13.08.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Yoon Suk-yeol’s Eastern European Tour. Part Two. The Warsaw Summit

We continue our series on the South Korean president’s trip to Eastern Europe. After concluding his visit to Vilnius for the NATO summit on July 12, Yoon proceeded to Warsaw for a three-day official visit, the first in 14 years since former president Lee Myung-bak. The President was also accompanied by a business delegation of 89 people.

On July 12, in an article for the Polish daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita, Yoon Suk-yeol announced that South Korea would continue to support Ukraine through close cooperation with Poland, as “the partnership between South Korea and Poland extends beyond the economic and trade sectors,” and will include reconstruction projects in Ukraine.

On July 13, the South Korean president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw. Then, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol and Poland’s President Andrzej Duda held talks. The parties talked about ways to deepen their economic relations and work together to rebuild Ukraine after hostilities. It was agreed to start holding regular deputy ministerial level meetings in September with the purpose of exchanging ideas and creating collaborative projects for the reconstruction of Ukraine. The South Korean leader stressed that Poland is a friendly nation that upholds the values of liberty and democracy.

On the same day, Yoon met with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and agreed to cooperate in restoring Ukraine and asked him to help solve the difficulties faced by South Korean companies operating in Poland. Morawiecki expressed his agreement, after which the two sides talked about further expansion of the flight connections between the two countries and support for youth exchanges. Naturally, Yoon asked Poland to support South Korea’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo in Busan.

On July 14, Yoon Suk-yeol and First Lady Kim Keon-hee met with a group of Polish youth, including university students majoring in Korean studies, at Warsaw University. In response to the students’ accounts of how they first became interested in Korean language and culture, Yoon offered encouragement and expressed his desire to see them develop into leaders of future exchanges between Poland and South Korea.

Almost equivalent to those in Vilnius, Yoon Suk-yeol’s activities can be broadly grouped into many categories.

Economic cooperation. Poland, which has a major representation of South Korean businesses like Samsung Electronics Co., LG Electronics Inc., and LG Energy Solution Ltd., is South Korea’s top trading partner in Central Europe. In 2022, bilateral trade reached a record $9 billion, and South Korea has become a key investor in Poland.

In addition, the Special Military Operation has prompted Poland to dramatically increase its defense spending by allocating 4% of its GDP to the military this year, turning its eyes to South Korean howitzers and tanks. In 2022, Seoul and Warsaw signed agreements to supply 980 K2 main battle tanks, 648 K-9 self-propelled howitzers, 48 FA-50 light combat aircrafts and 288 Chunmoo multiple rocket launch systems. At the time during his visit, Yoon Suk-yeol observed that “the scale of contracts for K2 tanks and K9 self-propelled howitzers signed with Poland in 2022 has become unprecedented.” 20 trillion won ($15.6 billion).

Warsaw is seen by Seoul as a platform for South Korean companies to enter the European market, a strategic logistics center and a key partner for cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe.

In an effort to strengthen the two nations’ strategic alliance, which was created in 2013, Yoon and Duda discussed expanding bilateral collaboration in nuclear energy, armaments, and infrastructure during the visit.

Yoon and Duda acknowledged that the development of nuclear power is the greatest way to achieve both energy security and carbon neutrality, and they vowed to vigorously support business collaboration between the two nations in order to effectively construct nuclear power stations in Poland.

South Korea is now seeking to export its APR-1400 nuclear reactors to Poland, while Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., Polish state-owned energy company Polska Grupa Energetyczna, and private energy firm ZE PAK SA have signed a letter of intent to cooperate on the Pątnów nuclear power plant project. In this context, Yoon promised to offer state-level support to companies involved in Polish nuclear power plant projects.

But the arms trade took a special place in the negotiations. The two leaders addressed Poland’s plans to buy more South Korean-made weaponry, with Duda stressing that his country intends to not only import but also manufacture South Korean weapons. Yoon stated his hope that defense cooperation will continue to grow to include cooperative development and research, and he mentioned the prospect of more arms contracts for Poland.

Yoon’s ambition for “military commerce” is well illustrated by the following. The Federation of Korean Industries reported on July 17, 2023, that South Korea is now the ninth largest arms exporter in the world but is aiming to become one of the top four military suppliers by 2027, increasing exports to $23.5 billion. The ROK’s arms exports are growing rapidly, with a six-fold increase in two years. It was $3 billion in 2020, jumped to $7.3 billion in 2021, and $17.3 billion in 2022, thanks to major contracts with Poland.

In terms of actual accomplishments, South Korea and Poland signed three Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) on July 13 to strengthen cooperation in commerce, infrastructure, and Ukraine’s rebuilding projects.

The first memorandum of understanding, signed by South Korea’s Ministry of Industry and Poland’s Ministry of Economic Development and Technology establishes a framework for trade and investment promotion in order to facilitate supply chain cooperation, develop joint business projects, remove trade barriers, and improve exchanges between businessmen, engineers, and experts.

A second memorandum of understanding, signed by the ROK Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) and the Polish Ministry of Infrastructure calls for increased cooperation in the development of transportation infrastructure in Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

A third memorandum of understanding signed by the South Korean MOLIT and the Polish delegate in charge of overseeing aid to Ukraine details measures to boost South Korean-Polish collaboration in Ukraine’s reconstruction and development projects.

On July 14, during a business forum in Warsaw, South Korean and Polish companies signed a total of 33 memoranda of understanding to expand cooperation in nuclear power, construction, battery manufacturing, and other advanced industry sectors.

The Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and Poland’s Ministry of Economic Development and Technology signed the Trade and Investment Promotion Framework Agreement (TIPF) as part of the visit program. The document envisages the expansion of bilateral cooperation in trade and investment, removing barriers, improving the environment, etc., and supporting Korean companies to enter the Polish market.

Ukraine was a key topic at the summit, and Yoon stated at a joint press conference with Duda that the two presidents agreed their countries could be “optimal partners” in Ukraine’s restoration.

Because of Poland’s logistical proximity and close relationship with Ukraine, many nations, including South Korea, are considering Warsaw as a base for Ukraine’s reconstruction projects, which are estimated to require more than $1 trillion. This is akin to the United States’ Marshall Plan of 1948, which offered economic aid to rebuild postwar Europe’s economic infrastructure, and South Korean corporations would like a piece of such a delectable pie.

Of course, this is formalized in appropriate rhetoric. According to Yoon Suk-yeol, the two sides “viewed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a challenge to the international community’s freedom, human rights, and the rule of law, and agreed to continue to provide assistance to end the war and restore peace.”

On July 14, Yoon met with representatives of 11 South Korean companies and organizations interested in participating in Ukraine’s rehabilitation, including Samsung C&T Corp., Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co., Kolon Global Corp., and HD Hyundai XiteSolution.

During the meeting, Won Hee-ryong, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport of South Korea, laid out the government’s efforts to help businesses enter the Ukrainian reconstruction market. Business participants discussed the current business environment in Ukraine as well as their particular plans for implementing projects in the construction, energy, information technology, train transportation, and other sectors.

Yoon stated that the government would actively support their efforts. He stressed that South Korea’s experience reconstructing its infrastructure after the 1950–53 Korean War with international assistance would considerably further Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction.

Yoon had lunch separately with representatives from South Korean companies with businesses in Poland. Yoon congratulated the corporations on their achievements and pledged to assist in removing any impediments to their operations by collaborating more closely with Warsaw.

Condemnation of North Korea. During the summit, the leaders criticized North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile launch and promised a strong reaction to obtain North Korea’s decision to pause nuclear and missile development in consultation with the world community. “We strongly condemned the fact that the North Korean regime continues its nuclear and missile development, ignoring the human rights of the North Korean people and the right to life … I and President Duda decided to intensify our joint efforts to improve the human rights situation in North Korea, while blocking North Korea’s illegal sending of workers to Poland,” Yoon said.

Let’s summarize. Although the ROK president’s visit to Poland and Lithuania could have signaled a shift in South Korean policy on the “arms issue,” this did not occur. Even the ambiguous, “support Ukraine by strengthening cooperation with Poland” can mean different things and, in the worst-case scenario, raises the possibility that South Korean weapons supplied to Poland could end up in Ukraine, although this is only one interpretation. Furthermore, it is one thing to paraphrase a quote in an interview with a Polish publication and quite another to comment on the visit, where no such confusing wording existed.


Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

Related articles: