Europe sees Korea as closer partner on energy and security amid geopolitical crisis: experts
“It has become very difficult politically in Europe to involve Chinese or Russian companies, so they look to countries that have the technology and obviously Korea is one of them,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy (CSDS) of the Brussels School of Governance, referring to the chance for more cooperation between the EU and Korea on nuclear energy.
Pacheco Pardo put together a report, “Korea-EU Cooperation: Moving to the Next Level,” with Kim Chang-beom, a former career diplomat with 39 years’ service, including as ambassador to the European Union (EU) and Belgium from 2012 to 2015, who is currently advisor at the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies, and Michael Reiterer, distinguished professor at the CSDS and former EU ambassador to Korea.
The report, released on April 26, lists recommendations for bilateral cooperation in the lead up to the inauguration of the Yoon government in Seoul. Six other experts contributed including former Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, former Ambassador to the U.S. Ahn Ho-young and President of the Brussels School of Governance Karel De Gucht.
In addition to upgrading their bilateral FTA to incorporate increasingly digitalized commercial activities, the report suggests closer cooperation between the EU and Korea on green tech and renewables, as well as on managing regional geopolitical rivalries.
“What the new government in Korea should pay attention to and prepare for while looking at the Ukraine crisis is Russia’s comments on use of nuclear force,” Kim told the press at the Korea Press Center on April 26. “The North has also recently talked of ramping up its nuclear weapons, and it is in the backdrop of such settings that we have to seriously reassess the North’s nuclear capabilities to ensure we have enough deterrence capacity against their provocations.”
To hear more from the authors of the report, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Pacheco Pardo, Kim and Reiterer at the Plaza Seoul in central Seoul on April 27. Reiterer joined the conversation virtually.
The following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. You recommended in the report that Seoul and Brussels work together to mitigate the negative effects of U.S.-China rivalry and to ensure the U.S. “does not turn on its allies" amid worsening tensions with China. Do you think the EU and Korea see more eye-to-eye on dealings with China, more than they do with Washington?
A. Pacheco Pardo: I think so. The European Union is advocating engagement with China when possible, it is not calling for diplomatic isolation of China. Decoupling [between the EU and China] isn’t realistic when we consider trade relations, and in that sense there are parallels [between the EU perspective] and the Korean. […] You don’t need to unnecessarily confront China just for the sake of it. There are instances when you have to confront it, such as in the case of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the EU is trying to advocate discussions with China to see if it is possible to change their position.
Reiterer: The EU was innovative to come up with the title for China as “a partner for cooperation and negotiation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.” It gives the possibility to partners like Korea to follow that path, an open approach and not a containment. […] When I look at the Korean side I would say that the New Southern Policy is the perfect hook into the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the European Union. These kinds of cooperation would also give third countries [in the Southeast Asian region] more options to work with other partners such as Korea and the European Union in the region.
What would be one area where the EU and Korea could cooperate more concretely in Southeast Asia?
Pacheco Pardo: The EU is going to launch coordinated maritime security actions in the Northeast Indian Ocean, next to the South China Sea. If it comes to happen, it would build on the cooperation with Southeast Asian nations in the operation at the Gulf of Aden.
Any concerns that such cooperation could offend China?
Pacheco Pardo: Yes, China has lashed out at freedom of navigation operations, the Quad, the Thaad [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a U.S.-led antimissile system deployed in Korea]. But having said that, the more countries join [in such cooperation], the more it will be difficult for China to pick up on one country.
Kim: We are hopeful that the incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration will advocate for Korea to step up its diplomatic overtures, to engage not only bilaterally but regionally and multilaterally. It would be within multilateral networks and frameworks that Korea would be able to play a much bigger role and make contributions to peace and stability in the region.
Korea has taken part in multilateral sanctions on Russia to protest its invasion of Ukraine, but it has been criticized from within for not doing enough to sanction Russia directly and support Ukraine. How have Korea’s policies been assessed in the EU?
Pacheco Pardo: Frankly there are no discussions in Europe about Korea [and its policies on Ukraine] because Korea, along with Japan, Singapore and Taiwan have joined the sanctions, they have criticized Russia, they have joined the UN votes, so there isn’t this perception that Korea or any of these Asian countries are not doing enough. The big discussion in Europe, in my view, about Asia is where India stands on the issue.
The EU recently passed the Digital Services Act, which will require big tech firms such as Google to police illegal and harmful content on their platform. How will this influence modernization of the EU-Korea FTA?
Reiterer: It is too early to say what the concrete contents of such conversations will be. E-commerce is not covered by the FTA at the moment, and this would be one area where an update will be helpful.
The incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration has hinted at reversing the nuclear phase-out policy of the Moon Jae-in administration. The European Commission has allowed inclusion of nuclear energy “under certain strict circumstances” in green growth strategies. Any expected cooperation between Korea and EU on this front?
Pacheco Pardo: Even during the phase-out phase in Korea, Korea was exporting nuclear technology and power plants, signing new contracts with countries in the Middle East, for example. These projects often do not involve just one company and some of the contracts also involved Russian companies. It has become very difficult politically in Europe to involve Chinese or Russian companies, so they look to countries that have the technology and obviously Korea is one of them. There is no strict definition of what the “certain strict circumstances” are that would allow an EU member to include nuclear energy in its green growth strategy, but you see Germany is a member considering nuclear energy more, so there may be opportunities for Korea to work with EU members on this front.
You make a suggestion for EU-Korea cooperation on the supply of hydrogen mobility including fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). Korean companies such as Hyundai Motor Group have invested heavily in these vehicles but their use has not taken off here mainly because of an insufficient refueling infrastructure. Would EU-Korea cooperation seek to address this problem?
Kim: We are now fast moving into green transition and the current crisis arising from Ukraine is perhaps accelerating the speed of transition we are already in. In this sense, both the EU and Korea are in need of collaboration to pool our resources and technological knowhow, to come up with more economically viable solutions. FCEV is not yet well spotted on the road, but it will be the future of our mobility if we are to reach for carbon neutrality. Hyundai is working on viable options for [FCEV] trucks and heavy-duty vehicles in the Czech Republic, so there is ongoing bilateral cooperation in this sector that could be expanded.
One of the milestones of the outgoing Moon Jae-in government is the series of inter-Korean summits that took place from 2018. But it’s also been heavily criticized for not addressing human rights violations by the regime. In your report you’ve stressed a need for Seoul to call out the human rights violations of the North. Can you elaborate?
Reiterer: Until 2019, Korea was always co-sponsoring the UN resolution which was put forward by members of the European Union on the human rights situation in North Korea. That stopped. It might have good reasons, but I think they should be evaluated because we would have these challenges with human rights and principles all the time. We see it now with Russia.
Kim: One suggestion I have for the incoming Yoon government is to appoint a special representative to deal with the human rights issues of North Korea, both on multilateral and bilateral levels. As part of our actionable policy recommendation, we also suggested the EU’s own appointment of a special representative to deal with the Korean Peninsula issue, that would be mutually beneficial and effective for our closer and coordinated endeavors to deal with issues related with North Korea.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]