The EU-Korea Digital Partnership: Advancing cooperation in the cyber world

In November 2022, the European Union (EU) and the Republic of Korea (ROK/ Korea) set in motion their Digital Partnership. The initiative was largely anticipated by both partners and finally came to fruition after years of negotiation. The partnership sets a commonly accepted framework which aims “to collectively respond to the implications of emerging technologies on people, industry and society, and to develop and advance technologies, policies, and research cooperation”. How will the EU-Korea Digital Partnership be implemented and how will it address the ambitions it has put forward?

The need for a Digital Partnership

Digitalisation poses new opportunities for enterprises, societies and states alike, but with them come new challenges. Due to the nature of the internet and the cyberworld, it is a limitless space to store data, but it can also be prone to cyber attacks in which trade secrets, civilian sensitive data and state secrets can be compromised by malicious software. Both the EU and Korea are well advanced in their digitalisation processes, making them in need of safe connectivity routes and common digital standards so as to enhance their defences in the face of cyber attacks, while maintaining their edge in digital technologies. 

The Content of the Partnership: A cure to long-standing issues

Moving forward, the Digital Partnership aims to enhance the cooperation of the two partners in a wide range of fields, such as semiconductors, 6G mobile networks, quantum technology, High Performing Computing (“HPC”), cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence (AI),  digital platforms and standardisation and data and digital skills. 

In the light of the latest global events, both the EU and South Korea decided to work together in the supply of semiconductors. In particular, statements from both EU and Korean officials, as well as companies’ stakeholders, have stressed the vitality of cooperation on semiconductors also before in 2021. As both have enormous industries which produce products in need of semiconductors, ensuring stable supply chains is a top priority. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the production of semiconductors was significantly halted and delayed, with the market still facing deficits slowing down production of all goods containing them. Through their partnership the EU and Korea aim to strengthen the resilience of the semiconductor production chain, while actively supporting and encouraging research into creating their next generation(s). In 2020, the EU presented the “European Initiative on Processors and Semiconductor Technologies” joint declaration to boost its chip supply chain. Additionally, in 2022, the European Commission launched the “2030 Digital Compass”, which among others, aims to promote cutting edge semiconductors by doubling the EU share in global production by 2030. The EU bloc aims to acquire an even greater share in advanced chip output of 20 percent minimum. European companies have pledged 6 billion EUR in annual investments as well, providing the necessary funds to support the initiative. 

 A Korea-EU forum for semiconductor researchers will be launched to share information on the latest trends,  identify disruptions in the global supply chain, and discern opportunities for international standardisation of trusted chips and chip security.

The Digital Partnership aims to assist in collaborative research activities on “HPC processor technologies, high performance computing, quantum sensing, quantum communication (…) and quantum materials, components and equipment. Both sides intend to enhance cooperation on the supply chain (…), promote exchanges between high-level quantum researchers, engineers and students (…) and strengthen cooperation in international standardisation (…)”. Korea has already expressed its interest in participating in Horizon Europe, which could also serve the objectives of the EU-Korea Digital Partnership.

Regarding 6G mobile networks and cooperation in digital innovation, the EU and Korea stated that “both sides intend to build upon the Joint Declaration on Strategic 5 Cooperation in Information Communications Technology (ICT) and 5G, signed between the two sides in June 2014, and make full use of instruments such as the Horizon Europe, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, and Korea’s national research and development projects”.

There is a common goal of building a more inclusive digital society, to involve persons with disabilities as well as all other vulnerable users of the internet. Both sides are committed to promoting activities and encouraging citizens’ participation in training and research programmes. In addition, AI regulations will be reinforced in both entities’ jurisdictions, assisting in a more ethical use of the Artificial Intelligence tools. 

On the financial front, there is a growing awareness of the opportunities for enterprises in digitalising. Hence,small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), as well as start-ups will be supported in their innovation, growth and competition. Further promoting the digitalisation of SMEs will bolster their respective economic development. To substantially advance their cooperation, the EU and Korea are committed to balance innovation, safety and fairness in their digital trade, while keeping the competition fair. 

The Digital Partnership Council: A sigh of relief or a false safety net?

The Digital Partnership Council will serve as the instrument to monitor and review the results of the Digital Partnership on an annual basis. Consisting of an annual meeting at the ministerial level, it will ensure immediate cooperation on a high-level, while delivering its resolutions fast. Through utilisation of already existing platforms, such as the bilateral High Level Policy Dialogue on the Digital Economy, the FTA Committees, the ROK-EU Joint Committee, the Joint Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation established under the S&T Agreement, and dedicated expert workshops, the Partnership aspires to mobilise and deliver concrete results in the digital sphere. 

The Digital Partnership Council will serve as a useful mechanism. However, there is a catch to it as it “is not legally binding and is not intended to supersede national law or international obligations by which the sides are bound. It does not have any financial implications on either side.” The non-binding clause of the Digital Partnership is an issue noted in the EU-Japan Digital Partnership as well. Explicitly mentioning its non-binding nature seems to be a recurring theme in the EU’s Digital Partnerships. However, it could potentially decelerate future progress. While it certainly served as a way to offer flexibility to both parties and give them room to manoeuvre in promoting their respective interests, it may also be used as a trammel. 

Moderate optimism ahead

Overall, the EU-Korea Digital Partnership will act as a key instrument to advance bilateral cooperation in all vital aspects concerning the digital world. It aims to promote digitalisation as a whole, including aspects such as 6G networks, cybersecurity, AI, bilateral digital trade and digital tools for citizens. However, its weakness lies primarily in the non-binding clause, which could potentially derail its results if new administrations decide to change their course. Following current trends and much like the EU-Japan Digital Partnership, the EU-Korea Digital Partnership can also only go so far as  EU and Korean leaders allow it to and commit themselves. This will require a constant (re-)engagement by both sides, in which its full potential should be explored, making sure the tools provided by the Digital Partnership do not remain unused. Their respective leaders should strive to make it a successive initiative which can spiral into new forms of future cooperation. After all, both the EU and Korea consider each other to be reliable partners at the forefront of digitalisation. Setting common standards and boosting their cooperation can only prove to be mutually profitable. The Digital Partnership Council and Korea-EU Forum for Semiconductors Researchers will have to act as vital instruments to achieve this. 

Author: Eirini Boulia, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: Pixabay