoul, Tokyo or other potential Asian allies, are expected to step up and play a key role. As a “showcase” of EU soft power in East Asia, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel met South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in Seoul for a Summit celebrating the 60th anniversary of EU-ROK relations on 22 May 2023. While Seoul has long supported the sanctions directed at Russia and Belarus, Brussels strongly believes that Korea can do even more in Ukraine. In this regard, Michel and Von der Leyen were expected to put pressure on Yoon to send lethal military aid and may have tried to pressure Seoul to convince other non-aligned Asian states to financially help Kyiv in its effort to resist the Russian invasion, in order to lighten the expensive burden of regularly shipping weapons to Kyiv. 

As Seoul’s main military ally, the US has the most relevant stake and say in the matter. It is more likely than hypothetical that South Korean military assistance to Ukraine will not arrive directly from Seoul, but rather through Washington or other indirect ways. In this sense, Poland, as one of the main buyers of Made in Korea weapons in the EU, could also play a fundamental role in transferring Seoul’s arms supplies. However, if Europe wants to share the burden of military assistance to Ukraine, Yoon will first need to be convinced.

Coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the EU and ROK, the leaders of both parties met at the Seoul summit in May 2023 in a positive and open atmosphere among like-minded partners. The meeting promoted enhanced EU-South Korea cooperation in sensitive sectors such as AI, the DPRK, a new Green Partnership and naval cooperation. They reiterated their strong condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and agreed that humanitarian aid and non-lethal military equipment will continue to be sent to Ukraine from Seoul, pledging to increase pressure on Moscow. Although Yoon is studying the possibility of militarily assisting Kyiv if Russia continues to perpetrate attacks on Ukraine’s civilian population and infrastructure, so far there have been no indications for Seoul to be sending weapons directly to Ukraine. This is due not only to the fact that Seoul prohibits the shipment of weapons to war zones, but also to the fear of Russian retaliation and to avoid setting a dangerous precedent. If Korea manages to dodge legal impediments and directly assists Ukraine militarily, what would stop other states from doing the same, which would be leading to a further escalation? For Korea and the EU, being like-minded partners with shared values and matching global visions, there is an ideal opportunity to strengthen their international potential and normative character by enhancing their security cooperation and arousing greater support for Ukraine, also at the multilateral level.

Author: Daniel Gracianteparaluceta, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons