World is facing ‘polycrisis’ warns South Korean president ahead of UK state visit

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will arrive in the UK on Monday
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will arrive in the UK on Monday

The world is facing a “polycrisis” of multiple conflicts and threats to humanity, the South Korean president has warned, as he calls for deeper security ties with Britain on the eve of a state visit.

Yoon Suk Yeol suggested two major wars in Ukraine and Israel, and rising tension with Russia, North Korea, and in the South China Sea, had compelled him to seek “very close security cooperation” with the West.

Mr Yoon arrives in Britain on Monday for the first state visit by a foreign power since the coronation of King Charles III. He will meet the King on Tuesday before a summit with Rishi Sunak on Wednesday when the two are expected to discuss defence cooperation.

The South Korean leader told The Telegraph that creating deeper security and economic ties with Britain was vital.

“If the international community is to build peace and achieve sustainable prosperity, it must safeguard and strengthen the rules-based international order above all else,” he said.

He warned: “We are currently facing a polycrisis that includes pandemics, climate change, the war in Ukraine and the armed conflict between Israel-Hamas.”

Mr Yoon warned against Russia supplying North Korea with nuclear weapons technology
Mr Yoon warned against Russia supplying North Korea with nuclear weapons technology - Brittany Hosea-Small/Reuters

In a wide-ranging interview Mr Yoon warned against Russia supplying North Korea with nuclear weapons technology; said he believes China is wary of aligning too closely with Moscow and Pyongyang; and pushed for greater post-Brexit trade links with the UK.

The president lands in London with his wife Kim Keon Hee and 70 business leaders for a three-day trip that will begin with a carriage procession along The Mall to Buckingham Palace, followed by the president’s address to parliament and a state banquet on Tuesday evening.

The leader of the world’s 13th largest economy arrives as the Indo-Pacific region grapples with a number of flashpoints that could rapidly escalate into a fresh geopolitical crisis, whether triggered by a clash over Taiwan, South China Sea disputes, or the nuclear threat from North Korea.

The threats have pushed the Yoon administration to strengthen ties with Nato and have “very close security cooperation” with the members of Aukus, the trilateral defence pact between the US, UK and Australia.

British warships regularly participate in joint military drills and dock in South Korean ports. South Korea is considered a trusted US-aligned security and trading partner in the Indo-Pacific region.

Seoul has signalled it wants to transform itself into a “global pivotal state” that will proactively help shape international events. The president stressed the importance of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and a “rules-based maritime order” in the South China Sea.

The honouring of Korea with the first state visit since the coronation of the King signals the importance of country to the UK as a “strategic partner” in the Indo-Pacific – a move it wants to reciprocate with deeper cooperation on “an array of geopolitical risks” including supply chain and energy security, said Mr Yoon.

On Wednesday, the Korean president will meet company executives at Mansion House to discuss future opportunities. The visit is expected to yield specific announcements on deepening defence, business and investment ties.

Mr Yoon will visit 10 Downing Street for bilateral talks with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the afternoon, where he is expected to raise the issue of Russia’s strengthening collaboration with North Korea. An alleged arms deal between Moscow and Pyongyang has prompted alarm over its security implications for East Asia and Ukraine.

Yoon Suk Yeol met with Rishi Sunak earlier this year in Japan at the G7 summit
Yoon Suk Yeol met with Rishi Sunak earlier this year in Japan at the G7 summit

For months, US and South Korean intelligence agencies have warned North Korea is supplying ammunition to Russia’s dwindling stocks as it wages war with Ukraine, in exchange for possible technical assistance with Pyongyang’s escalating nuclear-armed missile programme.

Both Russia and North Korea have denied the accusations, but the sight of Vladimir Putin rolling out the red carpet for Kim Jong-un as he visited the Vostochny cosmodrome in September intensified international concern about their relationship.

“North Korea’s provision of weapons to Russia will only prolong the war in Ukraine and increase the number of casualties. In addition, if Russia offers military technologies to North Korea in return, it would threaten the security of the Republic of Korea and regional peace,” said Mr Yoon.

Russia-North Korea military cooperation was “a grave violation of UN Security Council resolutions and a provocative act that threatens peace on the Korean Peninsula as well as in Northeast Asia and Europe,” he said, adding that Seoul, Tokyo and Washington intended to “actively respond”.

Some analysts have predicted a developing Russia-North Korea-China axis could act to increasingly undermine global freedom and democracy and challenge the current US-led world order.

However, Mr Yoon countered the three countries have “divergent interests” and it would not work to Beijing’s benefit to align itself with Moscow and Pyongyang. China had an important role in “promoting freedom, peace and prosperity in East Asia”, he said.

“China is likely to take into consideration that pursuing trilateral cooperation with North Korea and Russia, which have blatantly violated the UN Charter and Security Council resolutions as well as other international norms, will not be helpful for its international reputation and standing,” he added.

Since entering office last year, Mr Yoon, a conservative former prosecutor, has made a reinforced military partnership with the US, and enhanced ties with Japan, as part of his defence strategy against North Korea’s evolving nuclear threat.

The pariah neighbouring state has test-launched close to 90 ballistic missiles since his inauguration, including intercontinental range weapons capable of striking the US.

Insecurity on the Korean Peninsula

There are concerns the Ukraine war and Middle East conflict could stoke further insecurity on the Korean Peninsula or even prompt Pyongyang to make a rash move against the South, miscalculating that major powers are already overstretched.

South Korea has repeatedly warned the North could be capable of a “Hamas-style” attack across the border.

Mr Yoon indicated his trip this week would be an opportunity to build relations “in digital and AI technology, cybersecurity, nuclear energy, the defence industry, biohealth, space, semiconductors, offshore wind power, clean energy and maritime affairs.”

With South Korea the first country in Asia to sign a post-Brexit Free Trade Agreement, there will likely be discussions on the ongoing process to upgrade it.

Last year, bilateral trade reached $12.12 billion [£9.72 billion], while Korea’s investments in the UK reached nearly $2 billion [£1.6 billion].

The occasion also marks the 140-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between the UK and Korea – an era not only of trade cooperation but of helping each other in times of crisis.

In a poignant addition to his schedule, Mr Yoon will visit the grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey and meet pensioners who served during the 1950-53 Korean War.

“When the Korean War broke out, Britain’s young soldiers did not hesitate to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend Korea’s freedom. Thanks to this help from the United Kingdom, the Republic of Korea achieved rapid economic growth in a short period of time and built a free and democratic society,” said Mr Yoon.

“My upcoming state visit will serve as a catalyst for Korea to emerge as one of the United Kingdom’s global strategic partners.”

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