Shortly after his election as president in April, Yoon Suk-yeol said he would “positively review” any invitation for the Republic of Korea (ROK) to formally join the Quad, but that he did not expect such an offer would be extended anytime soon.
Given his flurry of early outreach to the United States, Australia, India, and significantly Japan, ROK-Quad cooperation may no longer be a pipedream. In particular, Yoon’s ambitious digital agenda, an early hallmark of his policy priorities, underscores an opportunity to hitch South Korea’s formidable technological capabilities to the efforts of the Quad’s Working Group on Critical and Emerging Technologies.
The argument for cooperation, particularly around technology, is compelling. The ROK, like the existing Quad members, is a vibrant democracy that advocates for international peace and human rights, generally abides by fair and open market rules, and leads regional efforts to combat climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent years, the South Korean economy has become a leading producer of critical and emerging technologies, including in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information science, and biotechnology; and today, Korean technology products are widely consumed within the Quad countries. As then president Moon Jae-in acknowledged through his May 2021 joint statement with President Joe Biden, the Quad’s “open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism” may have profound consequences for South Korea’s geopolitical future, with or without Seoul’s active participation in the dialogue. This admission by Moon, however perfunctory, represented a significant shift away from years of Blue House strategic ambiguity, and even from statements just months prior that the Quad could jeopardize regional security. It also primes the Yoon administration for a much more forward-leaning approach to the Quad.
For the time being, South Korea remains unlikely to formally join the Quad due to overriding international and domestic political factors. Specifically, the Yoon administration’s early receptivity toward the Quad could be tempered by the potential cost of standing up to Chinese coercive behavior. Another factor is possible bilateral friction with Japan due to lingering historical disputes and strategic distrust. Moreover, if prior conservative administrations provide any indication of Yoon’s foreign policy trajectory, his aspirations to join the Quad might face stumbling blocks should his political position weaken due to domestic economic or social unrest.
Still, there appears to be a moderate convergence between the progressive and conservative wings of South Korea’s foreign policy intelligentsia over their views about the Quad. Accordingly, there are numerous opportunities for leaders in Seoul to strengthen their partnership with each of the Quad’s members individually—especially where technology is concerned—and to use these bilateral ventures as steppingstones toward a broader framework of cooperation.
SOUTH KOREA’S TECHNOLOGY ADVANTAGE
Technology stands prominent as an area where the ROK can strengthen its relationships with the Quad as a whole and each of its members, even without formally joining the dialogue. The country is already known for its stand-out role in global semiconductor and robotics supply chains. Along with Vietnam, the ROK has also been party to Quad Plus discussions covering Covid-19 relief and trade, which complemented the Moon administration’s New Southern Policy for economic development. But the ROK stands to contribute even more to technologies at the heart of competition between China and the Quad, such as AI, quantum information science, and synthetic biology.
In 2018 the Blue House unveiled a national AI strategy designed to make South Korea a “top 4” global contender in the technology by the end of 2022.
Under the plan, the Ministry of Science and ICT has established a half-dozen AI research institutes, awarded thousands of AI scholarships to university students in South Korea, and hosted AI R&D challenges modeled on similar initiatives led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the United States. South Korea’s most well-known technology champions, such as Hyundai, LG, and Samsung, have pledged to invest tens of billions of dollars in AI and related technologies over the next decade, and they remain at the forefront of global developments in high-performance computing and autonomous navigation. Still, South Korea faces a shortage of experienced, skilled AI engineering talent and could draw on Quad members, such as India and Japan.
South Korea is also poised to lead in quantum computing, encryption, and sensing. Its largest technology champion, Samsung, has made significant investments in U.S.-based quantum-computing start-ups, while the Ministry of Science and ICT intends to build its own 5-qubit quantum processor by 2023. SK Telecom, the country’s largest mobile phone provider, announced in 2020 that it would begin using quantum random number generation and quantum key distribution to secure some phones on its 5G network. Finally, in late 2021, the Korea Institute of Science and Technology became one of a few institutions in the world to have demonstrated the advantage of quantum sensors over their conventional counterparts.
In biotechnology, South Korean firms are also starting to mature, with more than five hundred enterprises now focused on biopharmaceuticals, biochemicals, and biosynthetic energy and food. At the end of 2021, the Blue House announced the creation of a new secretary to the president for emerging and critical technologies and cybersecurity, who will help promote and protect the development of core technologies. The ROK is also home to some of the world’s fastest-growing synthetic biology start-ups and biofoundries—which partner with similar institutions in Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, as well as China.
South Korean institutions already gain tremendously from the equipment, personnel, and capital from each of the Quad members, and likewise contribute cutting-edge data and research crucial for global scientific advancement. However, the ROK remains deeply integrated economically with China, while also being a top target of Chinese industrial espionage. South Korean institutions already gain tremendously from the equipment, personnel, and capital from each of the Quad members, and likewise contribute cutting-edge data and research crucial for global scientific advancement. However, the ROK remains deeply integrated economically with China, while also being a top target of Chinese industrial espionage.
THE UNITED STATES
In the last year, South Korea has grown closer on technology issues to the United States than perhaps any other Quad member. In May 2021, the White House and Blue House agreed to coordinate investment in semiconductors and high-capacity batteries, with Samsung planning to build a $17 billion fabrication facility within Texas.
The two countries also committed to partner on Open RAN technology development, support a new Korean national satellite positioning system, and scrap range limits that had previously been imposed on the ROK’s ballistic missile program.
This bevy of new agreements provides a solid foundation from which the United States and South Korea can enhance their technology partnership. At the conclusion of their joint summit in May 2021, Presidents Biden and Moon outlined a vision for a “technology alliance,” stating that they “welcome joint research and expert exchanges in quantum computing, communications, and sensing,” and announced mechanisms for exchanges of young environmental professionals and graduate students. Yet both countries still stand to gain from establishing more formal scholarship programs promoting talent exchange in fields such as AI, biotechnology, and privacy-enhancing technologies. There is also room to cooperate on supply chain resilience and technology protection.
Indeed, new polling suggests that the overwhelming majority of Koreans support working with the United States over China, with 90% in favor of collaborating on “semiconductors and other technologies.”
Building on ongoing bilateral talks around semiconductor strategy and supply chain resilience, Washington and Seoul may yet broach more sensitive subjects like outbound investment screening to thwart Chinese industrial espionage.
Given the natural synergy between India’s Act East Policy and South Korea’s New Southern Policy, it comes as no surprise that, beginning in 2018, the two countries initiated a series of strategic dialogues that include high-technology issues. That year, for example, Seoul and New Delhi agreed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to create a “future strategy group” focused on a number of AI and Internet of Things (IoT) inputs and applications, such as “big data, smart factories, 3D printing, electric vehicles (EV), advanced materials like ceramics, composites, semiconductors and polymers.” Simultaneously, they also signed an MOU on micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises, which established the India-Korea Technology Exchange Center, among other initiatives. So far, the center hosts a data bank to facilitate technology transfers and the production of high-quality goods in India and has pursued joint ventures in space, renewable energy, nanotechnology, and AI, among other technologies. Most recently, at their third strategic dialogue in December, Seoul and New Delhi prioritized joint development and production in the defense sector, focused especially on critical and high technologies, cybersecurity, and supply chain resilience.
Still, despite complementary economic policies and burgeoning dialogue, South Korea and India have yet to formalize any high-level expert exchange program, nor have they seen high rates of scientific research co-publication. Given India’s significant advantages in cultivating AI and STEM talent, it would be a boon for both Seoul and New Delhi to establish such scholarship and exchange programs. Bilateral investment between the two countries remains highly stochastic and typically has not exceeded $1 billion annually. This might be changing, however, given India’s permissive regulatory environment and the bevy of South Korean tech start-ups looking to expand into international markets.
As like-minded democracies, Australia and South Korea have found room to cooperate on a wide range of issues, including technology. In 2017, for example, they established a collaborative research network for clean energy technology, hosting several expert exchange seminars and fostering opportunities for R&D collaboration. More recently, following a meeting between their defense and foreign ministers in 2021, South Korea and Australia struck cooperation agreements on issues ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic to high-technology. Seoul and Canberra have agreed to develop low-emissions technologies such as hydrogen and clean steel and signed an MOU to cooperate on cyber and critical technologies. Moreover, during the next decade, the ROK and Australian militaries are expected to build a “deep technical working relationship” if South Korea’s Hanwha wins a potential $10 billion contract to supply the Australian Army with infantry fighting vehicles.
Such a massive deal could lay the groundwork for further collaboration on missiles, small satellites, and new energy systems.
Even if this does not come to pass, recent MOUs have created an optimal starting point from which Seoul and Canberra can coordinate on technologies beyond military hardware. In the private sector, for example, there are opportunities for Australia’s largest telecom company, Telstra, to coordinate more closely with Samsung in preparation for 6G via joint R&D projects and exchange programs. Within academia, Australian universities can take initiative by inviting their South Korean counterparts to Track 2 dialogues on cybersecurity. Government officials from both countries can also coordinate on joint proposals in international standards-setting bodies like the International Electrotechnical Commission, where South Korea has proposed a framework for the development of quantum information technologies.
With their respective strengths in capital investment and personnel development, there are clear opportunities for Japan and the ROK to cooperate as technology partners. When bilateral relations were less strained, industry leaders from both countries routinely met to advance cooperation in emerging areas such as AI, IoT, and big data. Since their trade spat started in 2019, however, there have been fewer opportunities for collaboration. The dispute began when Japan, following South Korean actions to address historical grievances over forced labor and conscription of “comfort women,” placed export restrictions on key inputs for South Korean semiconductors and consumer electronics. The two sides further erected barriers to technology sharing by removing each other from their respective “white lists,” thereby requiring individual checks on more than a thousand sensitive “strategic items.”
While recent diplomatic and trade frictions have narrowed the field for official government and industry channels of cooperation, South Korean businesses still recognize Japan’s leadership in specialized AI and robotics applications, such as automated process-enhanced machinery. In the absence of government-to-government cooperation, researchers and companies from both countries have continued to work collaboratively, albeit at a moderate clip. Indeed, though South Korean companies have mobilized to reduce their dependence on Japanese industry—accelerating indigenous technology development and diversifying or re-shoring critical supply chains—they continue to rely on Japanese products even in core microelectronics industries. Additionally, buttressed by strong cultural and people-to-people ties, the Japanese market has had enduring appeal among South Korean high-tech firms in specialized sectors ranging from medicine to education.
In the emerging technology fields of greatest geopolitical significance, private-sector leaders in the two countries have demonstrated some willingness to cooperate more systematically. In July 2021, for instance, LG Uplus and Japan’s KDDI joined forces to develop new 5G network applications and research standards for potential 6G networks. Since 2015, the two companies have collaborated on telecommunications equipment procurement, virtual and augmented reality, and smart drones. Likewise, in October 2021, South Korea’s Naver and Japan’s SoftBank, which jointly own the popular Line messaging app, announced plans to start a new AI venture. Through the initiative, Naver and SoftBank expect to partner on a range of AI applications, including autonomous driving systems and extended reality technologies.
While the start of a new era of formal technology cooperation between South Korea and Japan may still be far off, talk of ROK collaboration with the Quad might help revive stalled efforts elsewhere, such as on cybersecurity cooperation. Despite the heightened global risk of cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure, Japan and South Korea have only intermittently continued to engage on cyber issues, and usually when in the presence of third countries. Japan has already resolved to expand cyber cooperation through the Quad—a goal that it affirmed in its latest cybersecurity strategy.
Addressing shared threats in cyberspace could help overcome the larger diplomatic obstacles to formal ROK-Japan cooperation and foster an eventual partnership between the ROK and the Quad.
THE WAY FORWARD: NAVIGATING THE CHINA FACTOR
One of the largest factors deterring South Korean leaders from formally joining the Quad is the country’s relationship with China, its largest trading partner. In recent years, Beijing has ramped up its use of economic coercion as a tool of diplomacy—something Koreans remember well from the “THAAD incident.” Sparked by the ROK’s decision to accept the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in 2016, Beijing engineered populist boycotts against South Korean consumer goods and limited travel and tourism to the country, ultimately erasing more than $15 billion in revenue from Chinese tourists alone in the span of a few months. Time and again, Beijing’s willingness to retaliate economically against states as varied as Norway, Mongolia, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and Lithuania over political and security matters has underscored the risk for Seoul if it crosses the Chinese Communist Party. Formally joining the Quad most certainly would draw Beijing’s ire.
The prospect of provoking Beijing would seem particularly unappealing for the new Yoon administration, given the ROK’s relatively bleak economic outlook. In 2020, following years of slowed economic growth, the South Korean economy shrank for the first time in more than two decades—owing in large part to the Covid-19 pandemic.
et over the course of the tight presidential race, Yoon successfully managed to differentiate his campaign by making a hard pivot against China and toward the Quad. Anti-China sentiment among Koreans has risen to record highs, as China’s military assertiveness and bullying behavior have drawn global criticism. If trends in public sentiment hold, Yoon may decide that the regional security and domestic political benefits of obtaining Quad membership—which would firmly establish the ROK as a major Indo-Pacific power—are worth the cost of upsetting Beijing.
South Korea’s new president faces imminent security and economic challenges that will prove difficult to resolve. Short of a formalized ROK-Quad partnership, enhanced technology cooperation with each of the existing Quad members will help the Yoon administration foster domestic stability and broader economic prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.