Putting the EU-South Korea partnership to work

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Polish workers assemble LCD TVs at a plant of South Korean consumer electronics manufacturer LG Electronics Co. in Wroclaw, Poland on 3 September 2007. [Yonhap/EPA/EFE]

The EU-South Korea summit taking place today (18 October) symbolises the EU’s close and multifaceted partnership with South Korea. Yet, Brussels and Seoul should take some practical steps to strengthen their relationship, argue Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Linde Desmaele and Maximilian Ernst.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo is the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Reader at King’s College London, Linde Desmaele is KF-VUB Korea Chair PhD Researcher and Maximilian Ernst is KF-VUB Korea Chair Researcher.

South Korea is the only country in the world with political, economic and security agreements with the EU in effect. The EU has arguably become South Korea’s closest international partner, US aside.

Brussels and Seoul are like-minded partners cooperating on everything from climate change and green growth to dealing with North Korea’s nuclear programme. Their bilateral relationship is underpinned not only by mutual interests but also by shared values.

Both sides, however, feel that the EU-South Korea strategic partnership is yet to reach its full potential. Indeed, Brussels and Seoul can do much more to strengthen cooperation. In a new report launched to coincide with the ninth EU-ROK summit being held in Brussels today, we take stock of the bilateral relationship and provide several recommendations to put the partnership to work.

For the EU and South Korea can and should take advantage of the elaborate institutional framework in place to further help safeguard each party’s interests at the global level.

The good news is that Brussels and Seoul have a very strong basis on which to build closer relations. When it comes to the political relationship, there are 40 different official exchanges in place, covering areas as diverse as cyber-security or fighting illegal fishing. European and South Korean experts from a wide range of fields meet on a regular basis, forging strong personal connections.

If we look at economic relations, trade in goods has sky-rocketed from €66 billion in 2010 to €94 billion last year, partly thanks to the EU’s first-ever ‘new generation’ FTA. Regarding security cooperation, the South Korean navy has provided support to EU NAVFOR in the Gulf of Aden.

But much more can be done. Since 2010, when the EU and South Korea upgraded their relationship to a strategic partnership, top-level summits have not been held on a regular basis. For example, today’s summit is the first in three years. This is regrettable.

Summits should be held on an annual basis. Dialogues and working groups are the real backbone behind practical cooperation. But summits involving the presidents of the European Council, the Commission and South Korea symbolize the commitment of both parties to their partnership. They give diplomatic impetus to the relationship.

Similarly, it would be advisable for the European Parliament to launch a separate delegation for relations with Seoul. South Korea is Brussels’ only strategic partnership out of ten without its own delegation.

It is dealt with through a Korean Peninsula delegation. Inevitably, this results in North Korea taking much of the delegation’s time. Both the EU and South Korea would benefit from a separate delegation able to cover a broader set of issues. Including security matters of great interest to the EU, such as data protection.

Security issues on which the EU and South Korea can create deeper bonds include information sharing and the universalization of non-proliferation and cyber-security cooperation. Brussels and Seoul have fairly similar regulatory frameworks in both areas.

They also have the necessary financial resources and experts. Very important in this day and age, they are both committed to putting multilateral institutions at the centre of the fight against global security threats. This applies to the area of non-proliferation in particular.

There are more reasons for them to cooperate than for shying away from doing so.

Peace-keeping is another area in which the EU and South Korea should trial cooperation. Several EU member states and South Korea are amongst the largest providers of people in the field among developed countries.

Europe and South Korea have lots of experience in the areas of post-conflict reconstruction and capacity-building. The language barrier is the main obstacle to incorporating South Korean peace-keepers into EU missions. But a relatively peaceful post-conflict reconstruction mission could serve as a good place to start.

Moving into economic cooperation, sustainable development is an obvious area for Brussels and Seoul to work with each other. Together, the EU and its member states are the largest providers of aid. South Korea is the first former aid recipient to become a donor.

It would make sense to pull resources together and have more common projects or work through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations Development Programme. Particularly in Southeast and South Asia, where both Europe and South Korea are large donors. Incidentally, the EU and South Korea should also support their own sustainable development by sharing best practices where applicable.

Last, but not least, connectivity is an area where Brussels and Seoul are ripe to put their money where their mouth is. The Foreign Affairs Council adopted the EU’s Asia connectivity strategy earlier this week.

The current South Korean government has its own New Northern Policy aimed at connecting Eurasia. As a starting point, institutions such as the Asian Investment Facility or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should start exploring the possibility of supporting Seoul’s proposed investment programme in North Korea.

If and as sanctions on Pyongyang start to be eased, it will become the main gateway to connect South Korea with Europe.

This might sound like a broad and disconnected wish-list, but it is not.

As we show in our report, the EU and South Korea can start working together on these and other issues making use of existing dialogues, institutions, expertise and funding sources. With the necessary political will, the EU-South Korea partnership can be put to work in more areas with relative ease.

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