South Korea and the UK: Looking Beyond Celebrations

Cementing ties: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sign the Downing Street Accord in November 2023. Image: Number 10 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s state visit to the UK in 2023 heralded a new apex in the 140-year-old bilateral relationship. What are the key developments from the visit, and what lies ahead for South Korea–UK relations?

2023 marked the 140th anniversary of the establishment of relations between the UK and South Korea. In recent years, the two countries have stepped up cooperation on global issues including climate change, renewable energy, human rights, development of the Global South, as well as peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The anniversary culminated with President Yoon Suk-yeol’s state visit to the UK – the first of its kind since the coronation of King Charles III – taking the South Korea–UK relationship to new heights.

Convergence of Indo-Pacific Strategies

Given their shared norms and values such as free and open economies, democracy and the rule of law, South Korea and the UK are natural partners for cooperation. Despite great potential, however, the bilateral partnership has not been fully realised in the past, largely owing to the geographic distance between them. The UK foreign policy since the 1970s has largely been centred on the Euro-Atlantic theatre, while South Korea’s strategic thinking has been confined to the Korean Peninsula. This has offered only a narrow field of common interests in foreign and security policy, limiting the basis for cooperation in this area.

The advent of the ‘Asian Century’ – as the 21st century is often dubbed – has changed the situation, particularly in recent years with the rise of the Indo-Pacific region. For South Korea, its rise as an aspiring middle power in this region has brought about changes to its foreign and security policy outlook. Today, Seoul has found its place among the world’s largest economies and militaries, and is developing its foreign policy to extend beyond the Korean Peninsula in a quest to become a ‘global pivotal state’. Its participation in recent G7 summits, held in the UK in 2021 and in Japan in 2023, reflects growing recognition as well as expectations from like-minded partners who seek greater cooperation with South Korea.

Meanwhile, the UK since Brexit has been pursuing a ‘Global Britain’ strategy as it reviews its outlook on the world. While resetting its relationship with Europe, London has actively expanded its ties with the Indo-Pacific through its ‘tilt’. The UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt complements South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy as Seoul looks beyond the region to bolster its cooperation with Europe. Global crises including the ongoing conflicts in Europe and the Middle East have drawn different parts of the world closer together. The Euro-Atlantic theatre is finding greater convergence with the Indo-Pacific, calling for global cooperation to maintain the rules-based order.

The Downing Street Accord envisions extensive cooperation in both the security and economic realms to bolster the international rules-based order

To this end, Seoul has been actively pursuing diplomacy to cement its place in the region and the world as a responsible stakeholder upholding the global rules-based order and promoting democracy. When a military coup took place in Myanmar in 2021, South Korea strongly condemned the military regime and continued to voice its concerns over human rights violations in the country together with like-minded states such as the UK. Seoul has also been an active supporter of Ukraine since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War, with President Yoon making a surprise visit to Kyiv and continuing to expand Seoul’s aid to Ukraine for its recovery efforts. At the same time, South Korea has been strengthening its ties with Washington and Tokyo, as well as engaging with Southeast Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In 2023 alone, President Yoon made 13 overseas trips to 15 countries and participated in major multilateral summits including the Summit for Democracy, the G7, the G20, ASEAN and related meetings, the UN General Assembly, NATO and most recently, the AI Safety Summit.

Deepening South Korea–UK Cooperation

Against such a backdrop, President Yoon’s state visit to the UK exhibited the mutual interest of two capable middle powers in Asia and Europe in strengthening their partnership and enlarging its scope to a global level. During the visit, President Yoon and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed the Downing Street Accord, elevating the bilateral partnership to a ‘Global Strategic Partnership’ that is said to be the ‘highest level of strategic ambition’. The agreement resembles the Washington Declaration, the fruit of President Yoon’s state visit to the US earlier in 2023, which has upgraded the bilateral alliance. Likewise, the Downing Street Accord envisions extensive cooperation in both the security and economic realms to bolster the international rules-based order.

An area that deserves particular mention is digital and technological cooperation, including on AI. The UK initiated the discussion to shape global norms and regulations in the inaugural AI Safety Summit where President Yoon participated virtually, and South Korea will take the baton from the UK as it hosts the next summit in May 2024. Seoul is stepping up to be an active stakeholder in this field, with South Korea also hosting the Summit on Responsible AI in the Military Domain in 2024. Having launched a bilateral digital partnership and strategic cyber partnership, the two countries will collaborate to set global digital norms and enhance their cooperation and capabilities in the cyber security realm.

Another field of development is in defence cooperation. Since the deployment of the Carrier Striker Group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific in 2021, the UK has been expanding its joint military exercises with South Korea. Following joint naval exercises in 2021, the first joint army exercise, Imjin Warrior, took place in November 2022 and was expanded in 2023. UK forces also took part in the South KoreaUS joint military exercises in January and March 2023, where HMS Spey and the Royal Marines trained shoulder-to-shoulder with US and South Korean soldiers. These exercises are increasing the interoperability between the two countries as well as with their common ally, the US. The two sides have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on joint defence exports with the aim of exploring cooperation and seeking new opportunities in the defence industry. This is significant considering Seoul’s increasing capacity and capabilities in the defence industry, and the UK is the first country in the G20 that South Korea has made such an agreement with.

Defence cooperation between London and Seoul will further deepen as the two countries have vowed to establish foreign and defence ministerial 2+2 meetings, on top of the vice-ministerial defence strategic dialogue that was inaugurated in 2022. The UK will become South Korea’s third partner for 2+2 meetings besides the US and Australia. The establishment of bilateral high-level dialogues indicates Seoul’s ambition to expand its engagement in international affairs with global partners within and beyond the region. There are opportunities for greater maritime cooperation, particularly given the UK’s extensive naval capabilities now operating in the Indo-Pacific. There will be joint sea patrols to monitor and enforce UN sanctions against North Korea as it persists in developing its belligerent missile and nuclear programmes. While such operations in regional waters may be challenged by China, which has been less consistent in implementing sanctions against North Korea, they are a testament to South Korea and the UK’s efforts to uphold the international rules-based order.

The establishment of bilateral high-level dialogues indicates Seoul’s ambition to expand its engagement in international affairs with global partners within and beyond the region

While the Downing Street Accord has elevated the bilateral relationship, there are also some shortfalls. Although the document makes note of many agreements that have been signed, including cooperation on space, digital government, energy and sustainable growth, there are areas where the two countries have not yet finalised their talks. For example, a joint Defence MOU, which would arguably be the most comprehensive overarching deliverable, has not yet been signed. Working on this should be the top priority as it would provide ‘a comprehensive institutional framework’ for bilateral defence cooperation, particularly when there are a number of cooperation mechanisms already active between the two countries. Having laid out these potential areas for further cooperation, the two countries need to work together to turn words into reality.

Working with Regional Partners

Deepening South Korea–UK cooperation provides opportunities for the partnership to expand beyond bilateral ties. There had been some public discussions on whether AUKUS’s Pillar 2 should seek expansion to include capable partners such as South Korea, given that the second pillar focuses on advancing joint capabilities and interoperability, particularly in the technological domain. Also notable is the increasing level of cooperation between NATO and South Korea, which is another dimension to Seoul’s expanding global role. Such examples demonstrate how South Korea and the UK can expand their cooperation mechanisms to include other like-minded partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

While the two countries are strengthening ties with their common ally, the US, as well as other like-minded countries which may appear to be taking a more competitive approach to China, London and Seoul’s positions have been more inclusive towards Beijing. The UK’s position was displayed during the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park, where China was invited to discuss global AI norms. Likewise, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy notes China as a ‘key partner for achieving prosperity and peace in the Indo-Pacific region’, and Yoon’s administration has been working towards a China–Japan–South Korea trilateral summit to be chaired by Seoul. In the midst of intensifying great power rivalry and rising conflicts across the globe, middle powers including South Korea and the UK can work together to help stabilise the relationships between great powers.

2023 marked a historic milestone in the UK–South Korea relationship, which was highlighted by President Yoon’s state visit to the UK. Having celebrated the anniversary with many promises for a future-oriented bilateral partnership, the two countries now need to turn their words into action. There may be challenges in implementing these commitments given the domestic and international political shifts anticipated in 2024. Upcoming general elections in both South Korea and the UK, as well as in the US later in the year, will take priority. Despite possible political upheavals, it is important for policymakers in both countries to understand the long-term vision for South Korea–UK relations, and to strengthen their cooperation in order to uphold and shape the rules-based international order.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.


Ha Chae Kyoun

Indo-Pacific Visiting Fellow

View profile


Explore our related content