EU–Korea security relations in the context of EU security policy in East Asia
The European Security Strategy (ESS) published in 2003 foreshadowed the development of EU-Korea security relations. The ESS stated that “problems such as those in the Korean Peninsula impact on European interests directly and indirectly... nuclear activities in North Korea ... are of concern to Europe.”1 In the subsequent years. Brussels and Seoul have coordinated sanctions against North Korea, while the EU has offered steady support for the Republic of Korea’s efforts to promote a peaceful, diplomatic solution. Moreover, the EU has taken the lead in international efforts to promote human rights in North Korea and remains one of the only outside parties to maintain a continuous presence on the ground in implementing humanitarian assistance.
The evolving security dynamics on the Korean Peninsula have offered the EU new opportunities for constructive engagement with South Korea, while Seoul has enacted a Crisis Framework Participation Agreement (FPA) with the EU and has begun to participate in EU common security and defense policy through cooperation in preventing piracy in the vital sea lanes around the Gulf of Aden.
The Framework Agreement - formally entered into force on 1 June 2014-lays out areas of cooperation on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), counter-terrorism, cyber-threats, money laundering and illicit trafficking, and promotion of human rights (and the international legal order more generally). Cooperation on cyber-threats has become institutionalized in the EU-ROK Cyber Dialogue, an annual official-level meeting, ongoing since 2013, for addressing cyber-space, internet governance, cyber-security, cyber-capacity building in third countries, and cybercrime. This form of cooperation has implications for North Korea, since Pyongyang’s elite cyber-warriors have successfully attacked European institutions, including the NHS in the United Kingdom (in the 2017 WannaCry ransomware hack) and Polish banks, as well as unsuccessfully the European Central Bank, German, and Czech banks.
Since 2017, the EU and South Korea have increased their collaboration -both at the bilateral level as well as in United Nations framework - on sanctions against the North Korean regime. South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European External Action Service (EEAS) are currently reexamining the Framework Agreement and Crisis Management Participation Agreement to find more synergies and strengthen and improve their implementation in light of the continued nuclear threat coming from North Korea and the evolution of security dynamics in East Asia. A matter of concern for both sides has been the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy has at times angered Washington’s European and Asian allies, leading the EU to increase efforts toward “strategic autonomy” from the US in the areas of foreign security and defense policy, and pushing South Korea to build up its military capabilities and reach out to other international actors such as the EU.
This chapter places the evolution of EU-Korea security relations within the broader context of evolving security dynamics in East Asia and US policy in the area. It begins by examining the US’ approach to the region, including an assessment of Tramp’s transactional foreign policy toward South and North Korea. The subsequent section presents the contours of EU security policy in East Asia. The last section discusses the differences between the EU and US regarding the question of Korean security, including their implications for the future development of EU-Korea security relations.
The United States’ approach to East Asia and Korean security
The US has had a large military presence in East Asia throughout the postwar period. Troop levels have varied over time, but there are currently 28,500 troops in South Korea and around 47,000 in Japan. Alongside its naval forces and missile arsenals, these form the basis of the US’ ability to project power in the region.
Since normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US has enjoyed an unrivaled position in North East Asia. The absence of a major threat to US interests in the region made Washington more amenable to discussing and entering into agreements with Pyongyang. The Bush administration agreed to withdraw US nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, and the Clinton administration entered into the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994.
However, the spirit of cooperation ended with the collapse of the Agreed Framework in the early 2000s. North Korea was producing high-grade uranium in contravention of the agreement, but the Bush administration had also failed to deliver on its promises. It had not supplied heavy oil to North Korea as agreed; it had delayed the construction of two promised light-water reactor power plants; and it had made no movement on diplomatic normalization and the alleviation of sanctions. Washington’s dwindling willingness to compromise and negotiate can also be explained by China's military advances. This new Chinese challenge was difficult to address head-on, and, since then, North Korea has provided a convenient excuse for the US to maintain its military presence in the region without having to confront its looming challenger.
The deterioration of the security environment in East Asia, including growing Chinese assertiveness toward its neighbors and the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, has led the United States to step up its military involvement in the region in the last decade. US President Barack Obama announced a policy of re-balancing toward the region -the so-called "pivot” - during his visit to Asia in November 2011.2 This stance was subsequently backed by the issuing of the US Defense Strategic Guidance in January 2012, which included plans to realign US forces and set up a new US Marine Corps base in Darwin, Australia, responsible for the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, with the aim of keeping China’s claims in the area in check.3
US President Donald Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy - enshrined in Washington’s National Security Strategy (NSS) published in December 2017 - builds on Obama's re-engagement with Asia, toughening, however, the US position against China. The 2017 NSS considers the Indo-Pacific region the most strategically important geographical area, but where China challenges America’s leadership and the rules-based order.4 In June 2019, the US Department of Defense issued the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, targeting an increasingly powerful China as the most ominous threat to US security interests hi the region.5 Besides China, both the NSS and the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report have identified North Korea as the other major challenge to US national security interests in the area.
US policy’ to North and South Korea
After the breakdown of the Six-Party Talks in 2009, the US hardly engaged with North Korea at all. Instead, the administration of US President Barack Obama adopted the tactic of “strategic patience,” which entailed maintaining sanctions and keeping pressure on North Korea to make it more compliant. By doing so, the Obama administration largely ignored North Korea after the collapse of the so-called Leap Day Deal, in which North Korea agreed to suspend missile- and nuclear-related activities following the death
EU-Korea security relations in the context of EU 17 of Kim Jong-il in 2012. US interest has been mainly to maintain the regional status quo, including its own military presence in East Asia. Containing China has become more important than resolving the North Korea issue.
In contrast to his predecessor, however, Tramp has actively tried to improve relations with North Korea. By offering improved relations to the regime in Pyongyang, the Tramp administration hopes to end Chinese influence over the country. A historical example of this approach is US President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1973, which aimed to divide the two most powerful communist states in the world: The Soviet Union and the PRC. This is also the perception among policy-makers in Beijing, who view all US actions as efforts to contain China’s rising power.
US policy toward North Korea seems thus to be driven by its interest in maintaining its power position in East Asia. Pyongyang has become useful fodder for the US to keep its military presence in the area without antagonizing China. However, this functioned well with conservative governments in Seoul. The election of President Moon Jae-in in 2017 has led South Korea to diversify its almost exclusive reliance on the US so as to hedge against Tramp’s transactional foreign policy toward Washington’s allies.
In November 2019, the defense ministers of South Korea and China agreed to develop their security ties, the latest indication that Washington’s long-standing alliances in the region were fraying. The Beijing-Seoul rapprochement coincided with growing resentment at the $5 billion annual fee for that year that Washington was demanding to keep 28,500 US troops in South Korea. That figure was a sharp increase from the S923 million that Seoul paid in 2018, which was an 8% increase on the previous year. As quoted in the Telegraph on 18 November 2019, an editorial in The Korea Times the day before warned that the security alliance between the two countries “may fall apart due to Washington’s blatantly excessive demands.”6 A recent survey by the Korea Institute for National Reunification showed that 96% of people were opposed to Seoul paying more for US military presence. There was also irritation at the pressure that Washington applied to the South to make Seoul sign an extension to a three-way agreement on sharing military information with the US and Japan.
The above tensions are compounded by diverging views between US President Donald Tramp and ROK President Moon Jae-in. Since his election on 10 May 2017, the ROK President has declared on a number of occasions his commitment to engage North Korea as well as promote regional cooperation and trust building. The US has given a lukewarm reception to Moon’s engagement policy with the North as well as to Moon's plans for strengthening Korea, China, Japan trilateral cooperation, and resuming the Six-Party Talks. While the Tramp administration has consistently downplayed - if not overtly opposed - South Korea's initiatives toward regionalreconciliation and trust building for fear of undermining Washington’s system of alliances in East Asia, the European Union has instead become the staunchest supporter of President Moon’s engagement policy with the North and South Korea’s neighbors. However, to understand such major differences between the transatlantic allies vis-à-vis Korean security, it is necessary to delve into the evolution of EU security policy in East Asia over the last few years.