Exclusive: Korean Ambassador tells EU Reporter of co-operation with Europe over concerns at US green subsidies
The Ambassador emphasised to me that without understating the economic importance of his country’s biggest foreign investor and third largest trading partner, Korean relations with the EU go well beyond their trade links. There is often a shared perspective in the international arena that has strengthened traditionally good relations.
For example, he saw a great deal of convergence between the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy and Korea’s interests as an Indo-Pacific power. “We are like-minded partners to the European Union”, he said. “We help each other in the international arena … all in all, we have quite an excellent relationship”.
That prompted me to ask the Ambassador about America’s so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to promote Green transition through government subsidy for domestic production. The EU is greatly concerned by its potential to shut out European products from the US market, whilst also encouraging investors to move manufacturing across the Atlantic. Does Korea share those concerns?
“Yes, we share the same concerns as the European Union”, Yoon Soon-gu told me. “We are concerned about some negative effects, the impact, of the United States’ IRA. So frequently I have contact … regular contact, with European officials on these issues. Our main export is automobiles to the US market. So it’s quite natural to be concerned about some side effects of the IRA”.
He stressed that despite what he diplomatically described as the IRA’s side effects, Korea fully understood what he saw as the real intention of the United States. “They’d like to promote a Green transition -as a response to the climate crisis, it’s the right direction. But we’d like to see that every country’s policies should be compatible with World Trade Organisation rules and regulations. So we have a very close contact with the European Union on the issue”.
Like the European Union, Korea is also focused on using its close bilateral relationship with the United States to secure a solution. “We are very closely allied to the United States”, the Ambassador said. “We want to have free and fair trade with our trading partners, including the United States. But I’m afraid that if it’s implemented as planned, it will be detrimental to our business interests. So, we have had solid contact with the US authorities, it is now in the process of very close consultation with the US”.Advertisement
Korea’s own plans for Green transition, to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, are a particular challenge because of the country’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels and the continuing importance of manufacturing’s contribution to GDP. “Manufacturing accounts for around 38% of our GDP; much bigger than in other countries, including in the European Union”, said Yoon Soon-gu. “Currently, we are heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants. These facts make it difficult for us to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. But as a responsible member of the international community, we would like to join the effort to achieve carbon neutrality by the target date”.
So was he confident that Korea can meet the target? “There is no other choice for us. We are trying to step up our efforts to achieve those goals. As a way to achieve that daunting challenge, we would like to build more nuclear power plants, to diversify our energy sources, to reduce the share of coal-fired power plants and also we would like to make greener our main industries”.
As Korean Ambassador to NATO, I asked him about the NATO Secretary-General’s recent visit to Korea. Jens Stoltenberg stated that trans-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security are deeply interconnected and that like-minded democracies must stand together. Did Korea see the two as inseparable?
“Up to a certain degree”, was Yoon Soon-gu’s response. The impact of the Ukraine war had demonstrated that the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific were not separable from the rest of the world. “Some countries could be emboldened by the fact that Russia invaded an innocent sovereign state”, he added. “We are promoting the idea of sovereignty and non-intervention in domestic affairs. Respect for territorial integrity. If it’s allowed for any certain state to invade other countries with impunity, it will be detrimental to the international order”.
Korea has given Ukraine humanitarian aid totalling some $100 million and has also joined international efforts to restrict Russian exports and exclude Russia from financial transaction systems. Ukrainians in Korea have had their visas extended. There has also been non-lethal military equipment sent to Ukraine, including helmets, bulletproof vests and prepared foods for ration packs.
But that desire to play its part, as a responsible member of the international community, has not extended to supplying weapons. The Republic of Korea has an annual defence budget of $50 billion but that’s because it only occupies the southern half of the Korean peninsula, which it shares with North Korea, a pariah state with nuclear weapons. In defence terms, that remains a total priority.
“We are concerned about the provocation of North Korea”, the Ambassador told me, because relations were getting worse due to a serious nuclear threat. “Since just the beginning of the year they have conducted missile tests and they have launched so many ballistic missiles, more than fifty rounds of ballistic missiles. Some of them flew over a Japanese island and they have demonstrated their military skills to hit US cities. So it’s a serious challenge and what is worse is that their missiles could carry nuclear warheads. They are exercising nuclear blackmail against Korea and other neighbouring countries. It’s a serious security challenge to us”.
Although Korea is very well armed against the threat from the north, it remains committed to nuclear non-proliferation. “We do not intend to go to nuclear and the US is committed to providing extended deterrence to Korea, including a nuclear umbrella”, said Yoon Soon-gu. What will have to wait for now is any revival of past attempts to build north-south economic and cultural links.
“Everything is on the agenda but before that I think North Korea should show some genuine intentions to promote peace on the Korean peninsula. Through dialogue and consultation we could find some middle ground to continuously pursue the rapprochement towards North Korea. But for the time being we focus on North Korea’s military threat”.
That military threat means that although reunification remains an ultimate goal, any progress towards gradual integration must wait until there is a peaceful coexistence instead of armed confrontation. But the dream of reunification is still alive, although the Ambassador acknowledges that some in his country are put off by the cost of reuniting with an impoverished North Korea.
“It’s fair to say that some segment of Korean society is not in favour of Korean reunification. They are not ready to sacrifice their lavish lifestyle in exchange for reunification! But we had lived under the unified kingdom for more than one thousand years. So it is natural that we are dreaming of reunification of the Korean peninsula. But the first task to achieve reunification is to achieve peaceful coexistence as an interim goal and then eventually we can establish some kind of mechanism which will lead to eventual reunification”.
Share this article: