What Is Yoon’s NATO Strategy?

President Yoon’s visit to Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine last week showed South Korea’s new policy activism toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Amid widespread recognition that the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are closely interconnected, Yoon’s participation in the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, his second since the first one held in Spain last year, reflects his resolve to demonstrate South Korea’s solidarity with European countries that share democratic values and respect rule of law. This growing democratic alignment across two regions was also highlighted by his standing with leaders of Japan, Australia, and New Zealand at the second meeting of four Asia-Pacific partners (AP4). Yoon traveled to Poland and then made a surprise visit to Ukraine, where he announced South Korea’s Peace Initiative and pledged to expand South Korea’s support to Ukraine—demonstrating that Seoul is taking steps to become a responsible global player and contributing member within the international community.

Besides this important symbolic and diplomatic messaging, what is driving Seoul’s active engagement with NATO? There are three possible explanations. One explanation might be that Yoon is reacting to the emasculation of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Since early 2022, the UNSC has not been able to respond to North Korea’s missile testing with new resolutions because of continuous vetoes by China and Russia. Given this deadlock, finding a new global governance institution and new partners become necessary for South Korea to address increased threats from North Korea. In this light, the Yoon administration’s turn to NATO, which came after it successfully revitalized U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK)-Japan trilateral cooperation through restoring shuttle diplomacy between Seoul and Tokyo, indicates South Korea’s expansion of its diplomatic space to Europe to galvanize new international support on North Korean issues. South Korea achieved its goal arguably when 31 NATO members condemned North Korea’s latest Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile launch in their joint summit communiqué.

Another related explanation is to institutionalize South Korea’s cooperation with NATO. This was evident when South Korea and NATO adopted the Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP) to establish a framework of security cooperation in 11 specific areas, such as anti-terrorism, nonproliferation, and emerging new technologies. One of the main highlights of their future cooperation will be on cyber defense, where South Korea will work with the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Center of Excellence. Indeed, as Chinese and Russian noncompliance with enforcement of UNSC proliferation sanctions against North Korea grows, cybersecurity cooperation would be an important—and arguably the most effective—measure to cut off financing of Pyongyang’s weapons program. As Anne Neuberger, U.S. deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology at the White House, said in May 2023, nearly half of North Korea’s missile program was being funded by its illegal cyber activities. And the amount of damage from North Korea’s cybertheft and cryptocurrency theft in the past several years reportedly amounts to billions of dollars. In March 2022, the Lazarus Group’s stealing of $620 million from a video game company based in Vietnam became one of the single largest cybertheft cases committed by North Korea. It is no coincident that Yoon and Biden at their summit in April 2023 agreed to extend the U.S.-ROK alliance into cyberspace and establish a Strategic Cybersecurity Cooperation Framework to jointly deter and combat cybercrime by North Korea, including cryptocurrency theft. Therefore, strengthening cyber security cooperation with NATO members would be an important addition to South Korea’s ongoing efforts to curb North Korea’s illicit revenue generation and weapons program development.

The last explanation is related to the importance of the European market for South Korea’s burgeoning defense industry. At the beginning of his term, Yoon vowed to make South Korea the fourth-largest arms exporter by 2027 after the United States, Russia, and France. His ambitious goal may not have been entirely unrealistic. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute finds that South Korea exhibited the fastest growth among the world’s top 25 arms exporters between 2017 and 2021. But with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, South Korea emerged as an attractive arms supplier to European countries such as Poland, which supplied weapons to Ukraine to help the country fight the Russian invasion, need to replenish their weapons stockpiles with modern, proven weaponry. In July 2022, South Korea signed a $12.4 billion arms agreement—the country’s largest deal ever—with Poland, which included sales of 980 tanks, 648 K9 howitzers, and 48 FA-50 fighter jets. In November, Norway ordered additional self-propelled K9 howitzers and K10 ammunition supply vehicles from a South Korean defense company, Hanwha Defense. According to the New York Times, South Korea’s arms exports in 2022 reached a record of $17.3 billion, a 140 percent increase from a previous year. Hence, expanding defense industry cooperation with European countries was undoubtedly an important task during Yoon’s trip to the region.

South Korea’s new approach toward NATO may draw a backlash from Russia, China, and North Korea and reinforce their growing realignment. Indeed, Beijing and Moscow’s immediate announcement of their joint military exercises near the East Sea seems to suggest that such dynamics are currently at play. Moscow may take offense at Yoon’s visit to Ukraine and treat South Korea as an adversary if it has not done so already. Yoon’s offer to Ukraine is also largely diplomatic and economic support, and does not include lethal weapons in South Korea’s military assistance to Ukraine. Pyongyang will likely reprimand Seoul for turning its security cooperation with NATO against North Korea and seek to enhance its united front with Russia to further draw in Moscow’s support. But the strongest response may come from Beijing given its wariness against NATO’s potential expansion into Indo-Pacific. Seoul and the AP4’s deepening security cooperation with NATO could spark strong pushback from China as it could be seen as an anti-China coalition to contain the country in Indo-Pacific.

South Korea is walking a tightrope. As the global security environment is in flux and uncertainties continue to grow, South Korea is taking bold steps to shape its regional security environment by building a new partnership, even if this may increase tensions with neighboring countries.

Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair