What Does ROK-NATO Cooperation Mean for Relations on the Korean Peninsula?

(Source: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, https://flic.kr/p/2pHpQYS)

South Korea and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) seem destined for greater partnership. At the NATO summit in Vilnius in 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg adopted the Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP) that committed deepened cooperation in 11 areas ranging from non-proliferation to emerging technologies. In February, Defense Minister Shin Won-sik met with General Christopher Cavoli, commander of US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, in Seoul. They agreed to bolster cooperation between the military leadership and underlined NATO’s support to deter provocations by North Korea.

Amid heightened US-China strategic competition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and North Korea’s persistent violation of international law with its ballistic missile testing and arms transfers, South Korea and NATO are building closer ties. However, while each side has much to gain from increased cooperation, it should be implemented prudently, as there are as many risks as there are opportunities to growing ties.

Drivers for Cooperation

South Korea and NATO understand that closer collaboration is needed to deal with shared security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe. Inter-regional coordination is necessary to effectively deter and respond to North Korea’s ramped-up missile testing, nuclear threats, cyberattacks and cryptocurrency theft. In 2022, North Korea codified nuclear weapons use into law and in 2024, Pyongyang identified South Korea as its “clear enemy,” citing nuclear weapons reinforcement as a crucial component of its defense strategy. The country has continued to leverage its tactical nuclear weapons threat to maximize strategic impact through military training that rehearses the use of nuclear weapons, and Kim Jong Un has emphasized “war readiness posture” repeatedly since 2023. Policy coordination is most effective when there is agreement on the seriousness and wide-ranging impact of North Korea’s military provocations. Indeed, Europe demonstrated in the Vilnius Summit Communique of 2023 its stance on the issue when it condemned North Korea’s WMD and ballistic program and called for the abandonment of its nuclear weapons program.

Collective efforts to condemn Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine and provide security assistance are also in high demand. The hot war is dragging on and neither Russian nor Ukrainian forces can continue fighting without external assistance. What further complicates the situation is North Korea supplying Russia with arms, such as missiles and artillery shells, in exchange for food aid, trade and much sought-after military technology. Sustained military and technology cooperation between Russia and North Korea, whether it is low-tech or high-tech, poses real challenges to both the security of Eastern Europe and the Korean Peninsula, which calls for a determined, collaborative response.

South Korea and NATO can also benefit diplomatically from increased issue linkages. For South Korea, the development of NATO-AP4 (the Asia Pacific Four including South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) can create issue-specific networks that expand collaboration opportunities. For example, South Korea was the first Asian state to join NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE), and participated in the annual Locked Shields military exercise in 2023. Leaning into interactions with NATO and also signals South Korea’s willingness to join and mobilize minilateral cooperation to deter China’s aggressive policies in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to the revived ROK-US-Japan trilateral security partnership, this could provide a gateway for South Korea to join the likes of the G7 and play a more proactive role in global affairs.

In turn, NATO member states can ease their way into the Indo-Pacific region through issue-specific linkages with South Korea and its Indo-Pacific Strategy, which has entered its second year of implementation. This would help diversify trade and investment partners against pressures to de-risk from China as well as create a resilient supply chain for critical goods. Opportunities for joint military training and exercises would also increase.

South Korea and NATO may benefit from deepened cooperation in the defense industry that would reinforce alliance capabilities and capacity. South Korea’s comparative advantage lies in the ability to produce high-quality, cost-effective weapons such as munitions and mid-tier conventional arms that are interoperable with NATO. The recent surge in ROK defense exports to Poland and Norway were possible because of these underlying advantages. Due to the domestic market orientation of South Korea’s defense industrial base and rising global competition, smart collaboration with like-minded partners is essential to sustain this level of performance.

Lastly, robust inter-alliance relations can function to deter or weather the impact of major external shocks. The upcoming US Presidential election and polarized domestic politics are creating unease about its national security priorities and alliance policy going forward. It is even more unsettling as US experts publicly weigh the strategic option of prioritizing the defense of Taiwan over bolstered lethal military assistance for Ukraine. This discourse makes it desirable for Seoul and Brussels to engage in close consultation about reinforcing deterrence and role sharing in their respective contexts and project confidence about preserving regional security and rules-based international order.

Despite these advantages, the scope of South Korea-NATO cooperation remains ill-defined. Clearly, NATO members are aware of the economic and military challenges from China and the spillover effects of developments in the Indo-Pacific on European security. However, an agreement has not been reached on how far cooperation should go. Member states with strong economic ties with China have been reluctant to take a firm stance against its coercive behavior.

South Korea also needs to distinguish between national security priorities focused on North Korea as well as economic and regional interests that are wary of directly confronting China. Seoul forging closer ties with NATO is likely to be perceived by China as an extension of a US containment strategy, and may jeopardize South Korea’s relationship with both China and Russia. Furthermore, there is also a certain degree of mutual skepticism regarding how much real assistance NATO would provide should an incident occur on the Korean Peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait, and what South Korea could do if Russia decides to advance into the Baltics. In the end, promoting cooperation with NATO in abstract terms that creates more shadow than substance may not be worth the potential risks.

Implications for the Korean Peninsula

As South Korea and NATO increase cooperation, they are likely to face backlash from North Korea, China and Russia, which could negatively impact relations on the Korean Peninsula. China has been demonstrably opposed to the growing ties. It criticized the first AP4 attendance to the NATO Summit in 2022 where a new Strategic Concept was adopted and participants voiced concern over systemic threats such as China that “challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.” Such efforts were perceived to be geostrategically driven to link the Indo-Pacific region with the North Atlantic to advance US interests. In other words, it was viewed by China as an extension of NATO’s offensive to “infiltrate the region for strategic benefits through the troubled pattern of instigating conflicts.”

Russia has claimed that the US created rumors about its military cooperation with North Korea to elicit military aid for Ukraine from an otherwise reluctant South Korea. It criticized the US for arming Ukraine in the short-term and developing a defense industrial infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific for the long haul. While China and Russia are currently strategically aligned against the Biden administration’s efforts to fortify its European and Asian allies under its integrated deterrence strategy, they do not have an alliance based on shared values or trust. This opportunity-based relationship could fray due to shifts in US policies toward Ukraine or Taiwan.

North Korea stands to gain the most from such Chinese and Russian ire and denial. Indeed, it will take advantage of their protests about “US hegemonic aspirations” and “irresponsibly provocative policy of Washington” in trying to “encourage regional allies to implement their aggressive plans, fraught with unpredictable consequences, in the military sphere.” Pyongyang will legitimize its military cooperation with Russia using the South Korea-NATO relationship as yet another excuse and capitalize on its newly obtained “military aid supplier status” to the fullest in domestic propaganda.

Furthermore, increasing cooperation between South Korea and NATO may push China, Russia and North Korea closer. Already, the upgrading of trilateral security cooperation among the ROK, US and Japan has been cited as a reason for greater alignment in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang. Although the three parties are far from creating a formal or durable alliance, their growing cooperation can raise tensions in the region and hinder progress in diplomacy with North Korea. Increased joint military training between Russia and China in the East Sea and continued joint veto of any North Korea-related resolution in the United Nations Security Council are foreseeable. Most recently, Russia has blocked the renewal of the UN Panel of Experts that monitored North Korea sanctions compliance while China abstained its vote. Frequent skirmishes in near seas with Chinese, Russian and North Korea fishing boats are another possibility; and coordinated disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks may also increase.

Ways Forward

North Korea is poised to reap as many benefits as possible from its alignment with China and Russia while it pursues further advancement and institutionalization of its nuclear status. At the Central Committee meeting held in December 2023, Kim Jong Un called for “a new stand on north-south relations and reunification policy,” removing national reunification as an explicit goal for the first time. Having declared South Korea as the “number one enemy” in January 2024, what Kim Jong Un might be emboldened to do next as Washington is absorbed in the election cycle is of great concern.

Much structural and political uncertainty lies ahead. Since China and Russia can influence Pyongyang in positive ways, it is wise to preserve working relations with them for whatever diplomatic opportunities may come about. Further degradation of NATO-Russia relations could infiltrate the Indo-Pacific just as much as China’s woes in the Indo-Pacific could penetrate Eastern Europe. This would not be a desirable outcome for anyone involved. As such, Seoul must take deliberate steps to enhance issue-specific cooperation with NATO that has substance and is clear about its focus on North Korea.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea