Yoon Soongu is the ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Belgium, Luxembourg, the EU and NATO.
Fifty-eight years ago, on July 24 1963, the Republic of Korea and the European Economic Community (EEC), the former name of the current European Union (EU), established diplomatic relations. At that time, it was hard to predict what future was lying ahead for this partnership. Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, and the EEC was struggling to forge paths to peace and prosperity after the two terrible World Wars, through economic cooperation among its then six member states.
However, if we look back at the path our partnership walked through, it is simply remarkable. The EU, composed of 27 member states, has become the third largest trading partner and the largest foreign investor in Korea, and Korea has rapidly developed to become the tenth economic power in the world. Korea and the EU upgraded their relationship to a “Strategic Partnership” in 2010, and Korea became the first country to have concluded all three key agreements with the EU in areas of free trade, security, and crisis management.
Of course, the Korea-EU FTA has served as the backbone of our relationship for the past decade, as the EU’s first trade deal with an Asian country as well as its first “Next Generation FTA” that includes a sustainable development chapter. But as the name “Strategic Partnership” indicates, our relation has developed into a more comprehensive one that has certain added value. We have worked closely with each other to reinforce rules-based international order and multilateralism, and address global challenges, based on the shared values and common interests, and through a variety of strategic dialogue channels held regularly.
This year, even amidst the huge challenges caused by the COVID-19, the Korea-EU partnership has continued to flourish and expand both in depth and width. It achieved meaningful progress in issues of mutual interest, such as Korea’s ratification of the core ILO conventions, the EU’s initial adequacy decision of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations), and Korea’s declaration of 2050 carbon neutrality. Moreover, we held our ‘High-level Political Dialogue’ for two consecutive years in 2020 and 2021 to discuss how to deal with common problems such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and to ensure global peace and stability by cooperating on anti-piracy, terrorism, cyber, and in other security arenas.
Despite all these brilliant achievements, the unprecedented challenges the global community is still faced with are providing a compelling reason for Korea and the EU to open up a new cooperation chapter. The rivalry between the US and China is growing, while more and more global issues demand consensus and cooperation among countries. Climate change is posing a grave threat to the existence of mankind. There are many newly-emerging unconventional security threats. COVID-19 continues to remind the entire world that neither one single country nor one single vaccine can tackle the threat of pandemics. And ironically, the pandemic has also accelerated digital transformation of society, which requires our agility to adjust to.
As our strategic partnership celebrates its 11th anniversary this year, the time is ripe for us to take our relationship to a new height again. In order to make our relationship still relevant for our common interests as well as those of the global community in the future, we need to actively broaden the spectrum of our partnership, not only for the sake of our two sides, but also for the entire world.
In efforts to curb climate change, the Korean government committed to pursue a Green New Deal, which is quite in line with the EU’s ‘European Green Deal.’ The Korean government officially pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 as a proactive response, and enhanced the 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution goal. It also recently affirmed its strong commitment to cutting methane emissions by joining the Global Methane Pledge launched by the EU and the United States.
Korea and the EU will continue to cooperate in enhancing the emissions trading system and promoting eco-friendly industries, taking advantage of existing dialogue channels such as the “Green Deal Dialogue” and the “Working Group on Environment, Energy and Climate Change.” The two sides are also in discussion to form a so-called “Green Partnership” with an aim to contributing to a more sustainable and green growth.
Korea and the EU are also strengthening cooperation in public health emergency response, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. We have learned the lesson that global cooperation and unity are not the matter of choice but the matter of necessity in order to overcome such a large-scale pandemic and that in particular, cooperation for expanding vaccine production capacity as well as ensuring equitable distribution of the vaccines are pivotal.
The EU has supported the development of vaccines since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak and is currently producing and exporting the largest number of vaccines around the world. It is also leading vaccine support for low-income countries. Korea is also recognized not only for the effective tackling of COVID-19 but also its top-notch bio-pharmaceutical production facilities and high-quality products. Korea ranked 4th in the world after the US, Germany and Ireland in terms of biologics manufacturing potential. Currently, Korea is producing major vaccines including Moderna, Novavax, and AstraZeneca, and many Korean companies are further expanding their production capabilities. In addition, just as the EU Commission established the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) in September, Korea also set up the Global Vaccine Hub Committee in August, to promote vaccine development and production as well as improve future pandemic response capabilities.
In this vein, we could positively consider signing a comprehensive Vaccine Partnership between Korea and the EU to cope with future pandemics. It is not only beneficial in bilateral terms, but it could also contribute to the global efforts to overcome any pandemic by facilitating global vaccine production and distribution.
Last but not least, we might say that Korea and the EU are the born-to-be partners in the digital sector. Korea is regarded as the most innovative country in the world, ranking first in the 2021 Bloomberg Innovation Index, and leads the world in gross domestic spending on R&D. It has also volunteered to become a testbed for new technologies, creative ideas and ventures, and innovation. The EU, in its recently-announced Indo-Pacific Strategy, specifically put out its willingness to strengthen digital cooperation with Korea, by signing a Digital Partnership Agreement, and expand cooperation in such areas as the diversification of supply chains, the environment, and research and innovation.
As renown historian Arnold J Toynbee stated, civilizations have arisen in response to a set of challenges of extreme difficulty throughout our history. Our future depends on how we respond to the current challenges. If we stand the test of times and move forward, the global community can make a big leap toward a better and greater future. At this difficult time of uncertainty, close cooperation between the best like-minded partners such as Korea and the EU is necessary more than ever. If we gather our wisdom and join hands to prepare for a new partnership that moves beyond a mere economic cooperation to encompass a global agenda of climate action, digital, vaccine, and supply chains, as well as security and political fields, I am sure the Korea-EU partnership can set the good precedent to the world as a future-oriented and co-prosperous one that is versatile and able to contribute to the global good.