The Yoon Administration: EU Relations

Neither Eastern Europe nor North Korea but the Indo-Pacific is the Future: The Prospects and Challenges for EU-Korea Relations under the Yoon Administration

June 29, 2022

► From a security perspective, the EU-South Korea partnership has been marked by three key topics: the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, North Korea, and US-China strategic competition.

► It would be a smart choice for Yoon’s team to continue and expand on the New Southern Policy rather than trying to come up with a new framework.

► In the end, it will be neither Eastern Europe nor North Korea but the Indo-Pacific which will hold the key to the future of the EU-Korea partnership.



Just as President Yoon Suk Yeol has touched down in Europe to join the NATO summit in Madrid, all eyes have been on his upcoming trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida and US President Biden. Yet not only is he the first South Korean President to join a NATO gathering, but it is also President Yoon’s first trip to Europe as the new head of state since his election on May 10th.


What can we expect from his visit to Europe and, in fact, from the EU-South Korea relations under Yoon’s Presidency? Looking at the tense security situation across the world, what prospects – and challenges – may the two like-minded partners face in the next five years?


From the security perspective, the EU-South Korea partnership has been marked by three key topics. Whereas the Europeans have been consumed by the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine since February 2022, the South Koreans have been for decades preoccupied with their hostile neighbor next-door: North Korea. Both partners, however, have also increasingly been confronted with another common challenge: US-China strategic competition, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.


In Madrid, the key undertaking for the allies will be to work out how to help Ukraine without implicating NATO (and its partner nations such as South Korea) in a direct confrontation with Moscow. The days are gone when the presidential campaign of Yoon Suk Yeol claimed that Ukraine’s disarmament invited the Russian attack. Since then, South Korea has become one of the staunchest advocates for Kyiv in the Indo-Pacific and worldwide – joining the international sanctions, supplying humanitarian and non-lethal military aid and earning an honor of being designated one of the “unfriendly states” by Russian authorities – together with all of the EU, US and a handful of others. Particularly in contrast to many other Asian nations who strive to remain “neutral” (like India, most of ASEAN) at best and, at worst, back Russia, overtly (like North Korea) or covertly (like China), South Korea’s approach has been a forceful show of solidarity – and appreciated as such by the Europeans as well as President Zelensky.


Yet given that the war in Ukraine keeps raging with a mounting brutality, it is clear that more must be done. As much as Berlin has been blamed for dragging its feet in delivering heavy weapons to Kyiv, Seoul has not been much more forthcoming on this issue either: it has refused to send any antiaircraft missiles and other weaponry to Ukraine with the justification of needing it back home so as not to dimmish its military readiness to protect itself from a North Korean threat (and, one may add, to keep the Korean voters happy who are largely against sending any lethal equipment to Ukraine). Similarly, although South Korea has diligently implemented measures such as export controls, including helping force Russia out of the SWIFT payment system, it did not – as for instance Canada and Japan did – introduce its own individual restrictive measures.


Although there are no plans at the moment for a full-fledged EU-Korea summit, a pull-aside in Madrid with European Commission President von der Leyen is set in the calendar. If Yoon’s government is serious about becoming a “global pivotal state”, he may justifiably be asked to do more – both by EU and NATO representatives. In that regard, Seoul’s plan to accredit its ambassador to the EU and Belgium as an ambassador to NATO and hence establishing a mission to NATO might be a good step to help streamline communication – and avoid any potential misunderstandings – about Korea’s position. This might be a more productive effort than the visit by Yoon’s personal special envoy, Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, to Brussels earlier in June 2022 which did not yield much of a practical outcome thanks to the trip’s symbolic nature.


If the European leaders ask Seoul to step up regarding Russia, it is understandable that they will be in return asked by Yoon’s administration to do more on North Korea. Despite the overarching policy of “critical engagement” with the DPRK, the EU and its member states have been able to agree in recent years on the “critical” parts of this policy, such as tightening sanctions, rather than on the way how to engage Pyongyang. Since Yoon’s administration seems to be leaning towards a more hardline stance than his predecessor was, it may actually be easier for the two sides to get aligned. We may doubt the wisdom of such a return to pressure and deterrence. Nonetheless, Seoul and Brussels may actually now see better eye to eye with Yoon ‘s team than they did with the Blue House in the past. What should however be avoided at all costs is designing a new “Axis of Evil” between Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing. At least in the case of North Korea, lumping the three together could actually become a counterproductive self-fulfilling prophecy rather than an effective long-term tool.


Yet it is neither relationship with Russia nor the DPRK that may shape the EU-Korea partnership for years if not decades to come. Even though both Europe and South Korea are naturally inclined to be a part of America’s “club of democracies”, neither of the two “middle powers” wants to be pushed from this middle towards Beijing, or Washington. In this respect, Brussels and Seoul are much more on the same page than, say, with Tokyo or Canberra that are members of the US-led Quad (and the AUKUS, in case of Australia).


Whereas the EU has issued its strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific last year, South Korea launched its successful New Southern Policy under President Moon. It would be a smart choice for Yoon’s team to continue and expand on the NSP rather than trying to come up with a new framework. The EU looks to implement its vision through infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific funded through its Global Gateway public-private investment scheme. Joining hands with Seoul on such projects in third countries could be a good way to strengthen the EU-South Korea bilateral cooperation while bringing new Indo-Pacific states onboard and hedging against the global US-China competition.


Even though the trilateral meeting at the margins of NATO summit may catch the headlines and potentially improve the broken Korea-Japan relationship, which would be very welcomed by Europe as Brussels has always had hard time understanding the grievances between the two democracies and the EU’s closest allies. Yet it could be the other pull-aside at the summit’s sidelines between Yoon and von der Leyen that may kick off a new historic era for Korea-Europe partnership in the Indo-Pacific. Still, it is not only the European Commission which sets the regional agenda but also the European Parliament that has recently adopted reports on the Indo-Pacific and the EU’s six-months rotating Presidency which oversees the EU’s sectoral decision-making bodies. A visit by South Korea’s minister of trade Lee to Prague which coincides with the Czech Republic taking over the EU’s helm on 1 July is a positive sign in this direction. In the end, it will be neither Eastern Europe nor North Korea but the Indo-Pacific which will hold the key to the future of the EU-Korea partnership.


Dr Tereza NOVOTNÁ is a Korea-Europe Center Fellow at Free University (FU) Berlin and Korea Associate at 9DashLine. She previously held a Korea Foundation and Marie Sklodowska-Curie research projects on the EU and South Korea approaches to the Covid19 pandemic (“KOR-ON-EU”) and on the EU’s foreign policy towards North Korea (“EUSKOR”) at the Center for European Integration at FU Berlin. She is also a Senior Associate Research Fellow at the EUROPEUM, a Prague-based think-tank, which is focused on EU policies. In 2017-2018, Tereza was a Korea Foundation Visiting Professor at Seoul National University and Fudan Fellow at Fudan University in Shanghai. She collaborates with the Institute for European Studies, Université libre de Bruxelles where she held two postdocs from 2012 to 2017. Tereza received her doctorate from Boston University in 2012 and other degrees from Charles University Prague. She is the author of the monograph How Germany Unified and the EU Enlarged: Negotiating the Accession through Transplantation and Adaptation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and has widely published on EU foreign policy in, among others, Journal of Common Market Studies, Studia Diplomatica, and on the EU-North East Asia relations in 38th North, The Diplomat, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 9DashLine, Asia Trends and others. Tereza has been a frequent commentator for media outlets such as Indus News, Czech TV and NK News. You can visit her website at and to follow her on Twitter at @TerezaANovotna.