By Soo-hyang Choi and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol heads to Britain on Monday for a state visit, hoping to boost economic ties and security partnerships as his country faces what it sees as growing danger from a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Yoon’s four-day trip will be the first state visit hosted by Britain since the coronation of King Charles, and comes as North Korea appears to be making final preparations for another attempt at launching its first spy satellite.
The state visit is a “hugely significant” moment in the two countries’ partnership, 140 years after it was officially established, Colin Crooks, the British ambassador to South Korea, told Reuters.
“It reflects the fact that UK-Korea relations are the closest they have ever been, with close collaboration across defence, trade, science and technology, culture and energy and climate,” he said in a statement.
Beyond the symbolism of being the first such visit under King Charles, the trip will take bilateral cooperation to “a new level of intensity through an ambitious and comprehensive suite of new partnerships and agreements,” Crooks said, without elaborating.
In an interview with the Telegraph newspaper, Yoon said the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza, coupled with growing Russia-North Korea ties and tension in the South China Sea, had compelled him to seek “very close security cooperation” with the West.
The president will be met with plenty of pomp and ceremony. Yoon will receive a guard of honour and ride in a carriage procession to Buckingham Palace, the palace said.
He will hold talks with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday, and adopt an accord on expanding a bilateral partnership.
Yoon has expressed hope for deeper cooperation with Britain on an “array of geopolitical risks” including supply chains and energy security, the Telegraph said.
“The two countries have more room to cooperate on the economic front,” Yoon’s spokesperson, Lee Do-woon, said. Bilateral trade was worth $12.1 billion last year, fifth among European countries, he said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing that South Korea had no need “to join the fray”, when asked about Yoon’s comment on the South China Sea.
“China is fully aware of its responsibilities and interests, we don’t need anyone to dictate what we do or don’t do,” she said.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea. Several Southeast Asian countries, members of the ASEAN bloc, have overlapping claims to parts of it.
Yoon, in the interview with the British newspaper, stressed the importance of a “rules-based maritime order” in the South China Sea as well as “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.
While his liberal predecessor was cautious toward China and Russia while trying to keep diplomacy with North Korea alive, Yoon has shown more willingness to “get off the fence”, said Simon Smith, who served as the British ambassador in Seoul from 2018 to 2022 and now works at the Chatham House think-tank.
“There is generally a feeling that Yoon is more committed to lining up with the community of democracies across the world,” he told Reuters.
Smith predicted the trip could see progress made on trade agreements, which he said were concluded in a rush after Brexit, and other areas such as defence.
Yoon’s visit comes after his return from an APEC summit in San Francisco, where he called for a coordinated response to growing military ties between North Korea and Russia but failed to secure a desired meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes since 2006.
It has tested numerous missiles over the past year and has vowed to launch a satellite. The United States, South Korea and Japan have condemned the space launch as a provocation and violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions banning its ballistic missile technology.
From Britain, Yoon will head to France for a visit aimed at bolstering support for South Korea’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo, his office said.
(Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Josh Smith in Seoul and Liz Lee in Beijing; Editing by Ed Davies, Gerry Doyle and Christina Fincher)