Ambassador: EU and South Korea born to be best like-minded partners

Ambassador Yoon Soon-gu [Embassy of the Reublic of Korea to Brussels]

Climate change is likely to be a key area to strengthen cooperation between the Republic of Korea and the EU in the coming years, the country’s ambassador to Brussels, Yoon Soon-gu, told EURACTIV in an interview about multilateralism, climate cooperation and the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Yoon Soon-gu is the ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Belgium, Luxembourg, the EU and NATO. He provided written answers to questions by EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski.

The EU-South Korea relationship is underpinned by agreements on political relations and sectoral cooperation, free trade, and crisis management cooperation. What initiative do you expect from the EU side? Where do you see the potential for an expansion? 

The EU and the Republic of Korea are born to be the best like-minded partners, united by the common values and principles of democracy, market economy and the rule of law, as well as a shared commitment to global peace and prosperity. This is very well demonstrated in our Strategic Partnership, which has continued to evolve both in breadth and in-depth over the past decade.

Here are some examples to show our special relations.

Korea is the first country in the World to have concluded a trio of core agreements with the EU, namely the Framework Agreement, the FTA and the Crisis Management Agreement. In particular, Korea-EU FTA is the EU’s first trade deal with an Asian country, as well as its first “New Generation FTA,” which includes a chapter on Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD). This year marks the 10th anniversary of its entry into force.

Currently, the EU is Korea’s third-largest trading partner and the largest foreign investor for Korea, while Korea is the EU’s 9th largest trading partner. Our bilateral trade volume in 2020 recorded about 103 billion dollars, an increase of 3.8% compared to the previous year, despite the negative impact of the pandemics.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, our partnership has become even stronger. The Korea-EU leaders’ virtual summit was held in June last year to mark the 10th anniversary of the Korea-EU strategic partnership. The leaders shared their respective experience in dealing with the pandemic and explored further areas of cooperation.

This year in April, the first video conference between the speaker of the Korean National Assembly and the president of the European Parliament was held. In addition to these active high-level exchanges, we have witnessed significant progress on major issues of mutual interests, such as Korea’s ratification of the ILO core convention, EU’s initial adequacy decision of GDPR, and Korea’s declaration of 2050 carbon neutrality.

Notwithstanding the past successful 10 years of the Strategic Partnership, Korea and the EU stand at an important juncture to look forward and write a new chapter for our relations for the next 10 years. Korea is willing to work closely with the EU to make meaningful contributions to sustainable, inclusive and green growth, by promoting climate change actions, democracy and global peace and stability. We will also strive to strengthen multilateralism and international governance.

This year might serve as an important milestone on such a key agenda as climate change, as major international events including the P4G summit in Seoul, the G7 summit, and the COP26 are scheduled to be held. We are also hoping to hold the Korea-EU bilateral summit this year. I believe our valued strategic partnership is yet to reach its full potential and be beneficial not only to the two sides but globally.

The EU has launched a European Green Deal aiming at climate neutrality by 2050. Does Korea have a similar long-term growth strategy for transition to a sustainable digital and green economy? How can the EU and South Korea work together to promote global de-carbonization? 

The EU’s flagship policies under the new leadership, the European Green Deal and ‘Europe fit for the digital age’ are very much in line with our government’s New Deal, established in 2020 as a new national development strategy to transform its economic and social structure into a leading economy, a low-carbon economy and an inclusive society. The plan consists of three main areas, which are Digital New Deal, Green New Deal, and Safety Net Enhancement.

Among these three pillars, I want to briefly touch upon Digital New Deal and Green New Deal. Korea aims to lead digital transition with the Digital New Deal, which is aimed at improving the D.N.A. (Data, Network, and Artificial Intelligence), the digital transition of education infrastructure, nurturing contactless industry, and digitalization of social overhead capital.

And, the objective of the Green New Deal is to transform our economy into a low-carbon economy oriented to carbon neutrality; to strengthen the competitiveness of green industries; and to become a leading country in climate discussions in the international community. The main contents of the Green New Deal include green modelling, green smart school, renewable energy and an eco-friendly mobile system.

Furthermore, in October last year, the Korean government officially pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, as a proactive response to the international efforts to fight against climate change in line with the global trend of a carbon-neutral society and economy.

As President Moon Jae-in announced at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate recently convened by President Joe Biden, Korea will end public financing for overseas coal-fired power plant. Domestically, Korea has already stopped issuing permits for new domestic coal-fired plants since 2017.

I believe that climate change will be a key area to strengthen cooperation between Korea and the EU in the coming years. I hope that Korea and the EU search for various ways to promote cooperation in achieving carbon neutrality and promoting Green Deal policies in the international community. We could also think of forming a so-called ‘Green Alliance’ with like-minded countries that have actively addressed climate change, in order to facilitate a global transition to carbon neutrality.

In this context, the Korean government will host the 2021 P4G Summit in Seoul on 30-31 May under the theme of “Inclusive Green Recovery towards Carbon Neutrality.” The overarching aim for this Summit is to bring the international community closer together and strengthen climate action for the post-COVID world. I sincerely welcome the participation of both President Charles Michel and President Ursula von der Leyen in this P4G Summit, which would greatly contribute to making the summit a greater success.

The EU is planning to launch a carbon border adjustment mechanism in June. Are you in favour of that? What impact do you think it could have on EU-Korea trade? 

We are well aware that the European Commission is designing CBAM (Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism) as a part of the European Green Deal and it will propose legislation for introducing CBAM, most likely, in June. EU is the third biggest trade partner to Korea and, therefore, many Korean companies which have been exporting their products to the EU are very concerned about the possibility that CBAM may actually act as a new trade barrier. In this regard, I think that the European Commission needs to take into account a couple of points in designing CBAM.

First, some countries including Korea, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, and Norway are already implementing carbon-pricing at a similar level as the EU. For example, Korea introduced a national emission trading system in 2015 and about 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions, including in energy and industry, are subject to the emission trading system.

In addition, CBAM should comply with WTO rules and other international obligations. In the process of designing CBAM, it is necessary to carefully review and gather opinions on compliance with the WTO principles. In this regard, I think that it would be a great help if the EU provides sufficient information to all of its trading partners with a view to enhancing transparency.

In March, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on WTO-compatible CBAM. The resolution underlines that CBAM should not be used as a tool to enhance protectionism. But one of the controversial aspects of the resolution is that it can allow some heavy industry (cement, steel, chemicals, etc.) to get the benefit of receiving free emission allowances even after CBAM is introduced. At this point, we are waiting to see what CBAM will look like and also the legislation which the European Commission will put forward in July.

Is South Korea the EU’s alternative for speeding up 5G rollout on EU soil, given the negative attitude vis-à-vis the Chinese technology?

After Korea launched commercial 5G services for the first time in the world on 3 April 2019, the Korean government has been implementing policies to create the best 5G ecosystem and to foster new industries relevant to 5G through cooperation with the private sector.

As a result, as of February 2021, the number of 5G subscribers has surpassed 13 million, the number of base stations has increased to 170,000 across the country, while it is expected that the deployment of nationwide 5G networks will be fully completed by 2022.

In addition, Korean companies have been selected as 5G equipment suppliers to the US and Japanese 5G markets, and a report by a global research firm shows that Korea has established itself as the early market leader for 5G deployment. I believe that Korean companies with experience and excellence in technology can positively contribute to the EU’s efforts towards successful 5G deployment.

The US has been reaching out to the region as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, China has been deepening its strategic engagement with a massive infrastructure program (One Belt One Road Initiative), and now the EU recently presented its Into-Pacific strategy – What is your take with the latter? What are your reservations?

We would like to welcome the EU’s strategy as it is adopted in a timely manner. I would like to call the strategy an Indo-Pacific “cooperation” strategy because it describes well that the EU perceives the region as a subject of cooperation in an inclusive perspective rather than an object of geopolitical competition. Such inclusiveness and cooperative mindset of the strategy, not only the issues on focus, matches with values that the Korean government has been pursuing.

Korea has a similar policy to the EU’s one on the region, it is the “New Southern Policy (NSP)” which the Korean Government has promoted since 2017, and which recently has been upgraded to “NSP Plus” tackling COVID-19. Thus, Korea and the EU are on the same page. In this regard, we look forward to more details oriented at implementing specific projects in the Joint Communication on the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to be presented by this September.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev]

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