Sep 05, 2023

Zeitenwende in South Korea: The Myth of Mutual Exclusivity

As South Korea positions itself as a “global pivotal state,” the country’s dual pursuit of a strong US alliance and greater strategic autonomy may well serve as a lesson for Europe.

South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol poses for a photo with Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, during their meeting at the Presidential Office in Seoul, South Korea, May 22, 2023.
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There is no doubt that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 shifted the European strategic environment in dramatic ways. In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ subsequent declaration of a “Zeitenwende” suggested a true watershed moment—not only in the country’s security policy, but in its energy and economic policies as well. After the mammoth undertaking of decoupling itself from Russian gas, Germany turned its attention to other dangerous dependencies: The summer months of 2023 saw the publication of its first ever National Security Strategy, and its own China Strategy.

While these steps signify a “waking up” to the geopolitical demands brought on by the Russian invasion and US-China rivalry, particularly the vulnerability of supply chains, Germany and Europe continue to rely more than ever on US strategic leadership—in both “de-risking” from China, and in supporting Ukraine.

With the specter of the 2024 US presidential election and a possible “Trumpism rebooted” (The Economist) haunting Europe, South Korea offers instructive geopolitical parallels. Having played the US-China balancing game for quite some time—and sitting uncomfortably next to its neighbors North Korea and Russia—South Korea sees itself as a “shrimp caught between whales” (as the Korean saying goes). It has faced perennial concerns of over-reliance on the US for security guarantees, and over-reliance on China economically. One major difference is that South Korea, unlike Europe and particularly Germany, has been awake to this reality for quite some time, and has actively sought to pursue a greater degree of strategic autonomy. 

Diversifying Strategic Ties

In 2016, South Korea experienced a rude awakening as China weaponized its economic ties following the US’ installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on Korean soil. Chinese sanctions against South Korean conglomerate Lotte, on whose land it had been installed, and the suspension of group travel tours to South Korea caused $7.5 billion and $15.6 billion in damages respectively.

To make matters worse,  then US President Donald Trump suggested in 2017 that South Korea foot the full cost of the THAAD deployment, despite previous agreements otherwise. As Eric J. Ballbach of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) wrote earlier this year, “these experiences underscored the vulnerabilities created by South Korea’s economic reliance on China, but also raised questions regarding the credibility of the US as a security provider.” 

Under former President Moon Jae-In, who was in office from 2017 to 2022, and previous administrations, South Korea had pursued a strategy of double-hedging or “strategic ambiguity” when it came to China and the United States, under the paradigm “US for security and China for economy” (anmi kyeongjung in Korean). The THAAD debacle prompted them to begin diversifying their economic and security ties in earnest.

This was a major motivation for Moon’s 2017 New Southern Policy for the Indo-Pacific, for example, which according to Ballbach sought to “reduce existing dependencies, secure new economic opportunities, and sustain foreign political autonomy.” This policy was replaced in 2022 by Moon’s successor President Yoon Suk-yeol, who put forward the more explicitly US-aligned “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region.” The result has been has been the same, though—increased regional involvement.

In practical terms, this has meant working with ASEAN to upgrade relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), the establishment of a five-year action plan (2021-25) between ASEAN and South Korea, and projects with individual partners such as its joint fighter jet program with Indonesia. South Korea has also made forays into Europe and the Middle East via arms deals. Ramon Pacheco Pardo of King’s College London, writing in Foreign Policy, has pointed out that this should be seen as more than just an attempt to boost Seoul’s trade balance: “South Korea isn’t just selling weapons for the sake of it; these sales are used as inroads for deeper cooperation with potentially valuable security partners.” 

Reaching Out to Europe, Japan, and Beyond

One example is the United Arab Emirates, with whom weapons transfers have gradually turned into “combined training exercises, anti-piracy cooperation, military equipment and technology development programs, and information sharing,” Pacheco Pardo writes. Another is South Korea’s historic 2022 arms deal with Poland, worth a staggering $13.7 billion. This massive deal—which included 1,000 K2 tanks, 627 K9 self-propelled howitzers, 48 FA-50 fighter aircraft, and hundreds of Chunmoo rocket launchers—was seen as a blunder on the part of the German arms industry.

Other neighbors of Russia have been stocking up on Korean weapons since, including Estonia, Finland, and Norway, but this has also been accompanied by a broader upgrading of relations with South Korea—from strategic partnerships with Spain and Austria, bilateral frameworks and information pacts with the United Kingdom and Germany, to expanded cooperation with NATO.

Under Yoon, South Korea has even been warming up to its neighbor Japan, despite the rocky historical relationship, culminating in a trilateral summit with the US at Camp David on August 18. Considering the poor state of Japan-South Korea relations under Moon, the institutionalization of such cooperation—regular summit meetings, a trilateral hotline, and joint military exercises, as well as collaboration on supply chain resilience and combating disinformation—has tremendous significance. Yoon’s willingness to work so closely with Japan, despite domestic disapproval, demonstrates the degree to which growing regional threats have pushed South Korea to diversify its strategic ties.

Domestically, too, South Korea is making strides to boost its own defense capabilities. In 2021 the US lifted its missile restriction guidelines, in place since 1979, allowing South Korea to develop more of its own missile and reconnaissance capabilities. To this end, South Korea is partnering with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch five surveillance satellites by 2025 as part of its “425 project,” introduced in 2018 to improve monitoring of North Korean military activities. Additionally, South Korea announced plans to establish a “strategic command” in 2024 that would oversee its preemptive strike strategy, and manage the various assets possessed by the different branches of the Korean military. 

The Myth of Mutual Exclusivity

What lessons might Brussels and Berlin take from all this? As one can observe in the Korean case, diversifying ties and pursuing greater strategic autonomy does not have to be mutually exclusive with a strong US alliance. Parallel to South Korea’s policy of strategic diversification, Yoon has aligned himself closely with Washington—joining the Chip-4 and US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and generally never missing an opportunity to sing “American Pie.” 

This hasn’t come at a cost to South Korea’s strategic autonomy—which some in Europe tend to pit against the transatlantic alliance. “I don’t think anyone is seriously arguing that stronger strategic autonomy should mean moving away from ties with the US,” Pacheco Pardo says. “They’re not mutually exclusive, they work in the same way as in Korea—together.” This kind of strategic diversification and defense build-up is actually a positive outcome for the US, too. “The more its allies and partners cooperate with each other, the less they will depend on Washington’s largesse,” he wrote in FP.

It would better prepare South Korea—and Europe —for a potential Trump administration redux come 2024. “There is a certain anxiety among Korean opinion leaders and political leaders,” says Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and professor at Stanford University. The feeling is:  “The alliance with the US is very important, but can you trust the US one hundred percent?” 

A Trump return may well be even more problematic for Berlin, where Scholz is dutifully following the strategic leadership of the United States, despite moves made by Germany’s other European allies. This could be seen in the standoff between the US and Germany earlier this January over whether to send tanks to Ukraine—despite the UK already having committed 14 Challenger tanks—and again with Germany’s hesitance to send its Taurus cruise missiles without a commitment from the Biden administration to send its own Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). The lack of European consensus on Ukraine, and Germany’s unwillingness to move without the US, exhibit a broader inability to take the reins strategically.

EU-South Korea Cooperation

Strategic autonomy is not necessarily limited to the defense and security sectors. As the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese economic practices, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have demonstrated, security is increasingly intertwined with energy, supply chains, and critical raw materials. Diversifying ties and taking a more active strategic leadership role not only ensures the resilience of Europe as well as South Korea, but also helps preserve a broader order of rules-based multilateralism and cooperation.  

As Ballbach writes, there are many avenues for potential cooperation between the two. At the highest level this might look like greater collaboration in maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, as well as in cybersecurity, the green transition, supply chain resilience, and joint science and technology projects. The 2016 EU-South Korea Framework Participation Agreement (FPA), which established the possibility of Korean participation in EU missions, and Germany’s recent move to ease the procedure for exporting defense equipment to South Korea—putting it on par with the EU and NATO—were two such steps in the security sector, offering some momentum on which to build.

There also needs to be a broader shift in cultural thinking, says Shin. “I don’t think Korea fully understands the [strategic] importance of the European countries,” he explained. The association most Koreans have with Europe is tourism and consumer goods, particularly luxury brands, and for many Europeans it is Korean entertainment and K-pop that come to mind rather than their weapons. “Korea can be a strategic asset to Germany and other European countries,” Shin says, something Europe also needs to understand better.

As South Korea positions itself as a “global pivotal state,” and the European and Indo-Pacific theaters become increasingly intertwined, the country’s dual pursuit of a strong US alliance and greater strategic autonomy may well serve as a lesson for Europe. Diversifying ties does not mean giving a cold shoulder to the US. Rather, it means bracing oneself for whatever might come next in global geopolitics.

Sonja Rose Stevenson is an undergraduate at Stanford University studying international relations, with specializations in international security and East and South Asia. She completed an editorial internship for Internationale Politik Quarterly in summer 2023.