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Korea and Europe: Natural partners rediscover each other

By Byung-se Yun

23 January 2015

South Korea | Seoul: The 2015 is a year with anniversaries that resonate for many countries. Europe and Asia will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. For Koreans, it means the 70th year of the liberation, as well as division, of the Korean peninsula. 

During these decades, the world has undergone dramatic transformations. Europe rose from the ashes of war and then tore down the wall of division to become a more integrated and prosperous region. Korea has achieved political democracy and economic growth, with a trade volume topping one trillion US dollars. 

Despite these remarkable advances, currently our world is beset with multifarious problems, such as the Ebola outbreak, Ukraine, foreign terrorist fighters and ISIL. This year, longstanding challenges, particularly sustainable development and climate change, will also take the spotlight, as the world rallies to shape up a post-2015 and post-2020 framework. 

These are issues that touch all of us – including Korea – in this interconnected world, and we cannot stay above the fray. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently pointed out, none of us are insulated from events happening even at the other end of the globe. 

This year, longstanding challenges, particularly sustainable development and climate change, will also take the spotlight

On top of this, Korea remains the only nation divided in the aftermath of the Second World War and is located in a region – Northeast Asia – with rising tensions. These form what I would term the “triple waves” of concurrent challenges facing Korea.

Korea’s response, among others, has been to work closely with key partners of the international community. In this process, Korea has rediscovered Europe – as a natural partner sharing common values and principles, as well as a source of inspiration. 

From this perspective, let me spell out the “triple waves” and how we are collaborating.  

The first wave comes from the Korean peninsula. The most pressing and urgent issue is, of course, North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. It recently amended its constitution to declare itself a “nuclear weapon state” and officially adopted the policy of developing both nuclear weapons and the economy. Even at this moment, Pyeongyang is advancing its nuclear weapons capability through miniaturization and diversification, and upgrading its delivery systems. North Korea’s horrendous human rights violations, justly condemned by the UN General Assembly as well as the Human Rights Council last year, are also part of the Korean peninsula’s hard reality.

Yet, a more fundamental question is how to deal with North Korea in toto and bring about a sustainable peace on the peninsula. This underscores the necessity of cooperation between Korea and the international community. 

In this regard, the European Union’s policy of “Critical Engagement” is in concord with my government’s policy toward North Korea. Both share a firm, principled position on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and human rights violations, while maintaining the balance on humanitarian assistance for vulnerable North Koreans. Both of us are open to constructive dialogue with Pyeongyang, but seek to induce, or if necessary, press North Korea to make a right strategic decision and return to the fold as a responsible member of the international community. 

The second wave comes from Northeast Asia. The region’s turbulent currents are evident in the geopolitical flashpoints in the East China Sea and off the Korean peninsula. This region also has longstanding problems, such as territorial, historical tensions and nationalism, and is witnessing the rise of newer ones, like maritime, space and cyberspace security. Many bilateral relationships between regional countries are also under strain. 

Against this backdrop, Korea is trying to develop stable bilateral ties with neighbors and leading various formats of mini-lateral cooperation. 

Another focus is on regional multilateral cooperation. Northeast Asia has been missing such a mechanism until now. The Korean government’s Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative seeks to transform Northeast Asia from a region suffering from mistrust and confrontation into one of trust and collaboration.

Amid such a regional context, the European experience has been invaluable in conceiving, formulating and implementing the Initiative. Indeed, last year the Korean government held joint seminars with the EU and NATO, attended by senior officials, to discuss multilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia. Furthermore, Europe’s experiences highlight the importance of resolving historical issues in order to move forward. 

The third wave is the set of challenges to Korea posed by multiple global problems. In this context, the Korean government is committed to globalism, and is more and more active in a wide array of global issues. 

For example, in the field of climate change, Korea is trying to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries in the run-up to this year’s COP21 in Paris, through the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the Global Green Growth Institute, both headquartered in Korea. 

In global health, in addition to dispatching a medical team to Sierra Leone to fight the Ebola outbreak last December, Korea will host the high level meeting of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) this year.

In these fields and beyond, Korea and Europe have joined forces. Major European nations have pledged considerable donations for the GCF. In Sierra Leone, Korea is partnering with the United Kingdom. In the Horn of Africa, Korea and EU naval vessels have worked together to combat piracy. All these are good instances of Korea and Europe joining hands. 

Indeed, Korea is the only country in Asia that has concluded three major agreements with the EU: the Framework Agreement, the Free Trade Agreement, and the Framework Participation Agreement for Crisis Management Operations. This has been possible because our strategic partnership is based on common values – democracy, human rights, and the market economy. 

As the challenges facing us rise, so does the scope for our cooperation. In the new year, let us – Korea and Europe – commit ourselves to working even closer together, as we jointly pursue a common agenda for peace and prosperity, in our regions and around the world.