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ConflictsSouth Korea

Why are Germany and South Korea sharing military secrets?

May 24, 2023

With the new intelligence-sharing pact, Berlin and Seoul aim to boost their defense capabilities amid the conflict in Ukraine and tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

German-made Taurus missile shown in flight during South Korean millitary drills
South Korea operates German-made weapons, including the bunker-busting Taurus missileImage: South Korean Defense Ministry/Getty Images

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stayed in South Korea for only a few hours — but his visit and talks with President Yoon Suk-yeol yielded a series of agreements, most notably the pact on sharing military intelligence and streamlining supply chains for the two nations' defense industries.

The bilateral summit took place as Scholz was returning from the G7 meeting in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Both diplomatic events focused largely on the ongoing security crisis in Ukraine and the simmering tensions in northeast Asia. And when it comes to Asia, China was once again the most important topic.

Analysts point out that the defense deals between Scholz and Yoon are just the latest examples of similar deals between various nations that, taken together, can be seen a pushback against Chinese influence.

German Chancellor Scholz visits South Korea

Beijing's own actions — from unilaterally occupying and militarizing disputed islands in the South China Sea to confrontations with Japan over islands in the East China Sea and clashes with India over territory in the Himalayas — could in turn be presented as a reason for those new alliances and agreements.

And Germany has been boosting its role in the Indo-Pacific in recent years. In 2021, a German warship was deployed to the region and carried out a series of exercises with other navies, while fighter aircraft have also taken part in joint maneuvers more recently.

South Korea-NATO ties to grow even stronger

Scholz and Yoon met at the president's office in Seoul after the German leader had travelled to the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean Peninsula. While on the heavily fortified border, Scholz said Pyongyang's ongoing development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles indicate there is "still a dangerous situation" on the peninsula and that the North remains "a threat to peace and security in this region."

In their subsequent talks, the two leaders agreed on a deal to share and protect military secrets and establish mechanisms to give military supply chains greater resilience.

Dan Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, points to "expansionist policies in Beijing" as a reason for stronger cooperation between nations not allied with China.

Scholz: 'These ballistic tests have to stop'

"I fully expect to see more of the same," Pinkston told DW in reference to the closer military ties. "It is reasonable to expect South Korean forces to take part in exercises with units from NATO and other countries with shared security concerns. These exercises are critical to ensuring the interoperability of munitions, weapons systems and components and it makes absolute sense to make sure that supply chains are guaranteed."

Ukraine war 'came as a deep shock' to South Korea

And while German navy and air force take part in drills with South Korean troops, Seoul is exporting advanced weapons systems to Europe. Last year, South Korea signed a massive defense deal with Poland, estimated to be worth €15 billion, ($16.2 billion). It includes the sale nearly 1,000 K2 main battle tanks, 648 self-propelled howitzers and 48 FA050 fighter jets.

As Poland is a member of NATO, this means German troops will take part in exercises in which they will, at some point, come up against the Korean equipment. It is important that Germany is aware of its capabilities, Pinkston said.

In the Indo-Pacific region, however, South Korea will be hoping that a closer alliance with another European power will boost its deterrence to potential rivals.

"It is clear that Korea is seeking closer and greater engagement with Western nations and that can clearly be traced back to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, which came as a deep shock to this country," said Rah Jong-yil, a former diplomat and senior South Korean intelligence officer.

Japan, South Korea put new focus on militaries

"In this part of the world, China is of course the big worry, but we also have to keep a close eye on North Korea and Russia," he said.

China reaches out for allies

While Seoul is looking for close allies in the West, China appears to be conducting a diplomatic offensive of its own.

"In recent months, Beijing has been reaching out to a number of states in the Middle East and Central Asia as it looks to build its own alliances, so both sides are building up their partnerships and working on improving their own interests," Rah said.

Parallel to the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Beijing set up its own summit with five Central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the Chinese city of Xi'an. China also recently acted as a peace broker in the Middle East and is credited with Saudi Arabia and Iran stepping back from years of animosity.

China's attempt to boost its already formidable influence in Asia will not go unnoticed in Seoul.

"North Korea is right on the South's border and is the most acute and immediate military threat," said Pinkston. "But the bigger picture is that the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, human rights and global governance issues all come back to China, and that will be the challenge going forward."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea