NATO-South Korea Relations and China


South Korea is a NATO global partner and a major non-NATO ally that cooperates with Alliance in many areas. Recently, the development of relations has become increasingly important against the backdrop of the international situation in the world. Thus, on May 5, South Korea received membership in the NATO Center for cooperation in the field of cybersecurity. Recently it also became known that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will take part in the upcoming NATO summit in Spain. This development is very important to consider given the importance of South Korea in ensuring regional peace and stability.

NATO-South Korea (Republic of Korea) Relations

NATO’s official website states that NATO and the Republic of Korea are committed to strengthening relations to address common security issues such as cyber defence, non-proliferation or counter-terrorism.

  • NATO and the Republic of Korea have been engaged in dialogue and cooperation since 2005. It is one of a number of countries beyond the Euro-Atlantic area – often referred to as “partners across the globe” – with which NATO is developing relations.
  • Since 2012, work has been taken forward through an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme. This was renewed in November 2019.
  • Political dialogue and practical cooperation are being developed across priority areas, including non-proliferation, cyber defence, counter-terrorism, security-related civil science projects, interoperability, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defiance, as well as civil preparedness, resilience and disaster relief.

For the first time, in December 2020, the Republic of Korea participated in a NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting, together with Australia, Finland, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden and the EU HR/VP. This was only one of the latest and more visible political exchanges NATO has had with the Republic of Korea at various levels in recent years. At the NATO Brussels Summit in June 2021, Allies agreed to increase dialogue and practical cooperation between NATO and existing partners in the Asia-Pacific region, including the Republic of Korea.

The first Asian country to join NATO’s cyber defence group

In early May of this year, South Korea expanded areas of cooperation with the North Atlantic Alliance and became the first Asian member state of the NATO Cooperative Cyber ​​Defense Center of Excellence (CCDCOE). This division, headquartered in Estonia, deals with the cybersecurity issues of the countries of the Alliance.

We plan to strengthen our cyber response capabilities to a world-class level by increasing the number of our staff sent to the centre and expanding the scope of joint training,” South Korean National Intelligence Service said. The Service also stated that South Korea has been trying to join the cyber defence centre since 2019 to learn more about threat response strategies and ways to protect key infrastructure, with the broad goal of having world-class capabilities to respond to these threats.

Chinese media reaction to strengthening South Korean-NATO relations

Although China has not made an official announcement about South Korea’s decision to join the CCDCOE, the Chinese media has not been left without comment. Thus, the Chinese Communist Party media apparatus Global Times wrote that US-led NATO is trying to turn South Korea into a chess piece to contain China and Russia in cyber defence. Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, told the newspaper that South Korea joining NATO’s cyber defence cooperation offers room for the country to join other US-led intelligence mechanisms. Last year, the National Defense Authorization bill for the fiscal year 2022 from the US House of Representatives already required the US administration to consider expanding the Five Eyes alliance to include South Korea and three others if enacted. 

Xinhua news agency, in turn, noted that allowing NATO to expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific region would only undermine regional security and peace and provoke confrontation. The publication stressed that the maintenance of regional security and stability can only be achieved through dialogue and consultations, which is in the common interests of both China and South Korea, and the entire region. In this regard, a political settlement to the Korean Peninsula issue, one of South Korea’s top security concerns, tallies with China’s position. Earlier, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also stated that China is ready to strengthen communication and coordination with South Korea on peninsular affairs and provide assistance within its capabilities.

The main goal of South Korea’s security and national defence is to neutralize North Korean nuclear missile threats. But analysts believe that to do this, Seoul must not only forge an alliance with the United States but also cooperate with China, which is critical in applying diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to restrain its belligerent behaviour.

NATO summit offers both opportunities and challenges

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will attend the NATO summit in Spain on June 29-30. Attending the NATO summit will be Yoon Seok-yeol’s first trip as the President. It is noted that Yoon’s plan to attend the NATO summit will be a turning point in South Korea’s multilateral diplomacy. A NATO summit scheduled for late June in Madrid will provide Yoon with a rare opportunity to broaden the country’s diplomatic horizons by stepping up security cooperation with the regional alliance.

The upcoming summit is attracting a lot of attention as leaders of Asia-Pacific partners such as South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are expected to meet with NATO leaders. In particular, the meeting is significant as NATO is likely to adopt a new strategic concept to expand its role beyond the North Atlantic region to better deal with Chinese threats in the Asia-Pacific region. NATO’s invitation of President Yoon to the summit is a testament to South Korea’s growing international status and its strategic value in the Asia-Pacific region to the United States. The concept is certainly in line with US President Joe Biden’s desire to build an international coalition to counter Beijing’s growing regional and global influence.

Therefore, it is worth noting that the summit will also put the administration of Seoul to a serious diplomatic test. Analysts at the Korean Times say the new President must be careful to avoid a new Cold War confrontation with China, Russia and North Korea over rapprochement with NATO.


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