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PoliticsSouth Korea

South Korea and Germany share same geopolitical dilemma

Rodion Ebbighausen
May 8, 2023

South Korea and Germany both have close economic ties with China, and they rely on the US for their security. Growing tensions between Beijing and Washington pose a challenge to both of them.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock met her South Korean counterpart in Seoul in April 2023
Berlin and Seoul are celebrating 140 years of diplomatic relations this yearImage: Kira Hofmann/photothek/picture alliance

Germany and South Korea — despite the vast geographic distance between them, of over 8,000 kilometers (4,971 miles) — share common values and interests as well as an experience of division, which have brought the two nations closer together.  

In 1949, Germany was divided into East and West Germany by the victorious powers of World War II; and the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South Korea following the Korean War from 1950-53.

In the subsequent decades, West Germany and South Korea witnessed rapid economic expansion and a process of democratization.

Their growth was aided in no small part by the international order that came into being after World War II.

Then in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall — a symbol of the Cold War's division of the democratic West from the communist East — paved the way for the reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990.

The Korean Peninsula, however, has remained divided to this day.

South Korea: Germany is a major 'values partner' for us

Celebrating 140 years of ties

"Based on these shared historic experiences, Korea and Germany are looking ahead for further cooperation in the fields of politics, economy, culture and people-to-people exchanges," Kim Hong-kyun, South Korean ambassador to Germany, told DW.

Berlin and Seoul are celebrating 140 years of diplomatic relations this year.

2023 also marks the 60th anniversary of a recruitment agreement between the two sides, which provided temporary employment to thousands of Korean miners and nurses in Germany.

Germany also accords huge importance to its ties with South Korea and to the two nations' shared history. "South Korea is an important partner for Germany and an important like-minded voice in the international community," a spokesperson for the German Foreign Office told DW.

Concern over dependence on China

While bilateral ties were dominated by trade and investment in the past, they are being increasingly driven by security considerations. Both sides are more and more focusing their attention on securing critical infrastructure, diversifying supply chains, cyber security and energy security, among other things.

Japan, South Korea put new focus on militaries

In March 2023, for instance, Germany's federal domestic intelligence agency and the South Korean intelligence service published a joint report for the first time warning of attacks by North Korean hacker unit "Kimsuky."

Another factor behind the growing significance of security issues in the bilateral relationship is the rising power of the People's Republic of China and its more assertive foreign policy. 

Both Seoul and Berlin face a dilemma over their ties to Beijing, as trade with China is critically important to their economies.

About 8% of Germany's exports, for instance, are destined for the Chinese market, according to data from the World Bank. In South Korea's case, the figure is as much as a quarter of all of the nation's exports, making Seoul even more reliant on China.

Impact of tensions between China and US

As one of their biggest trading partners, China has significant economic leverage over both South Korea and Germany. 

In 2017, for instance, Seoul agreed to deploy US-made THAAD missile defense system to counter North Korea's missile threats. But the move angered China, which expressed concern that the system's powerful radar could be used to spy on Chinese military activities.

The resulting backlash was devastating for a number of South Korean firms, particularly the conglomerate Lotte Group, whose decade-long strategic push into China ended in tatters.

The case highlights the vulnerabilities South Korea and Germany face with regard to their growing economic dependence on China, while relying on the US for their security.

Geopolitical tensions between China and the US are on the rise, and if they lead to a polarization of the world along the lines of Cold War-era blocs, it could hit the export-reliant economies of Germany and South Korea hard.

"Both nations rely heavily on exports," Eric Ballbach, Asia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said, adding that they "therefore have a strong and common interest in maintaining the rules-based international order."

"Both are committed to strong multilateral institutions and organizations, to free sea lanes and trade routes."

US-China: What’s behind the growing tensions?

When will Scholz visit South Korea?

In response to the growing challenge, both sides want to deepen their partnership, as evidenced by their joining forces at the United Nations to condemn Russia's war in Ukraine, and when the German frigate Bayern was deployed to East Asia in 2021 to support the enforcement of international sanctions against North Korea.

Ballbach said all these steps are in the right direction, but they're only a start. 

"I hope that people in Germany will quickly realize that South Korea is a very important partner and will become increasingly important in the future. I also hope that this will be reflected politically," said Ballbach, pointing out that it's been about 30 years since a German chancellor last embarked on a bilateral visit to South Korea.

In 2010, then Chancellor Angela Merkel visited South Korea, but only to attend a G20 summit.

Ambassador Kim said that South Korea would very much welcome the German chancellor's visit.

"Both South Korea and Germany need to learn from each other," Ambassador Kim underlined, adding: "I stressed to my German colleagues that South Korea and Germany need to talk more about our strategies toward China."

"In addition to bilateral relations, we can work together on a range of regional and global issues, including further cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region."

This article was originally written in German.

Edited by: Shamil Shams