Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is beginning a visit to South Korea on Wednesday and it’s a sign of the times. Long gone are the days when geopolitics was strictly regional. Despite being located on opposite ends of the globe, Israel and South Korea share remarkably similar positions on the global stage. Both are unequivocal allies of the United States but with very significant trade relations with China.
They are small democracies in volatile regions and face a similar threat of missile attacks from belligerent enemies. They are also both threatened by nuclear weapons, Israel from Iran’s rapidly developing nuclear program and South Korea from North Korea, a country that has also traded in weapons and military technologies with some of Israel’s foremost enemy countries.
It is therefore not surprising that ties between Israel and South Korea have grown closer in the last decade. At the same time, relations have only reached a fraction of their true potential.
Despite a long-held admiration for Israel’s innovation climate and strategic power despite its small size, South Korea has long been hesitant to publicly foster its ties with Israel, fearful of repercussions from important trade partners, such as Iran and Arab states hostile to Israel. The Abraham Accords of 2020, however, changed the fault lines in the Middle East beyond recognition.
With official diplomatic ties now established with several former Arab enemy states, Israel is no longer a pariah in the region and countries growing closer to Israel no longer risk relations with Middle Eastern trading partners.
The opportunities for stronger Israel-South Korea ties
South Korea’s recent foreign policy turn also provides an opportunity. The administration of Yoon Suk Yeol has very explicitly moved closer to the US and the West, sacrificing considerable political capital to strike a deal with Japan about compensation for the use of forced labor during the colonial period, for example. Yeol has emphasized the role of democratic values and cooperation between democracies in foreign policy, as articulated in the administration’s foreign policy views in its “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region,” released in late 2022. Closer ties with Israel fits well with Yeol’s foreign policy vision. Bilateral trade has steadily climbed by close to 30% between 2010 and 2020, but there is much more that can be done not only bilaterally but regionally.
New partnerships are being formed between Asia and the Middle East, as a consequence of increasing superpower tensions on the one hand and the Abraham Accords on the other. Israel, South Korea and the UAE all have cutting-edge technology and robust financial resources, and are becoming hotbeds for the development of innovative concepts and their realization.
ON TRADE, too, the time is right for trilateral cooperation. The UAE and South Korea took their diplomatic relations to new heights by declaring a special strategic partnership, in 2018. In 2021, Israel and South Korea signed a landmark free trade agreement (FTA), making South Korea the first Asian country to sign one with Israel. The private sector is also active: a few days ago, South Korean conglomerate Hyundai signed a memorandum of understanding with the Israeli Innovation Authority for joint technological research.
Most recently, the UAE and Israel also solidified their economic ties by signing the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, in May 2022. By elevating bilateral relations into a trilateral framework and choosing cooperation over competition, a long-term regional partnership can be established.
But for this vision to work it needs to be grounded in practical cooperation. With COP28 taking place in Dubai later this year, one such initiative could be a cross-regional Blue Economy R&D Fund, focusing on global and regional challenges, like carbon neutrality, green energy and energy security through the lens of data analytics, artificial intelligence and robotics. Another promising avenue is exploring nuclear energy collaboration to diversify the energy portfolios of the three nations.
Broadening cooperation in sectors, such as infrastructure, education and healthcare, could potentially help integrate other Gulf, Asian and African nations into this partnership, serving as both contributors and recipients of services. Israel, South Korea and the UAE, moreover, share many strategic interests that they could collaborate over, fortifying their positions as ascending powers in Asia.
As Israel’s ambassador to South Korea, Akiva Tor put it in an interview earlier this year that Korea and Israel have been dating and it’s time for the two to finally get married. Then-president Shimon Peres visited South Korea, in 2010, as the first Israeli president to do so, and president Reuven Rivlin followed, in 2019. A visit by Yeol and other South Korean leaders to Israel could truly elevate the Israel-South Korea partnership not only bilaterally but in the Middle East and beyond.
Dr Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University. He previously served as an Australian foreign service officer working on Asian regional security issues and as a diplomat at the Australian Embassy in Beijing, where he focused on issues related to China’s foreign policy, including in the Middle East.
Dr. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is a postdoctoral fellow at Tel Aviv University, an associate fellow at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, and a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center. His research focuses on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia.