Summary of the conference Nordic-Korea Dialogue on Peace, Development, and Cooperation

On October 4, 2019, ISDP´s Korea Center together with the Nordic-Benelux Centre at Korea University held a one-day public seminar in Stockholm on the topic of how South Korea and the Nordic countries interrelate on issues of peace, economy, and sustainable development. The main objective was to share knowledge, lessons, and perspectives that are useful to both regions, and to respond to the increasing interest in South Korea on the Nordic “model.”[1] The seminar brought together a range of participants from universities, think thanks, as well as policy officials from both South Korea and the Nordic countries.

The day began with welcome remarks by Dr. Lars Vargö, Distinguished Fellow at ISDP, and Ambassador Lee Jeong-kyu of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea to Sweden.

Ambassador Lee Jeong-kyu provides welcome remarks 

First Session:

The first session of the day, titled “Regionalism and Peace in the Nordic Region and Northeast Asia,” included the presence of four guest speakers: Dr. Lee Jae-seung, Professor at the Korea University, Major General (ret.) Mats Engman, Distinguished Military Fellow at ISDP,

Dr. Choi Byung-il, Professor at Ewha Woman’s University, and Dr. Yang Jiang, Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. The panel was moderated by Dr. Vargö.

The panel discussion during the first session

The first speaker of the day, Dr. Lee Jae-seung, explored the issue of multilateralism in Northeast Asia. He began by describing how the relationships between the countries of the region can be currently characterized as a zero-sum game, and asked how it might be possible to turn this into a positive-sum structure. Dr. Lee noted some of the obstacles and challenges to collaboration, such as long-standing rivalries between countries and the crisis of the international liberal order itself, with growing trade disputes that are weakening international institutions. As constructive steps for building regionalism in Northeast Asia, he advocated for: bureaucratic institution-building; elevating low politics to the agenda of high politics; having discussions among leaders without a single leader in charge; and reconciliation as an outcome of regional cooperation rather than a precondition to cooperation.

The second speaker of the day, Major General (ret.) Mats Engman, discussed the topic of peace-building in the Nordic Region, focusing on the Swedish experience. He described Sweden as enjoying a policy of “being able to be neutral” during the Cold War era, where it benefited from a total defense strategy and having one of the strongest air powers in the world despite being a rather small country. At the end of the Cold War, however, Sweden took what Mr. Engman called a “strategic time-out,” drastically cutting the number of soldiers in its army to 10 percent of its previous size and ending conscription. It took over 10 years for the Swedish state to recognize the necessity for the military to re-adapt once more, largely due to political unwillingness. Today Sweden has once more a total defense system and has invested in joint operations with the other Nordic countries, not just regarding training, but also to guarantee they can operate together if the need arises.

The next presenter, Dr. Choi Byung-il, discussed U.S.-China competition and geo-economics in Northeast Asia. According to Dr. Choi, the “new economic cold war” is not a trade war, but rather a long-term competition that may bleed into other areas, particularly as the areas of trade and security overlap now more than ever. Dr. Choi concluded that we are seeing a long-term power transition between the West and Asia, and geostrategic competition between the U.S. and China in particular, which may increasingly force countries to “choose sides.”

The final speaker of the session, Dr. Yang Jiang, discussed Nordic cooperation and external relations. She made reference to the historical evolution of the Nordic countries regarding membership of international organizations, such as the EU and NATO. On the subject of the Nordic Council, she highlighted its structure as being based on equal membership with sustainable development as a major priority. In terms of external relations, she noted a few current risks and key issues, including the ongoing shared security threat coming from Russia, especially due to its proximity to Finland; problems in the relationship with the U.S. as a security ally and partner, strongly related to the current administration; the relationship with China being very important economically, but also presenting an ideological and security risk; the Arctic, and the major players who seek a stake in it; the migration crisis; and, finally, the climate agenda.

Second Session:

The second session, entitled “Economy and Innovation in the Nordic Region and Korea,” was moderated by Mr. Park In-kook, President of the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies, and included presentations from Dr. Tomas Kåberger, Affiliate Professor of Chalmers University of Technology, Dr. Song Ji-won, Post-doc Fellow at the Stockholm School of Economics, and Ms. Jo Hyun-hae, Deputy Director of the ROK Ministry of Interior and Safety.

In the introduction, Mr. Park In-kook noted that South Korea and Sweden are some of the most innovative countries in the world but added that even though innovation is highly beneficial and desirable, there are some associated risks and challenges that need to be dealt with.

Panel discussion during the second session

Dr. Kåberger opened the second session with a presentation on innovation and business in Sweden and South Korea. He began by praising South Korea for its very impressive growth in high-tech industries throughout the last half-century and spoke mostly of Sweden’s own experience during this time. Dr. Kåberger described how Sweden has had a very strong development strategy and noted that many of Sweden’s most famous brands began as state enterprises or partnerships with the Swedish state. However, he noted that the coordination of state activity and enterprise has been less successful in more recent decades. He largely attributed the problem to a desire to protect old industries, even if they are uncompetitive internationally, and the refusal to cut losses in unfulfilling projects that prove to be overly expensive. Dr. Kåberger highlighted transparency in government affairs as key to avoid these expensive mistakes. Finally, he stated that Sweden is currently suffering from “brain drain” issues, with foreign countries buying out state-of-the-art companies and ideas that were originally created via Swedish R&D.

Mr. Song Ji-won, the second speaker of the panel, used a comparative approach and began by highlighting the key differences between Sweden and South Korea. Using the Pairwise Gower dissimilarity matrix, Mr. Song illustrated that the two countries have quite different governance structures and noted that while Korean start-ups tend to require state-support, Swedish ones have more emergent power. Furthermore, the two countries have quite different values; while gender equality in the workplace and delivering eco-friendly products are high on the priority list for Swedish companies, the same cannot be said for South Korea. However, he did note that there some interesting similarities. Both countries display large-sized family dominated economies, with the Wallenberg family of Sweden, for example, paralleling to some extent the Chaebol structure in South Korea. Furthermore, the two countries have similar industrial structures, consisting mainly of heavy industry and ICTs, but with emerging online gaming industries. In his concluding remarks, Mr. Song stated that, even if it might be counter-intuitive, he believes that the differences between the two countries can be viewed as advantages in the context of collaboration.

The last speaker of the panel, Ms. Jo Hyun-hae, Deputy Director of the ROK Ministry of Interior and Safety, talked about how Korean civil society is a powerful force in domestic politics and how the government has to promote greater transparency and inclusiveness in governance. She outlined how this is being achieved by increasing financial investments to programs promoting social values, sharing public data transparently, setting up joint government services, fighting corruption in the public sector, and increasing quotas for female civil servants.

Third Session:

The final session of the day was on “Sustainable development in the Nordic Region and Korea.” The session was moderated by Mr. Alec Forss, Program Coordinator of the Korea Center at ISDP. The two final speakers were Mr. Tómas Orri Ragnarsson, Senior Advisor at the Nordic Council of Ministers, who talked about Nordic cooperation and Vision 2030, and Dr. Lee Jae-seung, Professor at the Korea University, who discussed energy security and transition in Northeast Asia.

Panel discussion during the third session

After a brief introduction by Mr. Forss, who described the paramount importance of the global climate goals as well the Nordic Council´s new agenda on sustainability, Mr. Ragnarsson described the structure and goals of the Nordic Council of Ministers, and how the Council’s cooperation is very institutionalized, with areas of joint collaboration including culture, legislative affairs, education, finance, the environment, and climate, among others. He characterized the energy sector as one of the biggest challenges of the moment and stated that although the Nordic countries have high rankings on sustainable development, they still score low on sustainable consumption. In describing the Council’s “Vision 2030,” Mr. Ragnarsson concluded by stating that its chief objective is for the Nordic Counties to be the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030.

Dr. Lee Jae-seung’s presentation on energy security largely highlighted the different energy sources used in China, South Korea, and Japan. Although the three countries are currently the world’s largest importers of liquefied natural gas (LNG), there appears to be a trend towards renewable energy as a sustainable solution. At the same time, nuclear power is becoming increasingly unpopular, largely because of the Fukushima events in 2011. This has affected the use of nuclear power not just in Japan, wherein production slowed to a fraction of what it used to be, but in the rest of the world as well. In South Korea for instance, President Moon has vowed to lower the dependency on nuclear power as well as coal in the coming decades. China, however, is on the other end of the spectrum, rapidly increasing its nuclear reactors mainly along its East Coast. Dr. Lee concluded by stating that he believed that while desirable, political tensions are currently too high to allow for the creation of any major regional electrical power system grids to meet both regional energy security and transition needs.

The Q&A session that followed largely concerned public awareness of environmental challenges, how the Nordic Council promotes its agenda abroad, and whether the sustainability objectives and needs of the different Nordics are entirely homogenous.

With the day´s discussions concluded, Dr. Lee Sang-soo and Dr. Lee Jae-seung delivered the final thoughts of the afternoon. Both stated that the conference had proven a productive exchange of ideas and experiences which had helped established a platform for future dialogues with the hope of also including participants from other Northeast Asian countries.

[1] ISDP and the Nordic-Benelux Center at Korea University would like to thank the Korea Foundation and the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies for their kind support for this event.