South Korea wants closer ties with Western democracies to push back against authoritarian onslaught, NATO Parliamentarians told in Seoul

28 October 2022

Photos of the visit

The Republic of Korea (RoK) is concerned by the escalation of tensions in the Korean peninsula and across the globe at a time when authoritarian powers are bent on undermining the rules-based international order. Like-minded democracies in Asia, North America and Europe must double down on their partnership to confront these threats. This was the message that members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) heard repeatedly during their visit to Seoul from 18 to 22 October.

The delegation of two Assembly Sub-Committees – on NATO Partnerships (PCNP) and on Resilience and Civil Security (CDSRCS) consisted of 21 European lawmakers representing 13 NATO member states. The delegation was led by PCNP Chairperson Marcos Perestrello (Portugal) and CDSRCS Vice-Chairperson Muhammet Naci Cinisli (Türkiye).

Senior Korean government officials and legislators expressed particular concern about the increased belligerence of the North Korean (DPRK) regime. This year, Pyongyang has conducted a record number of missile tests – more than 40 launches – and, reportedly, was preparing for a nuclear test, its first since 2017 and the 7th overall. One expert from Korea’s leading thinktank – the ASAN Institute for Policy Studies – argued that the DPRK’s missile and nuclear doctrine has evolved in recent years, shifting the focus from defensive (the strategic deterrence of the United States) to offensive (threatening South Korea directly with short- and medium-range missiles) posture. The doctrine does not contain the ‘no first use’ principle, and Pyongyang signals its readiness to use nuclear weapons if it feels that the regime is threatened.

Various Korean and international interlocutors told the NATO PA delegation that, in 2017-2018, attempts by the previous RoK government – as well as by the previous US administration – to engage with Pyongyang led only to a temporary improvement of the security environment on the peninsula. Since 2018, this environment has deteriorated significantly as the DPRK reverted back to its nuclear and missile blackmail tactics hoping to achieve sanctions relief. The new RoK administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol pursues a clear-eyed foreign policy, focusing on deterring the DPRK, primarily through a closer alliance with the United States, the delegation heard.

At the same time, Seoul is open to engaging with Pyongyang, announcing what President Yoon described as an ‘audacious’ offer to provide significant economic, humanitarian and diplomatic assistance to the DPRK in exchange for rolling back its missile and nuclear programmes. As Park Jin, Minister of Foreign Affairs, told the delegation, Seoul hopes that Pyongyang “will make an audacious decision to accept our audacious proposal.”

Korean and international interlocutors were sceptical about the prospects of Korean reunification in the foreseeable future, albeit reunification remains the ultimate long-term strategic goal for RoK. Despite sweeping international sanctions, the DPRK is relatively self-sufficient. The food shortage is noticeable but not catastrophic, the delegation heard. The regime is also propped up by China and Russia. The younger generation in South Korea no longer has memories of the 1950-1953 Korean war and is increasingly distant from their northern neighbours. Many South Koreans are also concerned about the potentially enormous economic cost of reuniting the two countries with vastly different levels of prosperity, NATO Parliamentarians learned. As one Korean expert pointed out, at this stage, peace and stability in the Korean peninsula, not reunification, is the most urgent objective.

The new RoK administration has brought back the issue of human rights to the centre of the RoK’s North Korea policy. Some NGO representatives argued that this dimension has been somewhat neglected in recent years. RoK officials and civil activists told the delegation about massive and gruesome human rights violations in the DPRK, including torture, public executions, unlawful detainment, information lockdown and forced labour. Under the pretext of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, the restrictions have been tightened further. Ambassador Lee Shin-hwa, recently appointed by the new government as a special envoy on Human Rights in North Korea, called on Western policymakers to sustain global awareness of the tragic human rights situation in the DPRK and to use their international clout to make the regime accountable for its actions.

RoK-NATO and RoK-US cooperation are of crucial strategic importance for Seoul, the delegation heard. Korean interlocutors applauded the fact that President Yoon participated in the NATO Summit in Madrid. Minister Park and Minister of National Defence, Lee Jong-Sup, as well as Kim Jinpyo, Speaker of the National Assembly, and members of the parliamentary National Defence and Intelligence Committees called for further development of practical cooperation between the RoK and NATO, including enhancing interoperability through joint exercises and jointly tackling emerging security challenges. NATO Parliamentarians and their Korean interlocutors were united in their assessment of Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific security being closely inter-related. Minister Park also noted that participation in NATO meetings serves as a tangible incentive to consolidate the grouping of four like-minded Asia-Pacific countries: Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the RoK – the so-called Asia-Pacific Four (AP4).

With regard to the RoK-US alliance, President Yoon’s administration abandoned the so-called Three Noes approach (no additional deployment of US-made THAAD anti-missile system in the RoK; no participation in a US-led missile defense network; and no involvement in a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan). Seoul also joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), promoted by the United States and is considering joining the ‘Chip 4’, an alliance pitched by the US between major semiconductor producers. NATO Parliamentarians visited the US Forces Korea/United Nations Command/ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command at Camp Humphreys, the largest US military base overseas, where 28,000 deployed US and partner troops as well as crucial assets such as Patriot air defence systems, serve as a powerful representation of the US and international commitment to the protection of the armistice and South Korean sovereignty. The delegation also visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone and were briefed by representatives of the United Nations Command.

The Chinese factor looms large in Seoul’s strategic calculations. NATO Parliamentarians were told that for the RoK, the People’s Republic of China is a larger economic partner than the U.S., the UK and the EU combined. In the past, Seoul was hoping to compartmentalise its economic relationship with China and its security alliance with the US. However, the current RoK administration embraces a more holistic approach, recognising the interlinkages between political, security and economic policies. Minister Park stressed that the RoK sees itself as an integral part of the global camp of democracies, and that there is a clear ideological distinction between the RoK and China. Nevertheless, geopolitical realities dictate that Seoul must seek ‘harmonious’ and ‘trouble-free’ relations with Beijing. The Minister noted that South Korea’s technological leadership is a crucial asset for his country, ensuring that Beijing treats the RoK with respect. He urged Asian and Euro-Atlantic democracies to work closer together to maintain their technological edge – not only for economic, but also for strategic purposes.

Korean government officials and parliamentarians were united in their condemnation of Russia’s illegitimate and brutal war against Ukraine. Minister Lee noted that South Korea has joined the international sanctions regime, supported pro-Ukrainian resolutions at the United Nations and provides economic and humanitarian support to Ukraine. The Minister added that Seoul is considering additional options to increase support to Ukraine. Korean interlocutors stressed that their support for Ukraine stems from their sense of solidarity with a democratic country attacked by an authoritarian neighbour.

Given the RoK’s status as the 10th largest economy in the world with the 8th largest defence sector, Seoul periodically faces questions about potential military assistance to Ukraine. Several experts argued that due to the RoK’s vulnerable geopolitical situation and the DPRK’s connection with Russia, Seoul must act prudently to protect its own national interests. However, RoK’s defence sector is expanding ties with several NATO Allies. During their visit to Hanwha Defence, a leading Korean defence company, the delegation learned about Hanwha’s military products procured by NATO Allies Turkey, Norway, Poland and Estonia, while talks are underway with several other Allies. Some members of the NATO PA delegation argued during the discussions that military industrial cooperation between the RoK and NATO countries would benefit from the revision of South Korea’s so-called ‘offset’ policy, i.e., the obligation for the seller of military technology to make financial commitments related to industrial development of the RoK.

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