22nd Sep 2023


EU to press South Korea on arming Ukraine

  • South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol speaking at a Buddhist ceremony last year (Photo: Republic of Korea)
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The EU and South Korea are planning to show off Western soft power in Asia in the face of Chinese and North Korean threats.

What the EU is calling a diplomatic "showcase" will see EU Council president Charles Michel and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen meet South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul on 22 May.

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  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen with Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky in Kyiv this year (Photo: European Commission)

EU and South Korean leaders have been meeting for decades.

But May's summit comes after China declared a "no limits partnership" with Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine last year, while South Korea backed Western sanctions on Russia — extending the war's dividing lines around the globe.

It also comes amid Chinese sabre-rattling on Taiwan and growing EU concern that China is becoming an economic and propaganda menace.

The Seoul summit will "send a firm message in favour of upholding the rules-based international order and further coordinate ... responses to Russia's aggression", according to an internal EU "orientation note", dated 27 March and seen by EUobserver.

Michel and von der Leyen will "urge" Yoon "to further align with the EU sanctions against Russia/Belarus and encourage South Korea to supply lethal military assistance to Ukraine", it said.

They will also press him to lean on non-aligned Asian countries to help finance Ukraine. "Seoul has already sought to garner support among wavering states, but could be more pro-active," the EU memo said.

South Korea was "clearly interested in working more intensively with the EU as a like-minded partner, alongside the US, Japan, and Australia, without overly antagonising Beijing," the memo added.

But Yoon was deemed "less wary of alienating China than the opposition".

He wanted to make "full use of Korean economic leverage in South and Southeast Asia" and to "strengthen the resilience of supply chains, notably for critical components, by 'diversifying' away from reliance on China in strategic industries", the EU note said.

The summit will promote EU-South Korea cooperation in sensitive sectors, such as AI and quantum computing.

It will also launch talks on Korea's addition to Horizon, the EU's €95.5bn science-grant programme. "The realistic timeline for Korea's possible association to Horizon Europe is 1 January 2025," the note said.

Soft power aside, the summit will "demonstrate EU interest in the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific region", it said.

The US was the "cornerstone" of South Korea's military defence and "RoK remains to be convinced of the EU's role as a security actor in the Indo-Pacific," the EU admitted.

But the EU and US recently conducted a joint naval exercise in the region.

And the EU now wants to discuss "joint activities between the RoK navy and Operation Atalanta and/or the existing Coordinated Maritime Presences (Gulf of Guinea & North-Western Indian Ocean)", the memo said, referring to three ongoing EU naval missions.

Summit provocation?

Meanwhile, Michel and von der Leyen will fly to Seoul despite the ever-present danger that "the summit could coincide with a DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] nuclear test or missile launch or military tensions on the border".

North Korea has also sided with Russia on Ukraine and amped up tensions with South Korea.

For its part, the EU aims to uphold existing sanctions on Pyongyang and "continue efforts to convince the DPRK to resume dialogue [with South Korea] through pressure and openness to a new diplomatic process," the summit note said.

But South Korea "has little expectation of negotiations on denuclearisation," it added.

"Seoul wants partners to support US-Korea-Japan efforts to restrict finance flows that the DPRK can use to develop its weapons programmes, notably by imposing autonomous sanctions on malicious cyber-threat actors," the EU memo said.

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