One June 29-30, 2022, a NATO summit was held in Madrid that was attended for the first time by the President of South Korea Yoon Seok-yeol. South Korea is not a member of the military alliance, but was invited as a partner country along with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
For Yoon, this was his first foreign trip as president – a sort of public outing and an opportunity to have a series of meetings with most of the heads of state who attended the event. In addition, Yoon was the first president of the ROK to attend a NATO summit.
It’s clear that the NATO summit itself and its outcomes are worth a separate text devoted to how, against the backdrop of the confrontation between the collective West and Moscow and Beijing, Washington would like to create a structure in Asia to occupy the NATO niche in terms of coordinating the actions of allies, or de facto “to extend NATO to the Far East.” We’ll talk about how the foreign policy debut of the new head of South Korea went.
What was expected from the trip?
Even before the start of the summit, the South Korean media wrote that “President Yoon Suk-yeol’s plan to attend a NATO summit will mark a turning point in South Korea’s multilateral diplomacy. The gathering… will provide a rare opportunity for Yoon to expand the country’s diplomatic horizons by stepping up security cooperation with the regional alliance.”
It was immediately noted, however, that while President Yoon’s invitation to the summit was a testament to Korea’s growing international status and strategic value in the Asia-Pacific region, it was also a veiled call for South Korea to join the US-led efforts to curb the rise of China. Yoon therefore needs to be careful to avoid a new confrontation with China, Russia, and North Korea.
As soon as it became known (June 22) that Yoon was going, the head of the national security department of the presidential administration, Kim Sung-han, stressed that the South Korean president’s participation in the summit was not a sign of the consolidation of Seoul’s unfriendly policy towards Russia and China, as opposition circles claim, but only aimed at expanding security cooperation.
It was also reported that South Korea has decided to establish a mission to NATO that will be headed by South Korea’s ambassador to Belgium (he’s equally the ambassador to the EU).
The summit was also expected to be the beginning of an improvement in relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which, by all accounts, have reached their lowest level since being established in 1965 due to the efforts of Moon Jae-in. At a minimum, the presidential administration received an offer from Japan to hold a quadripartite summit of “invited countries” – according to Yomiuri Shimbun, this would be “a way to express the four countries’ opposition to China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.” A “Washington-Seoul-Tokyo” meeting was also expected.
Beijing, however, immediately reacted to Yoon’s visit rather harshly. On June 23, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that the Asia-Pacific region is not a zone of NATO interests. The Chinese state media outlet Global Times said that Seoul’s relationship with Beijing would be more difficult if the Yoon administration gradually loses its diplomatic independence, relying on the US.
In response, John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the US National Security Council, pointed out that China doesn’t have the right to veto the participation of the ROK in any events, and the US allegedly doesn’t seek to create a version of NATO in the Asia-Pacific region by inviting allies to the alliance’s summit. The South Korean presidential administration also rejected China’s objections. Seoul noted that this has nothing to do with the assumptions about the efforts to involve the ROK’s in pursuing an anti-Chinese or anti-Russian policy.
On June 28, 2022, Yoon Seok-yeol arrived in Madrid and immediately began a series of bilateral meetings, starting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. The heads of the two countries agreed to actively participate in resolving regional issues, “promoting freedom, peace, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.” They also discussed expanding cooperation in the areas of energy, advanced industrial materials, rare mineral supply chains, and climate change. Yoon Seok-yeol and Anthony Albanese discussed North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, with Australia promising to continue to enforce strict sanctions on Pyongyang and reaffirming support for North Korea’s denuclearization. The South Korean president asked Australia to support the ROK’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo in Busan.
In the evening, Yoon took part in a gala dinner hosted by King Felipe VI of Spain. Yoon Seok-yeol and Fumio Kishida had a brief conversation there. Yoon Suk-yeol noted that the South Korean government intends to actively develop relations between the two countries, resolving disputes as soon as possible. Fumio Kishida expressed his gratitude, noting that he is aware of Yoon Seok-yeol’s efforts to improve bilateral relations.
On the morning of June 29, Yoon met with the King of Spain, and then took part in the actual summit. In his speech to NATO members and partner countries, Yoon spoke about the history of cooperation between South Korea and NATO since the two sides established partnerships in 2006. Yoon Seok-yeol then called on the international community to “clearly show that the will of the international community to denuclearize (the North) is stronger than its reckless will to develop nuclear weapons and missiles,” affirming that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions. In his speech, Yoon underlined that he hopes to see close cooperation with the countries of NATO, while pointing not to the containment of Moscow, Pyongyang, or Beijing, but to economic and cybersecurity.
Clearly referring to the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, but without mentioning Moscow by name, the president noted “moves to deny the universal values that we have defended amid the creation of a new structure of rivalry and conflict.” For comparison, Fumio Kishida, speaking at the opening of the summit, stated that “Japan intends to upgrade its partnership with NATO significantly after Russia’s special military operation against Ukraine as the security of Europe is inseparable from that of Asia.” Kishida highlighted that “the scope of the alliance is expanding, facing challenges from Russia and China.”
Likewise, Yoon didn’t make any promises when participating in a meeting with his colleagues from Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Yoon Seok-yeol said “I came away confident that Prime Minister Kishida will become a partner in resolving issues between South Korea and Japan, and in developing bilateral ties for the two countries’ future common interest.”
The next ceremonial event was the US-ROK-Japan trilateral summit, where Joe Biden stressed the importance of trilateral cooperation “throughout the Indo-Pacific, particularly in regard to addressing the evolving threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.” Opening the meeting, the South Korean president noted that cooperation between the three countries is becoming increasingly important in the face of growing nuclear and missile threats from Pyongyang, as well as global issues, and expressed the hope that trilateral cooperation will be an axis of peace and stability throughout the world. As a result, the leaders of the three countries called the meeting historic and agreed to hold consultations in the near future on raising the level of security cooperation. This provides for the consolidated adoption of military-technical measures (exercises, maneuvers, deployment of tactical and strategic assets, etc.) and economic ventures (tightening sanctions pressure). The idea of a trilateral exercise, during which the Japan Self-Defense Forces could land on the Korean Peninsula, was not put forward by him, but by Kishida – which provoked an uproar in Seoul.
On June 29, Yoon Seok-yeol gave a brief speech to reporters. In it, he announced the consistent strengthening of cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea on security issues in connection with the pace of development of the DPRK’s nuclear missile program.
Regarding the very fact of his presence at the event of the North Atlantic Alliance, the president of the Republic of Korea noted that from his point of view, the security situation in any particular region has a global effect, therefore, the resolution of such a crisis is impossible via regional efforts alone. The situation in Ukraine, in his opinion, serves as confirmation of this. It was thanks to this position that the participation of Asia-Pacific region countries in the NATO summit was even possible.
Per the author, most of Yoon’s time was spent not on ceremonial events (note that the tripartite summit lasted twenty-three minutes and was more of a joint statement), but on bilateral negotiations with the leaders of European countries, focusing them more on economic topics (political issues were touched upon briefly and mainly that “the parties confirmed together to achieve the denuclearization of the North”).
During talks with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Yoon discussed ways to deepen bilateral cooperation and a number of global issues, including North Korea’s nuclear program. Yoon also asked the Polish president to take a special interest in about 300 South Korean enterprises operating in Poland in the fields of electronics, automotive batteries, and information technology, and expressed hope for close cooperation between the two countries on the construction of a new airport in Poland. The leaders of the two countries additionally agreed to explore cooperation in the areas of nuclear energy and transportation of liquefied natural gas as part of efforts to achieve carbon neutrality and ensure energy security. Yoon praised the partnership between the two countries in various sectors, including defense.
During a meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the ROK president expressed hope that South Korean investments in ASML, a semiconductor manufacturer, and other Dutch core companies will contribute to building stable supply chains. Yoon additionally stated a wish that South Korean enterprises could take part in the construction of nuclear power plants in the Netherlands, and the leaders of the two countries agreed to continue negotiations at a working level. Seoul is interested in attracting Dutch technologies, equipment, and investments (primarily from ASML) in the semiconductor clusters being created in South Korea, as well as in obtaining contracts for the construction of nuclear power plants.
During talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, an understanding of the importance of space development, including the development of small- and medium-sized satellites, and nuclear energy in achieving carbon neutrality was indicated. Yoon Seok-yeol asked France to support the ROK’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo in Busan and show interest in the North Korean issue as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Macron replied that he would take the relevant considerations into account.
At a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, cooperation in the areas of offshore wind energy and sustainable shipping was discussed. The parties “agreed to continue to provide support at the governmental level to ensure the achievements of cooperation in these areas can materialize in the future.”
During a brief meeting between Yoon Seok-yeol and President of the European Council Charles Michel, an agreement was reached to expand cooperation in digital technology, climate change, and healthcare.
On the evening of June 29, Yoon managed to have dinner with representatives of the Korean diaspora in Spain at the Mandarin Oriental Ritz. Yoon promised them to review laws and policies to properly take care of the hardships faced by Korean residents abroad.
On June 30, Yoon held another series of bilateral talks. At a meeting with Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, Yoon called on the Czech authorities to consider the possibility of South Korean companies participating in a project to build a new nuclear power plant in Dukovany, as well as to support the bid of the Republic of Korea to host the 2030 World Expo in Busan. Fiala said he hoped bilateral cooperation would expand to “future industries” such as electric vehicle batteries and hydrogen.
During a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the president of the Republic of Korea expressed confidence in the possibility of enhancing bilateral cooperation in economic security and in the advanced industries of the future. The parties agreed to intensify cooperation in restoring the supply chains for key mineral resources. Additionally, it was the only meeting in which the Ukrainian topic came up openly. Trudeau praised South Korea’s support for Ukraine and promised Canada’s help until Ukraine’s sovereignty was fully restored, while Yoon said Russia’s “illegal” invasion of Ukraine could not be justified and that South Korea would also provide humanitarian aid to rebuild Ukraine.
A common program for the development of bilateral relations in the fields of politics and security, science and technology, education and culture, as well as the issue of revising a free trade agreement in order to expand the scope of cooperation on digital trade and supply chains was adopted during talks between the South Korean president and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The parties reaffirmed the two countries’ commitment to defend common values such as democracy and human rights and to jointly respond to global challenges, such as pandemics and climate change. They also agreed to intensify strategic cooperation in terms of nuclear energy.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula was discussed during a brief meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Yoon hoped that bilateral cooperation will expand after the signing of a new partnership in the second half of this year following the opening of South Korea’s mission to NATO.
On the way home on board his plane, Yoon Seok-yeol organized a press conference about the results of his participation in the NATO summit. There, he once again noted that Seoul’s interaction with NATO or the US-ROK-Japan triangle is not directed against any particular country (a nod, first and foremost, to China, but a rather unconvincing one). According to Yong, South Korea has been successful in drawing attention to the DPRK’s nuclear missile program and the need for a tough response to Pyongyang’s “provocations,” and the tripartite summit was one of the three most important events. It is equally important that the Republic of Korea may be of interest to Europeans as a partner for cooperation in nuclear energy, a supplier of weapons and military equipment, plus there is support for South Korea’s application to host Expo 2030.
Yoon, of course, worked hard, holding 13 meetings and negotiations in various formats in less than three days, not counting the presence at the summit itself. In fact, he didn’t so much go to the NATO event as he used this opportunity to talk with European leaders all at once on issues that were only partially related to NATO. Via his bilateral meetings, Yoon sought to empower South Korean businesses and build support for Busan’s bid for the 2030 World Expo, and promoted South Korean exports, particularly in nuclear power, advanced technology, and the defense industry. Let us recall that South Korea is currently negotiating the sale of such weapons systems as the FA-50 light combat aircraft and the K2 Black Panther battle tank with Poland.
The fact that Yoon presented quite well-developed initiatives almost everywhere speaks to the work of his administration, although time will tell how much these agreements will turn into something more.
Yoon also appeared at the ceremonial events, and although all the usual remarks about the friendship between the ROK and the United States and the threat from the North were said, the author considers them rhetoric, whose absence from a NATO summit would be strange – it’s more interesting what Yoon did NOT say. And this is what is evident – the president of the Republic of Korea did not make any direct promises and did not make open anti-Russian or anti-Chinese statements. As the press noted, “since South Korea is a partner country of NATO, and not a member, Yoon did not join member nations in strongly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the adoption of a new strategic concept singling out ‘systemic challenges’ posed by China.” The exception was the meeting with Trudeau, who clearly wanted Yoon to supply Canada with weapons to replace those sent by Ottawa to Ukraine, but, we note, Yoon did not make such a promise.
We know that the United States asked South Korea to support a proposal to cap the price of Russian oil as part of international sanctions against its invasion of Ukraine. Undersecretary of the Treasury for Counterterrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson did this during his recent visit to Seoul. Then, on July 1, Minister of Economy and Finance Choo Kyung-ho and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen held a conference call to discuss capping Russian oil prices ahead of her scheduled trip to South Korea on July 19-20. The Korean minister expressed an “understanding” of US actions, while asking for a concrete action plan to set a cap on Russian oil, and such a long discussion tells the author that Seoul is clearly not going to support Washington’s initiatives 100% without additional pressure during Yellen’s visit.
Yoon’s remark at a meeting with the Danish head of government deserves attention: the international community will have to leave the door open for dialogue with North Korea, but firmly respond to its provocations.
Relations with Tokyo ended in semi-success. Yoon and Kishida saw each other five times, but the leaders didn’t have a normal opportunity to talk one-on-one. According to the South Korean government, during the contacts, a proposal was voiced to make joint efforts to improve relations. Japanese, however, per the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, demanded that the ROK be the first to take a step towards resolving bilateral disputes. Nonetheless, the parties agreed with Yoon’s position that contentious historical issues and future prospects should be discussed together at the same negotiating table.
In conclusion, let’s pay attention to Yoon’s remarks, which may betray his personal diplomatic strategy: “South Korea’s diplomacy has been focusing on how to deal with a certain country… But as I said in my NATO speech, it is important for South Korea to pursue common values and rules, and unite with others when those values and rules are violated. There is no need to mention a certain country.” This is quite an interesting approach and we’ll see where it leads.
As a whole, the previously unprofessional politician coped rather well, and if he caved in to Washington, he did so less than some expected him to.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.