NATO and the two Koreas: Where do we go from here?

Created on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 16:12 Published Date
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Article by Hazel Han

Korea Correspondent Strategy International

As NATO enters its seventh decade, it continues to seek wider global partnerships beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. The recent development of NATO’s new Strategic Concept at the 2010 Lisbon Summit in November seem to provide another momentum for the Alliance, as it further embraces partnerships as one of the NATO’s fundamental tasks.[1] Among NATO’s wide-ranging network of partner countries,[2] the Alliance cooperates with non-NATO countries, often referred to as “other partners across the globe,” or “Contact Countries,” all located in the Asia-Pacific region. These countries are Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and New Zealand, all of whom share similar values and visions concerning today’s global threats.

NATO’s evolving engagement in Asia is critical to ensure the Alliance and its partner countries’ common security concerns in the region. After the recent North Korea’s artillery attack, it is becoming more necessary to raise questions relating to a partnership between NATO and South Korea: Why is South Korea important to the Alliance? What are the implications of facilitating NATO-ROK relations in the context of the current political climate in South Korea? What are the roles of NATO in the Asia-Pacific region?


Since the establishment of NATO-ROK relations in 2005, South Korea has continuously made a significant contribution to NATO at the political and strategic level. Above all, the most prominent effort of the South Korean government can be largely found in Afghanistan. As one of the contributors to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the South Korean government joined the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the Parwan province in support of the Alliance’s missions to stabilize the region. The Korean PRT offers medical aids, vocational and police training through the two major institutions, the Korean Hospital and the Korean Vocational Training Center. The Vocational Training Center, for example, educates Afghan students on practical skills such as welding, auto mechanics and engineering, in addition to other subjects, such as English and computer basics. Apart from the aforementioned services, the Korean PRT is also engaged in several other projects that are aimed to enhance agricultural and rural development. Most recently, the South Korean government has deployed additional 147 personnel – including civilians, police officers, soldiers – bringing the total number of the Korean PRT personnel to 246 in June 2010.[3] South Korea may not be the largest troop-contributing nation to Afghanistan, especially after the official withdrawal of the Korean troops in late 2007, ending her five-year long deployment. Nevertheless, the continuation of the Korean government’s support remains essential to NATO. Experience in Afghanistan has demonstrated that the Alliance must seek a wide spectrum of civilian and military instruments that would foster the Action Plan on the Comprehensive Approach. In this regard, South Korea fulfills substantial medical and humanitarian part of the Comprehensive Approach that may have not been attainable without her commitment in the war-torn nation. Hence, it is only foreseeable that the continuing presence of the Korean PRT in Parwan province will further generate a greater capacity to the NATO-led missions in Afghanistan.

North Korea

The challenges posed by North Korea today are not new circumstances to NATO. Despite the absence of NATO forces fighting in Korea, the breakout of the Korean War had several important consequences for the Alliance. Prior to the Korean War, many European leaders widely agreed that war in Europe was unlikely; hence, it seemed more pragmatic to reduce defense spending in an effort to reconstruct a war-ravaged economy. The North Korea’s invasion on South Korea in 1950, however, soon scattered that wishful thinking. The danger of war appeared to be much greater with the growing perception of a potential Soviet attack in Europe. The prevailing invasion scenarios among Europeans and Americans quickly convinced the Alliance that Europe needed a greater level of political and military arrangement in order to expand its defense capabilities. Consequently, the foremost effect of the Korean War was seen in the NATO’s substantial military growth; as of December 1951, NATO forces in Western Europe were dramatically increased from15 divisions with fewer than 1,000 aircraft to 35 divisions with approximately 3,000 aircraft within a few months.[4] In summary, the NATO’s military build-up, which became “a political option” only after witnessing what had occurred in Korea, brought multilateral responses within the Alliance to a degree never before achieved in the history of NATO.[5] In the end, the Korean War acted as a catalyst for the growth of defense integration in NATO that otherwise might have remained much weaker in history.

The world is much more different today than in the 1950s, but some of the lessons learned from the Korean War remain relevant to the current situation. In recent months, the tension between the two Koreas has grown stronger, particularly after North Korea allegedly sunk the South Korean Navy ship, Cheonan. Not long after the March incident, North Korea once again carried out the artillery attack on a South Korean island, Yeonpyeong, on November 23, aggravating uncertainties in the future of the two Koreas. The North’s latest act of aggression not only occurred three days after the NATO Lisbon Summit, but also coincided with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation’s visit to Seoul. Such timing appears to be puzzling yet suspicious, but I do not pretend to know detailed logics behind the North Korea’s extreme measures. What is more evident to us is, however, the emerging role of South Korea in response to the global security issues of today. As noted earlier, South Korea has already joined the efforts of the international community to stabilize Afghanistan, and further plans to engage in maritime security and peacekeeping missions beyond the Korean peninsula. As one of the strong U.S. allies in Asia, the South Korean government is expected to project a more assertive role in creating the strategic environment in a multilateral setting. Already a leading world economy, and as a recent host of the G-20 Seoul Summit, South Korea’s capabilities to generate the balance of power stand more promising than any other time. It is therefore imperative to deepen a more engaging NATO-ROK partnership and continue to pursue nuclear deterrence as one of the main pillar of their cooperation.

Furthermore, the latest Korean crisis underlines the importance of NATO’s role in the Asia-Pacific. What NATO members have experienced in the aftermath of the Korean War should not be remained solely in the history; the leaders of the Alliance must now review their commitment on the Korean peninsula and recognize the need to strengthen its multilateral partnership with other nations in Asia. This particular task of NATO will not be easily achieved without fostering NATO’s relations with Russia and China. Although the recent development between NATO and Russia at the Lisbon Summit set the positive tone, it is crucial for the Alliance to acknowledge China’s global influence. The leaders of NATO should therefore facilitate a more lasting dialogue with China to resume China’s unique responsibility to pressure North Korea more effectively in the near future.


What can Greece do in the context of NATO-ROK partnership in the future? In fact, South Korea and Greece share their historical ties during the Korean War. The Greek armed forces, namely the Greek Expeditionary Forces (GEF), was one of the very few European divisions fought in the war, and her contribution has been highly recognized by the South Korean government. With regard to the role of Greece in NATO-ROK relations, the answer remains complex yet unclear given the latest financial hardship in Greece that exposed euro-zone’s vulnerability. Nevertheless, the question of Greece’s capability stands optimistic to us, when we look at Greece’s long-standing contribution to NATO. Since gaining formal membership in 1952, Greece has often found herself at the center of military and financial assistance to the Alliance. From 1985 to 2009, Greece had steadily spent the highest percentage of GDP among European members on NATO defense expenditures, according to NATO’s financial and economic data released this June.[6] Moreover, Greece has long provided a significant number of civilian and military personnel to NATO by distributing average 67% out of the total defense budget to personnel expenditures. Greece’s recent contribution in 2010 further proves her strength; Greece spent 3.1% of GDP (6.28 billion euros) on NATO defense expenditures, which was far exceeding from the UK and France. Despite Greece’s cuts in NATO defense budget 2011,[7] the current debt crisis will not likely to deter her unique position as one of the strongest financial provider within the Alliance. Positive signs emerged with the IMF’s rescue package, but the challenges remain as the next year starts to unfold.


[1] NATO, “Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation adopted by Heads of State and Government in Lisbon.” Available at

[2] Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC); NATO’ Mediterranean Dialogue; Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI).

[3], “Korean PRT to officially start operation in Afghanistan,”July 1, 2010,

See also Troop Numbers & Contributions at the ISAF website. Available at

[4] Wallace J Thies, Why NATO Endures. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[5] Christopher  Hemmer and Peter J. Katzenstein. “Why Is There No NATO in Asia? Collective Identity, Regionalism, and the Origins of Multilateralism,” International Organization 56, no. 3 (Summer, 2002),

[6] NATO, “Financial and Economic Data Relating to NATO Defence.” (Press Release by Public Diplomacy Division), June 2010. Available at

[7] Atlantic Council, “NATO Defense Budget 2011,” November 19, 2010. Available at

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