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Quo Vadis, Friends? Assessing Poland-Korea Relations

What is happening?

Relations between Poland and the Republic of Korea have seemingly entered a golden era. While last year marked the decennial of the strategic partnership between both countries, a new positive momentum in the bilateral ties is marked by enhanced security and defense cooperation, including lucrative arms sale deals, the promise of Korean involvement in the nuclear energy rollout in Poland, and high-level visits between officials in both directions.  At the same time, recent parliamentary elections in Poland and Korea led Warsaw and Seoul to reevaluate their foreign policy priorities and strategies. In this new climate, it is imperative to evaluate the sustainability of the achievements in Poland-Korea relations and consider the potential future trajectories of these ties.

 

What is the broader picture?

Relations between Poland and South Korea traditionally relied on a robust economic pillar. Daewoo, an automotive enterprise, was one of the earliest Korean investors in Poland, participating in the privatization of Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych. Ever since, Poland successfully attracted investments from major Korean corporations, including LG, SK Group, and Samsung.

The launch of cooperation between Polish and Korean defense and nuclear energy industries defined the recent “golden era” in Poland-Korea relations. Warsaw and Seoul also actively cooperate on projects related to Ukraine’s reconstruction.

Following the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Poland transferred a considerable amount of weaponry to its eastern neighbor. These considerable transfers sent Warsaw, which still operated under the Law and Justice government, on a shopping spree in East Asia. In July 2022, Korea inked a framework agreement with Poland to export weaponry valued in the billions. Within this agreement, the two countries agreed to an initial sale valued at 17 trillion won ($12.4 billion), representing South Korea’s most substantial arms deal with a single nation to date. Specifically, Poland intends to procure 1,000 K2/K2PL tanks, 672 K9/K9PL self-propelled howitzers, 48 FA-50/FA-50PL light combat training aircraft, and 288 K239 Chunmoo rocket launchers.

Another consequence of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine for Poland is a newfound quest for energy security, which includes efforts to construct the nation’s first nuclear reactors. Warsaw and Seoul inked an MOU on nuclear energy cooperation in 2022, and shortly after, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) inked a deal with the Polish Energy Group (PGE) for the construction of four nuclear reactors near the Western city of Konin.

At the same time, the Korean press recently reported that the Polish-Korean mega arms deal is in “jeopardy.” The main issue is financing the purchase. Warsaw requested over 20 trillion won in capital support for the deal, but the Export-Import Bank of Korea (Eximbank) could not extend the credit as it had nearly reached its legal cap as stipulated by law.

Additionally, the new government in Poland might turn to purchasing domestically manufactured arms. For example, some voices within the country asserted that purchasing K-9 self-propelled howitzers constitutes unfair competition for domestically made Krab. Moreover, The European Commission’s European Defense Industrial Strategy, published in March 2024, advises the member states to obtain at least 50 percent of their defense procurement budget within the EU by 2030.

 

Why does it matter?

The expansion of ties between Poland and Korea, particularly in the defense and energy domains, has been a project of the previous Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party. The new coalition government, which spans a broad ideological spectrum from the left to the agrarian right, has called for the “depoliticization” of Polish diplomacy. To remain true to the spirit of this call to action, it remains imperative that the new government sustains the progress in Poland-Korea relations and avoids discounting the inked deals as “mistakes” of the previous administration.

The potential of Poland-Korea cooperation is still considerable. South Korea increasingly views Poland as a potential hub for its defense industry’s outreach to Central Eastern Europe. In private conversations, Polish generals emphasize the importance of technological and know-how transfer from Korea to Poland, which is a unique dynamic. Additionally, the significant purchase of Korean tanks by Poland is expected to result in the construction of maintenance facilities for these armored vehicles. These repair garages could then service vehicles which Korea would export to other CEE countries, generating positive economic externalities for Poland. Korean diplomats across CEE currently seek to socialize this model of hardware-centric defense cooperation, which potentially positions Poland as a “testing ground” for deals with other countries, including the Czech Republic.