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Strengthening British-South Korean relations

Amidst the ongoing erosion of the open international order by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia, the United Kingdom (UK) and Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) have united in expounding their commitment to democratic institutions, the rule of law, and fostering sustainable global peace and prosperity. Whilst the UK’s decision in December 2022 to negotiate an enhanced Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South Korea reflects strengthening bilateral economic ties, it also represents an opportunity for the two states to upgrade their political relations. As South Korea uncovers its Indo-Pacific strategy, eager to bolster its reputation as a ‘global pivotal state’, the FTA will allow London and Seoul to collaborate, more broadly, as ‘regional strategic partners’. Yet, rhetoric alone is not enough to strengthen and sustain the open international order. 

The enhanced FTA represents a conscious attempt to modernise the EU-ROK FTA of 2011, this time in a post-Brexit context. South Korea currently sits as the tenth largest global economy and is the UK’s 20th largest trading partner. In 2021, bilateral trade was worth £14.3 billion, and British exports to the ROK amounted to £1.4 billion. 

Evidently, trade between the two countries is already relatively strong and is now diversifying into more strategic sectors; Britain has capitalised upon South Korea’s status as the second largest global producer of semiconductors. A UK-ROK agreement in February 2022 sought to strengthen certain supply chains damaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, notably of semiconductor chips. 

Economic cooperation has also diversified into green investment. Earlier this year, Britain’s Department for International Trade signed an agreement with the Korean Investment Corporation, a South Korean government-owned organisation, to strengthen South Korean investment into sustainable energy projects in the UK. A £260 million investment in wind energy by South Korean firm, SeAH, aims to create over 750 jobs for British workers by 2030.

The enhanced FTA is far from a mere post-Brexit technicality and highlights how South Korea is more than an economic partner. The deal represents a natural upgrading of broader bilateral relations between two states united by common foreign policy objectives, including but not limited to the economic domain.

Indeed, the desired trajectory and beneficial nature of the relationship was substantially fleshed out in the UK-ROK bilateral framework for cooperation of June 2022, and carries considerable implications for the Indo-Pacific policies of the two states. One common goal for both is to catalyse regional economic integration in the Indo-Pacific, exemplified by an eagerness to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. South Korea decided to join the tariff-eliminating agreement in April 2022. Negotiations for the UK’s accession commenced in June 2021, and moved into the second phase in February last year.

Both South Korea and the UK have vociferously expounded the language of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ in their policy rhetoric, but have been more hesitant to specify their relationship with the region. The recent unveiling of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, by Yoon Suk-yeol, the South Korean President, is no exception. The Strategy emphasises the need to ‘build a sustainable and resilient regional order’ in the face of a growing nuclear threat emanating from the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK), and at a time when Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of the DPRK, has pledged to increase the state’s nuclear arsenal by an ‘exponential’ amount. 

Unlike South Korea and the US, Britain has maintained diplomatic relations with the DPRK since 2000. London, therefore, has the potential to foster dialogue with Pyongyang, if the latter is willing.

Both the South Korean and British governments have emphasised commitments to ‘shared values’ – a term mentioned nearly sixty times in the UK’s Integrated Review – with regional and global allies. Seoul’s Indo-Pacific policy, however, is predicated upon a new conceptualisation of South Korea’s international status. No longer a ‘middle power’, the ROK is defined as a ‘global pivotal state’ that promotes and upholds the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. This self-styled ‘global pivotal’ status, however, underscores a paradox. Yoon’s Indo-Pacific vision rests upon cooperation with its ironclad allies and partners, not least the United States (US), to address mutual challenges, such as the expanding nuclear ambitions of the DPRK. Nevertheless, Seoul must also fashion an ‘independent’ foreign policy that prioritises South Korea’s interests in this new era of geopolitical competition. In this vein, the UK can be one reliable partner. 

Although Britain does not carry obligations to defend the ROK if attacked, it will become an ever-important strategic partner for South Korea. The maritime domain offers one useful area to bolster bilateral security relations, as witnessed in the staging of joint UK-ROK naval exercises – for the first time in history – around the Korean Peninsula in August 2021. Moreover, British and South Korean naval forces participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific military exercises. The two states should further cooperate in strengthening maritime capability-building, which would also work towards fulfilling South Korea’s national interest in bolstering its naval forces. 

Secondly, an upgraded UK-ROK economic relationship may also fortify confidence-building between the two, as Seoul seeks to underline its commitment to Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Beyond being invited to this year’s NATO Summit – and the establishment of South Korea’s Diplomatic Mission to NATO in November – the ROK signed a US$6 billion (£4.95 billion) arms deal with Poland in August to aid Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression. Whilst South Korea has a myriad of European partners, the UK will be a reliable ally in addressing regional and global security threats which also affect Europe. Steps have already been taken: the first UK-ROK Defence Strategic Dialogue, which took place in June, saw both sides commit to enhancing defence space cooperation; monitoring sanctions on the DPRK; and establishing sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula. Unlike South Korea and the US, Britain has maintained diplomatic relations with the DPRK since 2000. London, therefore, has the potential to foster dialogue with Pyongyang, if the latter is willing. 

The FTA represents a natural upgrading of broader bilateral relations between two states united by common foreign policy objectives, including but not limited to the economic domain.

London will also prove a useful ally for Seoul as both states increase their focus on the Indo-Pacific but also attempt to manage increasingly uneasy relations with the PRC, which is simultaneously an economic partner and geopolitical competitor. The Yoon administration remains seemingly reluctant to accept the realities of such competition with its largest trading partner, as evidenced by the minimal mention of the PRC in South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, in contrast to that of the US. Over 60% of the ROK’s crude oil imports pass through the South China Sea. 

Nevertheless, Beijing’s serial undermining of the US-ROK alliance and international norms of non-interference and democracy, such as witnessed in the stationing of overseas ‘police stations’, as just one example, have rendered the ‘systemic challenge’ posed by the PRC to the open international order much more salient. Just over a month ago, Chinese and Russian fighter jets infiltrated South Korea’s Air Defence Identification Zone, in response to which the ROK dispatched its own aircraft. Yoon’s balancing act may become increasingly difficult.

The UK’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific is central to Britain’s global role after Brexit: economically competitive and concerned for global security, all whilst pursuing an foreign policy that places the UK as a bastion of the open international order. Putting the ‘tilt’ into action means going beyond bilateral engagement with regional allies and partners to engaging with regional economic and security fora, whether the Quad dialogue or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Both South Korea and the UK should utilise their positions as ASEAN Dialogue Partners to enhance bilateral and multilateral engagement with the institution. President Yoon’s recent calls to forge closer ties with ASEAN through the ASEAN-ROK Solidarity Initiative underscores the urgency that Seoul feels is necessary to address regional security concerns, not least the PRC’s militarisation of the South China Sea. The UK also agreed to a (detailed) Plan of Action with ASEAN – until 2026 – in deepening political, economic, and cultural cooperation. 

As James Cleverly, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, remarked in December 2022: ‘Britain has leverage…I will make a long-term and sustained effort to revive old friendships and build new ones.’ South Korea is one such old friend; strengthening ties with the ROK will offer one way for Britain to use such leverage, and for both states to accompany common rhetoric with action. The revival of old friendships will be necessary not only to defend the open international order, but also to allow it to flourish.

Dr Edward Howell is Lecturer in Politics at New College, University of Oxford. His book, North Korea and the Global Nuclear Order: When Bad Behaviour Pays, will be published by Oxford University Press in May 2023.

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