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South Korea-NATO Rapprochement

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On 28-30 June 2022, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Leaders’ Summit was held in Madrid. In addition to the members of NATO, the partners of NATO; Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and South Korea (for the first time) attended this summit. South Korea was a sole nation which has not mission to NATO amid NATO’s other Asian partner states. In the summit, South Korea has reflected the desire to establish a mission to NATO and this demand was accepted in September 28, 2022.[1]

While South Kore was pursuing a foreign policy that aim to establish a balance between great powers, it initiated to approach NATO because of changing conjuncture. First of all, it is important to express that South Korea has become a first Asian state which joined NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) and this situation disturbed China. On behalf of China, Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times which is China’s state affiliated media, reply the situation by stating that “If South Korea takes a path of turning hostile against its neighbors, the end of this path could be like Ukraine” in a tweet.[2]

On the other hand, the Ukrainian War increased the danger of North Korea with the nuclear threat after Russia’s declaration of partial mobilization. All these situations accelerated the approach of South Korea to NATO.

NATO Heads of State Summit

Although the agenda at NATO Heads of State Summit held in Madrid on June 28, focused on Russia, both the security priority of South Korea and the talks between Japan, South Korea and the US brought Asia-Pacific into the forefront.

The situation can be examined in the context of both Russia and North Korea. First of all, Russia tried to legitimize the occupation of the territory of another sovereign state in the Ukraine War by using security concerns as an excuse.

This development strengthens the possibility of an attack by North Korea by using security concerns as an excuse. For this reason, it is unacceptable event for the Seoul administration. As a matter of fact, during his speech at the summit, South Korean leader Yoon Suk-yeol expressed that he wanted to combine Seoul’s security and foreign policy with NATO’s solid stance against Russia.[3] In addition, the Pyongyang administration’s 32 missile tests in 2022 encourages Seoul to establish strong relations between South Korea and NATO.[4]

Moreover, as mentioned above, talks took place between Japan, South Korea and the US at the summit. The emphasis was on “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in the talks. It can be said that this reflects the rising objection to China’s activities in the region. For example, the leak of the draft security agreement signed between China and the Solomon Islands in April 2022 to the press is a good example in terms of events that increase the concerns of the states. The leaked draft has alarmed the US and Australia as China has the potential to open a naval base in the Solomon Islands as well as training police forces.[5]

Although South Korea stated that its participation in the summit should not be perceived against China, the Beijing administration took steps to show that they are uncomfortable with it. As a matter of fact, in the analysis published in the Global Times on September 28, it was stated that the South Korea-NATO rapprochement would deepen the divisions in the region and it was underlined that this move would harm Seoul in terms of economy and security in the long term.[6]

South Korea’s NATO Mission and NAC+4 Meeting

The request of South Korea to reorganize the Brussels Embassy as a NATO mission was accepted by the alliance on September 28, 2022. This development is the most important indicator of the improvement of NATO-South Korea relations, as a continuation of the positive atmosphere at the Madrid Summit, on an international area pregnant with uncertainties.

Although the foreign policy understanding of the Seoul administration, whose slogan was “Korea first,” sometimes gives signals of convergence to states such as China and Russia, recent developments have caused she to distance herself from Beijing and Moscow.

As stated above, North Korea’s direct or indirect threats are at the center of South Korea’s security understanding. In this context, Russia’s expansionist policies by ignoring international law have the potential to indirectly encourage the Pyongyang administration. In addition, the fact that China has not given a satisfactory response to North Korea’s nuclear law [7] pushes Seoul to act cautiously towards Beijing.

On the other hand, it is very important for South Korea to participate in the NAC+4 meeting held on September 27, 2022. NAC+4 refers to the thirty NATO members, the four Asia-Pacific partner countries, Sweden and Finland that wish to join the alliance. The states which participate in the meeting stated that the nuclear threat from North Korea is related to European security and drew attention to the fact that nuclear danger is a non-negligible threat during the Russia-Ukraine War.[8]

As a result, besides the security concerns that have existed since the Madrid Summit of NATO, there have been many developments that could make South Korea to concern. Rise of North Korea’s nuclear capacity and her nuclear law have increased these concerns. Moreover, Russia’s actions indirectly encourage North Korea. Beijing, on the other hand, does not give the reaction that Seoul expects. This development accelerates progress of South Korea’s relations with NATO.


[1] Nam Hyun-Woo, “South Korea’s Mission to NATO Approved”, The Korea Times, www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/09/113_336900.html, (Date of Accession: 05.10.2022).

[2] Charlie Campell, “South Korea’s Intelligence Agency Has Joined NATO’s Cyber Defense Unit. China Isn’t Happy”, Time, time.com/6173812/south-korea-cyber-nato-china/, (Date of Accession: 06.10.2022).

[3] Sukjoon Yoon, “Can South Korea Bridge NATO and the US Indo-Pacific Strategy?”, The Diplomat, thediplomat.com/2022/07/can-south-korea-bridge-nato-and-the-us-indo-pacific-strategy/, (Date of Accession: 03.10.2022).

[4] Hyun-Woo, op. cit.

[5] John Ruwitch, “Leaked Draft of an Agreement between China and the Solomon Islands Has U.S. Concerned”, NPR, www.npr.org/2022/04/28/1095365212/leaked-draft-of-an-agreement-between-china-and-the-solomon-islands-has-u-s-conce, (Date of Accession: 05.10.2022).

[6] Fan Anq-Du Qiongfang, “NATO Accepts S.Korea’s Request to Set up Mission; Closer Security Alliance ‘Risks Exacerbating Regional Division”, Global Times, www.globaltimes.cn/page/202209/1276344.shtml, (Date of Accession: 04.10.2022).

[7] Kawala Xie, “China’s Reaction to North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons First-Use Law Tipped to be Uted”, South China Morning Post, www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3192253/chinas-reaction-north-koreas-nuclear-weapons-first-use-law (Date of Accession: 21.09.2022).

[8] Hyun-Woo, op. cit.

Elcan TOKMAK
Elcan TOKMAK
Elcan TOKMAK, 2022 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nden mezun olmuştur. Eylül-Aralık 2022 tarihleri arasında ANKASAM bünyesinde Kariyer Staj Programı'nı tamamlayan Tokmak, Temmuz 2023 tarihinden itibaren ANKASAM Asya-Pasifik Araştırma Asistanı olarak çalışmalarını sürdürmektedir. Şu anda Hacettepe Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nde Yüksek Lisans eğitimine devam eden Tokmak'ın ilgi alanları Çin-Japonya-Kore ilişkileri ve Çin Dış Politikası'dır. Tokmak; profesyonel düzeyde İngilizce, orta derecede Çince ve başlangıç düzeyinde Korece bilmektedir.