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date: 12 May 2021

South Korea and the European Unionfree

  • Sunghoon ParkSunghoon ParkGraduate School of International Studies, Korea University


Since the inauguration of the official diplomatic relationship between Korea and the European Union (EU) in 1963, the bilateral relations have continuously upgraded, to reach the status of a Strategic Partnership in 2010, which is supported by three key agreements—the Framework Agreement, the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the Framework Participation Agreement. The bilateral relationship has undergone profound changes around the mid-1980s, transforming it from an economy-focused and one-sided preferential relationship to a comprehensive and more equal partnership. Among others, the 2000s have been most dynamic and productive in upgrading the Korea–EU bilateral relationship. Not only EU’s policy initiatives such as the “Global Europe” strategy, but also Korea’s aspiration to play an increasingly important leadership role in regional and global arena have been instrumental in instituting the strategic partnership between Korea and the EU. Considering the past trajectory and recent development, the Korea–EU relationship appears to have a bright future. Stronger policy dialogues and common efforts, especially in climate change and energy, education and culture, and international development cooperation, are needed to make the bilateral relationship more meaningful and commensurate to the weight of the two parties in the global politics and economy.


The official diplomatic relationship between the Republic of Korea (referred to as Korea hereafter) and the European Union (EU) was inaugurated in November 1963, and has since been upgraded continuously to reach the status of a strategic partnership in 2010. This positive evolution has largely been influenced by a number of developments that took place in the two parties. Since the beginning of the bilateral diplomatic relations, Korea has successfully transformed itself from a war-devastated country to one of the most industrialized economies in the world. After 2000, Korea hosted a number of summit meetings of regional and global significance, such as the Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit in 2000, Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in 2005, and the G20 Summit in 2010, which elevated the leadership qualities of the country (Park, 2012), while the EU deepened, widened, and enlarged its regional integration successively. Above all, the EU has been able to expand its membership from the mere six founding members to 28 countries to encompass most of the Eastern European countries. In addition, the launch of the Euro as a single currency for 19 of 28 member countries has been another remarkable achievement.

In a retrospective observation, however, the 2000s and 2010s have been most dynamic and productive in terms of fortifying the Korea–EU bilateral relationship. It is noteworthy in this context that the EU issued the first serious strategy paper regarding Korea in 1993 (EC, 1993), followed by a series of strategy papers regarding East Asian region and countries, including the New Asia Strategy in 1994 (EC, 1994), Japan (EC, 1995a), China (EC, 1995b), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (EC, 1996). These series of Asia-related strategic considerations of the EU have been instrumental in inaugurating the inter-regional (or inter-governmental) cooperation body called ASEM, which both expanded and deepened not only the Asia–Europe relations, but also the Korea–EU policy contacts considerably.

Korea’s weight in EU’s Asia-related and global strategy has been elevated significantly through the launch of bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations in 2007, based on the EU’s new trade policy agenda of “Global Europe” adopted officially (EC, 2006). Korea, in fact, was the first Asian country that was both mentioned in Global Europe strategy as a priority negotiation partner and had negotiated successfully an FTA with the EU. With the Korea–EU FTA having entered into force in July 2011, the EU’s journey with strengthened regionalist approaches has been initially brought to meaningful fruition. The European Commission (EC, 2015, p. 9) later identified the Korea–EU FTA as a “a prime example of the kind of new generation agreements the EU can negotiate” in pursuit of boosting the EU economies. As a result, the political cooperation between the two parties have been fortified through the strengthened economic partnership, thereby leading to upgrading of the bilateral relationship to a Strategic Partnership in 2010.

The objective of this article is to sketch the evolution of the Korea–EU relationship, to analyze factors underlying its continuous upgrading, and discuss the future prospects. First, the evolving process and main characteristics of the Korea–EU relationship are investigated by discussing in greater details the important milestones and periodical developments. The strategic partnership that entered into force in 2010 is then discussed. Potential agenda for further strengthening and upgrading the bilateral relationship are finally tentatively identified, and are followed by conclusions.

Evolution and Main Characteristics of the Korea–EU Bilateral Relationship

EU’s Basic Approach Towards Korea

The 1993 Korea strategy paper of the EU includes a few important connotations that are implicative of future developments in the bilateral relationship. First, the EU welcomed the democratization process of Korea, which overcame a number of political turbulences during the 1980s after the assassination of the dictatorial president Park, Chung-Hee who ruled the country for 18 years between 1961 and 1979. His successor, Chun, Doo-Hwan came to power through a military coup d’état, which was controversial in the Korean society and therefore triggered a series of anti-government demonstrations. The inauguration of the Roh, Taewoo administration in 1988 and more importantly that of the Kim, Youngsam administration in 1993 were both welcomed as a signal of democratization of the country. This paved a firm foundation for Korea to start a “normal” relationship with other countries. Second, the Korea–EU economic interactions were under-developed for an extended period, compared to the global economic weights of the two parties (Kim & Lee, 2004), so that the EU felt the necessity to expand the bilateral economic relations significantly. Third, the EU wanted to maintain the bilateral relations on the basis of a more equal partnership, considering the rapid economic growth and development achieved in Korea during the 1970s and 1980s.

The evolution of the Korea–EU bilateral relationship in the 1990s had largely been framed by this basic approach of the EU. In fact, the relationship underwent profound changes during the mid-1980s–late 1990s period, and more specifically around 1996. For example, the EU’s long-lasting provision of the one-sided preferential access for Korean products to EU markets under the generalized system of preferences (GSP) scheme terminated in 1996. In the same year, Korea became a full-fledged member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation Development (OECD), and Korea and the EU adopted their first Framework Agreement on Trade and Cooperation (FATC). These two incidences were especially strong signals for footing the Korea–EU bilateral relationship on an equal partnership.

The first decade of the new millennium was the period when the EU continuously pursued to bring Korea to a normal and more equal partnership. The start and successful completion of the bilateral FTA negotiation was a prime example of such EU efforts, which then resulted in the launch of the strategic partnership between the two parties. In fact, the Korea–EU bilateral relationship was incrementally upgraded since the early 1990s, mainly fueled by the EU’s increasingly proactive approaches towards Korea.

Important Milestones of the Bilateral Relationship

Even though a substantial part of the Korea–EU bilateral relationship should be investigated in the context of the EU’s Asia strategy, there have been continuous bilateral encounters and policy contacts ever since the inauguration of the official diplomatic relations in 1963. Table 1 illustrates important milestones of Korea–EU bilateral relations.

Table 1. Important Milestones of Korea–EU Relationship.


Launch of “Official” Diplomatic Relationship


Establishment of Minister-level Regular Policy Dialogue


Establishment of Korea’s Permanent Mission to the European Commission


Opening of the Office of the European Commission’s Delegation to Korea


First Strategy Paper on Korea adopted by the European Commission


Framework Agreement on Trade and Cooperation (FATC) adopted

Korea graduated from EU GSP scheme


Joint Political Declaration (JCD) signed

EU became a member of the Executive Board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO)


Merge of FATC (1996) and JPD (1997) into Comprehensive Framework Agreement


EU’s Global Europe strategy designates Korea as a Priority FTA Negotiation Partner


Start of the Korea–EU FTA Negotiations


“New” Framework Agreement signed

Strategic Partnership (Politico-Economic) inaugurated


Entry into force of the Korea–EU FTA


Upgraded Framework Agreement entered into force


Entry into force of the Framework Agreement on the Participation in the Crisis Management Operations of the EU

Source: Various documents. Author’s own compilation.

The official diplomatic relationship was inaugurated in 1963, after a series of European countries restarted diplomatic relations with Korea after its liberation in 1945 from the Japanese colonial ruling. Considering the nation’s division between South and North Korea, EU member states successively acknowledged Korea as the only legitimate country on the Korean peninsula, including the United Kingdom (1949), France (1949), Spain (1950), Germany (1955), and Italy (1956). The start of EU official diplomatic relations with Korea in 1963 was preceded by a number of significant political incidences, both inside and outside Korea. The 10 years after the end of the Korean War were especially an extremely turbulent period from Korea’s perspective, including the Students’ Revolution in 1960, the military coup d’état and inauguration of the Park, Chung-Hee regime in 1961, and the start of the first five-year economic development plan in 1962. It was the official endorsement of the new Park regime by the United States that gave the EU the needed confidence to officially engage with Korea, thus leading to the start of the official diplomatic relations in November 1963.

The 1960s and 1970s were a “white spot” of the Korea–EU official diplomatic relations and did not register any meaningful policy contacts between the two parties. This “calm” period in the bilateral relations was mainly caused by the tremendous gap observed between Korea and the EU, both in the level of economic development and political democratization. It was only in 1983 that the two parties launched a regular high-level policy dialogue of foreign ministers. Also around the end of 1980s, Korea and the EU seconded their respective diplomatic corps to each other, by establishing the “permanent mission” and the embassy, which can be interpreted as a real start of a “more equal and normal” Korea–EU bilateral relations.

The bilateral relationship has been upgraded continuously throughout the 1990s. The Korea strategy paper adopted by the EU in 1993 was the first serious strategic concept in the bilateral relationship, and had contributed to adopting the first version of the bilateral Framework Agreement in 1996. Especially from the EU perspective, the Framework Agreement is often regarded as a foundation for a more upgraded strategic partnership. Around the same period, Korea officially “graduated” from the list of recipient countries of the GSP scheme of the EU, which for an extended period had provided preferential market access for Korean products, thus opening the door for a more equal partnership between the two parties.

From the start of the official diplomatic relations between Korea and the EU, the 2000s have been the most dynamic and productive decade. The adoption of the Global Europe strategy was the manifestation from the EU side that it would deviate from its traditional multilateralism-first approach in its trade policy and prefer to negotiate free trade agreements in order to enhance market access and job creation (EC, 2006). It is noteworthy that the Global Europe strategy presented Korea as one of few priority FTA negotiation partners. As a consequence, the Korea–EU negotiation for an FTA started in May 2007, and the FTA was brought into force in July 2011 effectively. Together with the signing of the new and upgraded version of the Framework Agreement and the inauguration of the strategic partnership based on it, the implementation of the FTA marked an important milestone in the Korea–EU bilateral relationship.

The strategic partnership between Korea and the EU also has contributed to the expansion and deepening of the bilateral relations. For example, the two parties have been exploring the possibility of cooperation in the security fields. Whereas the first EU contribution to the peacebuilding process on the Korean peninsula had been provided through its financial participation in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) during the second half of 1990s, the recent security cooperation is stretching to the EU crisis management operations, as well. The Framework Agreement on Korea’s Participation in the Crisis Management Operations of the EU (hereafter referred to as the Framework Participation Agreement) in 2016 is underpinning this bilateral engagement in the security fields. As a result, Korea is currently the only country that has signed and implemented three important agreements with the EU—the Framework Agreement, the FTA, and the Framework Participation Agreement. These three agreements, in fact, are the integral parts and backbone of the Korea–EU strategic partnership.

Periodical Evolution of the Bilateral Relationship before the Launch of the Strategic Partnership

The Korea–EU bilateral relationship since the end of the Second World War has undergone tremendous transformation since the 1960s. Han (1998) was one of the first to attempt to investigate the evolution of the bilateral relationship based on the depth of the contacts and dialogues. The author divided the period between 1945 and 1998 into three sub-periods: (1) the soliciting period (1945–late 1960s); (2) strengthened contacts (early 1970s–mid-1980s); and (3) matured bilateral relationship (mid-1980s–1998). As the analysis of Han (1998) was published in the late 1990s, it could not include the next two decades of Korea–EU bilateral relations. In addition, one of the flaws of his analysis is not to have considered important milestones such as the official launch of the Korea–EU diplomatic relations in 1963, the increase in both cooperative and competitive contacts, and disputes due to a strengthened regional and global profile of Korea enabled by Korea’s continuous economic rise and democratization during the 1980s. Considering the limitations of the approaches under study, this article endeavors to adopt a different and more updated periodical classification, and divides the period of 1945–2018 into five sub-periods. The first four sub-periods will be analyzed, followed by a more detailed discussion on the strategic partnership.

Unofficial Relationship, 1945–1963

Korea was liberated from the Japanese colonial regime, which was in place between 1910 and 1945, as a result of Japanese defeat in the Second World War. In addition, the fate of the liberated Korea was once again aggravated by the Korean War in 1950–1953. As a war-devastated country, the first priority for the newly established Republic of Korea was to overcome the extreme poverty that the country had undergone since 1945. However, Korea has since then been long confronted with the antagonistic and aggressive posture from the North Korean regime. As a consequence, a strong alliance relationship with the United States was developed in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, mainly as a guarantor for the security of Korea. The Korea–United States alliance was also pivotal in motivating the Korean government to take a policy direction toward integrating its economy into the world division of labor that was newly emerging with the official launch of the general Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1948.

The European continent during the same period was also preoccupied with the idea of economic recovery and political reconstruction in the aftermath of the Second World War. The US-led development aid program under the name of the Marshall Plan was rigorously launched as a means of containing the communist regimes neighboring the European continent, namely the Soviet Union. It was also instrumental in motivating the European nation states to gather their forces to overcome the economic and security threats they had been confronted. The idea of European integration was influenced by these new environments, in addition to their internal desire to enable “peace” on the European continent. The start of the European integration with two treaties—Treaty of Paris and Treaty of Rome—has been successfully negotiated under these circumstances.

As a result of preoccupations of both parties with their own economic development and security agenda, as well as integration programs the European countries have been paying enormous attention to, the EU and Korea could not find enough resources and time to initiate dialogues to launch an official diplomatic relationship. As Korea was consistently seeking foreign aids to help its economy to take off, the bilateral relationship between the EU and Korea in this period was characterized by a high degree of imbalance and EU’s unilateral preferential treatments for Korea’s few products. As one of poorest countries in the world for an extended period of time, Korea was unable to emerge as a significant actor in the world political arena, which in turn inhibited the country throughout this initial period to engage more seriously with the European countries and the European Community. However, it is reported that during this period Korea was able to enter into an official diplomatic relationship with six founding members of the European Economic Community (EEC; with France in 1949, Germany in 1955, Italy in 1956, Belgium and the Netherlands in 1961, and with Luxembourg in 1962), which provided a welcomed environment for the launch of the official diplomatic relationship with the EEC in 1963.

Initial Phase of Official Relationship, 1963–mid-1980s

In the two decades after the launch of the official bilateral relationship, the Korea–EU relations have been characterized by the unilateral preferences provided by the EU, both in terms of economic and political relations, despite the slowly growing conflict potentials in trade relations.

Most outstanding in the economic relations was the EU’s provision of preferential treatments for Korean products to accede the EU markets, under the GSP scheme. Having started as an official but temporary instrument in 1971, the GSP scheme has since 1979 been instituted as a permanent exemption measure from the non-discrimination principle of the GATT, thereby granting a better access to the EU (and other developed countries’) markets for products originating in developing and least-developed countries. Korea, classified as a developing country for an extended period until the end of the 1990s, enjoyed this preferential market access until the mid-1990s. However, the increasing import penetration of textile and apparel products from developing countries, including Korea, caused structural adjustment problems in most of the developed countries, which led to the adoption of a series of restrictive measures. The Multi-fiber Arrangement (MFA), which regulated the worldwide textile and apparel markets in the 1974–2004 period, was one of most prominent examples of this kind, and Korea was a main target for this market regulation. This negative event notwithstanding, the Korea–EU economic relationship during this period was basically featured by the one-sided preferences provided by the EU in favor of Korea.

In political and diplomatic relationship, the behavior of the EU and EU member states in international organizations, more specifically vis-à-vis South and North Korea, was outstanding. For instance, it was during this period that the regime competition between the two Koreas was fiercely carried out, before they jointly joined the United Nations (UN) in 1991. South Korea surpassed North Korea only in 1974 in terms of per capita income, and the two parties had a number of military and non-military conflicts during the 1970s and 1980s. In most of the UN debates on the issues surrounding the Korean peninsula, EU member states supported the positions of South Korea, including the subsequent joint application for the UN membership submitted in 1990. The continuous and consistent support for the South Korean position by the EU and its member states in the UN and other international organizations was one of most significant contributions that helped Korea to establish as the sole democratic entity representing the Korean peninsula.

Reflecting the infantile stage of Korea–EU official diplomatic relations, the policy contacts between Korea and Europe were observed in two distinctive tracks during this period. This also was influenced by the unclear division of work between the EU and its member states. As a consequence, the trade relations were more between Korea and the EU whereas other relationship was more international than Korea–EU.

Matured Relationship with Conflicting Signals, mid-1980s–late 1990s

The economy of Korea has grown rapidly, and the international competitiveness of Korean companies and products have enhanced substantially since the mid-1980s, resulting in a profound change in Korea–EU bilateral relationship. The era of one-sided preferences given by the EU in favor of Korea, which constituted the traditional feature of the bilateral relationship until the mid-1980s, elapsed, and the new era started to emerge, which can be characterized by the co-existence of conflicting and complementary interests. Also, following the inauguration of the ASEM in 1996, the channel of Korea–EU bilateral contacts has been expanded, because the EC secured the official membership from the beginning, in addition to its then existing 15 member states.

In economic fields, unlike the 1960s and 1970s, a few Korean companies have successfully established as new competitors in a number of industries for which the European companies had held competitiveness, such as shipbuilding, automobile, and semiconductors. A consequence of this new development was an increasing number of trade disputes between Korea and the EU and other developed countries. The number of anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigations against Korean companies has increased substantially, too. The OECD, initiated by the United States and supported by the EU, had also convened a series of meetings to regulate the subsidies and dumping practices in the world shipbuilding industry, thereby attempting to reduce the competitive pressures coming from Japan, and more specifically Korea. The EC (1993) not only issued the Korea strategy paper pointing to the increasing strategic value of Korea, but also expressed concerns over the variety of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) as an obstacle to achieving better market access to Korea and the necessity to more consistently apply the principle of reciprocity in economic relations vis-à-vis Korea. All these events can be interpreted as factors that have contributed to making the Korea–EU economic relationship be more and more footed on an equal partnership rather than being governed by EU’s one-sided preferential treatments. Korea’s accession to the OECD in 1996 was welcomed by the EU and its member states as an additional signal that Korea also wanted to play on a “level-playing field” as far as economic matters are concerned.

In political and diplomatic fields, the Korea–EU relations have expanded considerably, in contrast to the economic fields where more conflicting than cooperative signals were observed. For instance, Doo-Hwan Chun, the then Korean president, paid the nation’s first-ever presidential visit to the EU in 1986, which was actually the second visit of the Korean president on European soil, after President Park, Chung-Hee visited Germany in 1964. In fact, Korea was a latecomer in Asia in terms of bilateral relations with the EU, lagging far behind Japan and India. Both this relatively belatedly established equal partnership and the fast-increasing strategic value of Korea were the decisive factors that led to the relative speedy expansion of the political relationship (EC, 1993). The crowning moment in this respect was the adoption in 1996 of the first version of the bilateral FATC, which should later be revised and upgraded to become the Framework Agreement, which in turn became the foundation for the forthcoming Strategic Partnership between Korea and the EU. A number of additional political contacts preceded, including the regularization of the minister-level policy dialogue in 1983 and the mutual exchange of diplomatic representations in the capital of each party. The self-recognition by the Korean government that Korea’s international relations were too much focused on the United States and Japan provided another welcomed impetus to diversify the nation’s diplomatic orientation to other countries and regions, which, in turn, provided enough motivations for Korea to strengthen its ties with the EU.

A special attention should be paid to the EU’s contribution to the peace-building process in the Korean peninsula. The EU secured an important seat in the Executive Board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) on September 19, 1997 (and served until 2006, with an annual financial contribution of Euros 15–20 million), which was established as an international endeavor to avoid the nuclear bomb development program of North Korea. EU’s KEDO participation has attracted interests of EU member states in the inter-Korean affairs and related developments in South Korea, thereby enhancing the Korea–EU relationship. Also to be mentioned is the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis (AFC), which has led to deep-going reforms in the economic and financial governance system in Korea, and subsequently brought about fundamental changes in Korea’s entire economic policy. Korea now started to more seriously embrace basic values, and this gave signals to the EU to upgrade its relationship with Korea.

More Equal Relationship with Korea’s Increasing Regional and Global Profile, 2000–2010

The period of 2000–2010 saw the consolidation of an equal partnership between Korea and the EU. A few Korea-specific factors, together with a new development in Asia–Europe relationship, contributed to this favorable change in the bilateral relationship.

First, starting from the Third ASEM Summit in 2000, Korea was designated as a host country of a series of international summit meetings, including the 2005 APEC Summit, 2010 G20 Summit, and 2011 Nuclear Safety Summit. This was received very positively in the Korean society as a sign of increased national profile and regional and global leadership (Park, 2012). Second, Korea officially joined the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD in January 2010, which opened a wide window of opportunities to cooperate with the EU and its member states in this field. Also, the DAC membership of Korea provided a strong pressure for Korea to adopt more and more “global standards” in the international development cooperation activities, leading to a substantial increase in its official development assistance (ODA) budget and a strong reduction in the “binding” elements in the deployment of its ODA activities. These events have been instrumental in making Korea embrace increasingly the “basic values” and “global standards,” which was welcomed by the international community, and more specifically by the EU and its member states.

The adoption by the EU of the Global Europe strategy in 2006 marked an important turning point in this regard (EC, 2006). Conceived as a strategic concept to strengthen market access and economic growth potential, the Global Europe strategy opened the way for the EU to more aggressively negotiate FTAs with important emerging markets. Korea was designated, together with the ASEAN and India, as a priority negotiation partner, so that the strategy could be interpreted as a renewed interest of the EU in the Asian region. As analyzed in greater detail in Park (2017), the Korea–EU FTA negotiations started in 2007, and the Korea–EU FTA was brought into force on July 1, 2011, as the first successful FTA based on the Global Europe strategy, which constituted one of three fundamentals that led to the establishment of the strategic partnership between the two parties.

Analysis of the Strategic Partnership between Korea and the EU

Renard (2012) presented 10 guiding principles of the EU’s strategic partnership, stressed the necessity of a clear-cut strategic direction, and argued that the strategic partnership could be used as a “a milestone on the path to a more strategically capable Europe.” Korea is one of the EU’s 10 strategic partners, through the cooperation with which the EU intends to achieve common regional and global strategic goals. This section investigates the background and detailed contents of the Korea–EU strategic partnership.

Background of the Korea–EU Strategic Partnership

The bilateral relationship between Korea and the EU has transformed from an economy-focused and unilaterally preferential one to a more equal and comprehensive relationship, and finally reached the status of a strategic partnership in 2010. A few background factors have been instrumental in bringing about this change. First, as Park (2012) argued, Korea’s growing regional and global leadership has inspired the EU to continuously upgrade its relationship with Korea. It is noteworthy in this context that since the early 21st century Korea has been taking an increasing international responsibility, both actively and passively. For example, Korea expanded its international development cooperation programs with the view to sharing the experiences of its rapid economic development with the developing world. The launch of the knowledge sharing program (KSP) in 2004 is a manifestation to the international community that Korea was ready to contribute to international development assistance activities by using Korea’s development experiences. After the G20 was assigned to play the role of the premier economic forum since the outbreak of the global financial crisis, Korea was invited as a full member of the G20. In fact, especially since the beginning of the 21st century, Korea took the responsibility of hosting a few important summit meetings, including the ASEM Summit in 2000, APEC Summit in 2005, and G20 Summit in 2010. Through these increasing international responsibilities, Korea could gain confidence to play more affirmative regional and global leadership roles (Park, 2012).

The EU’s changed approach to trade policy was decisive in upgrading the Korea–EU bilateral relationship into a strategic partnership as well. In fact, the Global Europe strategy designated Korea as one of few priority FTA partners for the EU (EC, 2006). As a consequence, the negotiations on the Korea–EU FTA started in May 2007, and were successfully completed in July 2009. Together with the Framework Agreement and the Framework Participation Agreement, the Korea–EU FTA constitutes one of three pillars of the Korea–EU strategic partnership. As Park (2017) argued, a certain degree of competition between the EU and the United States was observed, especially in making a trade deal with Korea. The timing of the two FTA negotiations—Korea–EU FTA and Korea–US FTA—overlapped, and they both envisaged to take advantage of the “first mover,” especially based on the concept of the “contentious market regulations” (Park, 2017). It is also remarkable that Korea enjoys a very special status as the only country that entered into three important agreements with the EU in the economic (FTA), political (Framework Agreement), and security fields (Framework Participation Agreement).

This unique status of Korea motivated the EU to elevate its relationship with Korea to the level of strategic partnership, which has been instituted in 2010.

Main Features of Strategic Partnership

The upgraded Framework Agreement that was adopted in 2010 and officially went into force in 2014 does form the legal basis of the Korea–EU strategic partnership. The Framework Agreement encompasses largely political, but also economic and socio-cultural areas as comprehensive cooperation subjects. The strategic partnership is, in fact, flanked by a number of specific agreements in several fields, which provide an expanded scope for cooperation between Korea and the EU.

Political Relations

The political relations between Korea and the EU within the framework of a strategic partnership are largely governed by the Framework Agreement. As the European External Action Service (2016) elaborated, this Framework Agreement is “the first Agreement of its kind between the EU and an Asian country,” and sets out basic philosophy, concept, and approach of Korea–EU partnership in diverse fields. Especially, a priority is given to (i) commitment to democracy; (ii) respect for human rights; (iii) fundamental freedoms; (iv) the promotion of peaceful solutions to international or regional conflicts; and (v) the strengthening of the UN and other international organizations.

The Framework Agreement includes the security cooperation in Title II (Political Dialogue and Cooperation), allocating a total of four articles. The two parties especially mention the importance of cooperation in the fields of (i) countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (Article 4); and (ii) combatting terrorism (Article 7). Korea and the EU have established a Joint Committee based on the Framework Agreement, in order to ensure the maximum effectiveness and overall coherence of the cooperative activities.

Economic and Trade Relations

Since the dawn of diplomatic relations in the 1960s, Korea and the EU have become important economic partners for each other. In 2016, Korea was the ninth largest export market for EU products and the eighth largest supplier, whereas the EU was Korea’s second largest supplier and third largest export market. While the total amount of EU investment into Korea doubles that of Korea’s investment into the EU, the speed of increase of Korea’s recent foreign direct investment into the EU was higher than the other way around. The under-developed trade and investment relations observed in the 1980s, once identified by the EC (1993), seem now largely overcome, to which the bilateral FTA has contributed significantly.

The Korea–EU FTA, which was negotiated during the period between May 2007 and July 2009 and went into force in July 2011, constitutes the backbone of the bilateral economic relations. The Korea–EU FTA was welcomed by the EU policymakers for a number of different reasons. First, from the EU perspective, this FTA was “the first trade deal with an Asian country and the most ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement implemented by the EU” until the EU negotiated an FTA with Canada (Majchrowska, 2017). As the group of very open and advanced trading nations, the Korea–EU FTA was setting some standards to be achieved in the following trade negotiations. Second, after the FTA went into force, the trade deficit of the EU vis-à-vis Korea turned into a sizable surplus, so that the EC (2015, p. 9) gained confidence in negotiating high-quality FTAs and proudly identified the Korea–EU FTA as “a prime example of the kind of new generation agreements the EU can negotiate and of the concrete results they produce.” (See Cherry, 2017, for finding some clues on how the expectations over the Korea–EU FTA were framed and to what extent the expectations were fulfilled.)

Security Cooperation

The security cooperation is probably the most under-represented point in the Korea–EU bilateral relations. As Richey (2017) argued, the two parties are both “underappreciated international security partners,” and have been facing security-related challenges of their own. From the EU perspective, the refuge and immigration issues, as well as the Brexit negotiations, have taken a great part of EU’s policy capacity, whereas the North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue has been burdening Korea’s security-related policy activities, thus pre-empting the potential for further engaging with each other in security areas. The Framework Agreement, however, has acknowledged the importance of security cooperation and consultation, and allocated a total of four chapters to this area. These policy endeavors notwithstanding, the security areas appear under-developed in the Korea–EU bilateral relationship, mainly due to the predominant roles played by the regional and global big powers, such as the United States and China.

Security cooperation is regarded by the Korean and EU policymakers as a part of the broad-based political dialogue and cooperation. Apart from the Korea–EU Framework Agreement, the Global Strategy of the EU adopted in 2016 would provide more concrete span for EU’s security cooperation with Korea (Richey, 2017). The EU’s 2016 Global Strategy acknowledges the direct connection between European prosperity and Asian security and explicitly mentions the importance of EU efforts to scale up its security role in Asia, which should include its policy support in promoting “non-proliferation in the Korean peninsula.” Therefore, the Korea–EU cooperation in security fields is expected to strengthen in the coming years.

Priority Cooperation Areas for the Future Korea–EU Relationship

Sustainable Development: Climate Change and Energy

The Framework Agreement attaches great importance to the policy areas, especially those of climate change and energy, in fostering the future Korea–EU bilateral relationship. Under the heading “Title V: Sustainable Development” of the Framework Agreement, the two parties adopted meaningful future direction of the bilateral cooperation for climate change (chapter 24) and environment and natural resources (chapter 23). Lee and Chung (2019) are supportive of the idea that climate change issues entail an excellent area for future cooperation for Korea and the EU, too.

Based on concrete action plans in diverse sub-fields, Korea and the EU have pledged to cooperate in matters of regional and global significance. Chapters 23 and 24 of the Framework Agreement provide that the two parties should strengthen mutual cooperation in implementing the agreements adopted in relevant international meetings. Especially, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are mentioned in these chapters as priority commitments that Korea and the EU have to pay stronger attention to, in order to contribute to increasing the energy efficiency and protecting environment, as well as promoting environmental technologies and collaborating in developing and diffusing the low-carbon technologies.

The cooperation in this field is expected to generate mutually beneficial outcome for the two parties, as they are bringing complementary expertise and comparative advantages. In fact, a number of EU member states are world leaders in sustainable development and environmental protection. Also, the EU itself is regarded as the most competent policymaker and policy leader in these fields. Therefore, Korea will be provided with an excellent opportunity to learn from best practices of the EU and EU member states. Conversely, Korea is able to add different qualities to the cooperation. In fact, Korea has played an important initiator role for worldwide discussion on green growth, especially during the Lee, Myung-Bak administration. The establishment of both the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) and the Green Climate Fund (GCF), both in Korea, was one of path-breaking policy actions ever made by the international society in this regard, making Korea an excellent cooperation partner for the EU.

Culture and Education

Culture and education are channels for enhancing the people-to-people contacts, which is also identified as one of channels and vehicles to build up and strengthen identities (Park, Yoon, & Kim 2008). The Korea–EU strategic partnership was very keen in enhancing the bilateral cooperation in these fields, and has set out a few meaningful instruments, by allocating the whole Title VI to two chapters (chapters 28 and 29). In addition, the Korean and EU policymakers have gone further to adopt the Protocol on Cultural Cooperation as an integral part of the Korea–EU FTA package. Outstanding in this cooperation initiative is the agreement to establish a specialized Committee on Cultural Cooperation that should meet at least once a year in order to oversee the implementation of the Protocol (Article 3.3).

The protection of EU member states’ interests in the audiovisual sector has been of enormous concern for the EU in negotiation on both the Framework Agreement and FTA with Korea. The European External Action Service (2016) is supportive to the idea of granting preferential treatment for co-production and promoting audiovisual works of the EU and Korea. In the educational cooperation, too, Korea and the EU shared common visions. The Framework Agreement has particularly emphasized cooperation in the higher education sector, and agreed upon developing and promoting joint study programs and student mobility, as well as exchanges of administrative staff. For this, the respective educational authorities have introduced an excellent supporting program under the title of ICI-ECP, and the EU has been expanding the participation of Korean educational institutions in the Erasmus Mundus program.

International Development Assistance

The Framework Agreement provides “Development Assistance” as one of priority cooperation areas between the two parties, which needs to be explored more actively in the future (Article 27). Even though the provisions in the Framework Agreement are relatively scanty, Park (2014) acknowledges enormous potential for bilateral cooperative projects, which can be effectively pursued based on a great complementarity between Korea and the EU in this field. More specifically, the author argues that the two parties should develop concrete programs that can combine the financial capability (EU) and development experiences (Korea) in implementing the programs, which is seen as a way to ensure the maximum effectiveness of such cooperation. The financial capacity of the EU and EU member states can be verified by the fact that currently more than half of the funds made available for ODA activities are financed by the EU and its member states. However, as a relatively new donor, Korea possesses unique qualities to become an influential player in this field; namely the status of the country that had been successful in overcoming extreme poverty within a relatively short period of time. The Korean government introduced the KSP in 2004 to share its development experiences and policy implications. Within the framework of the KSP so far, more than 600 projects have been conducted. Also, there is an increasing demand from the developing world to learn and emulate the policy recipes used by the Korean government to upgrade its economy so rapidly.


This article analyzed the period of official diplomatic relationship between Korea and the EU, discussed the underlying environment and background factors, and elaborated its future direction. The following conclusions can be drawn.

First, the bilateral relationship has transformed from an economy-focused and one-sided preferential relationship to a more equal and comprehensive strategic partnership. Various imbalances observed in the early phase of diplomatic relationship have been dismantled continuously and incrementally throughout the 1990s. During the 2000s, the most dynamic and productive period in the Korea–EU relationship, various policy activities were initiated by both parties for the purpose of upgrading the relationship into a strategic partnership.

Second, it seems that Korea has long enjoyed a unique status in the EU’s foreign policy. Especially, Korea as the first Asian partner has negotiated an FTA with the EU that is frequently praised by EU policymakers as “a successful case” which should be benchmarked when conducting new negotiations with other partners. Korea also could establish a strategic partnership supported by three distinguished agreements that are not found in any other countries at the same time—Framework Agreement, Free Trade Agreement and Framework Participation Agreement.

Third, Even though the strategic partnership was instituted in 2010, it appears still under-utilized. Whereas the trade and economic relations have been put to the core of the strategic partnership, political relations still show enormous potential to expand. This deficiency may be due to incoherent political activities of the EU and its member states, thereby leading to a certain degree of confusion from the Korean side. This confusion on both the competence areas of the EU and its member states and the different voices heard in EU and member states foreign policy was observed in a few EU-focused perception surveys conducted (Park & Kim, 2006; Park & Yoon, 2010).

Fourth, despite certain successes in various policy efforts to reduce the imbalances in Korea–EU bilateral relationship, there still exists a relatively strong discrepancy. Especially compared to the policy attention paid by the EU to Korea, Korea’s policy engagement with the EU still shows potential to expand. Korea is advised to devote more human resources and policy attention to the EU and EU affairs, in order to rebalance the country’s too strong political and economic, as well as security-related, dependence on the United States and China.

Finally, this article presented (i) climate change and energy; (ii) culture and education; and (iii) international development cooperation as three most promising areas for future cooperation between Korea and the EU. Through the expansion of policy contacts and consultations as well as concrete cooperation between the two parties, Korea and the EU will be able to make common efforts for “raising the roles and profiles of both Parties in each other's regions and of fostering people-to-people contacts between the Parties,” as stipulated in the Framework Agreement. If this is done appropriately and in a timely and cooperative manner, the bilateral relationship is well poised to go beyond the FTA, contrary to the rather pessimistic arguments brought in Kelly (2012).


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