March 22, 2022

Digital Allies: Deepening U.S.–South Korea Cooperation on Technology and Innovation

By Jacob Stokes, Alexander Sullivan and Joshua Fitt

Executive Summary

Rapid advances in digital and other emerging technologies have become a defining feature of international geopolitics and geoeconomics in the 21st century. This report explores how the United States and South Korea can broaden and deepen their alliance through expanded cooperation on issues related to technology and innovation.

Despite the continued centrality of traditional security threats—especially those emanating from North Korea—both the United States and South Korea are seeking to deepen and broaden alliance cooperation to address a larger set of shared challenges and opportunities. To that end, both capitals have noted the increasing importance of key technologies for economic growth as well as for security and governance. The two countries are at the very beginning of defining how an augmented alliance will approach technology coordination, but they have decades of economic and trade ties on which to build. Technology issues are central to the policy platforms of both U.S. President Joe Biden’s and South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administrations and will continue to be important under future administrations in both countries.

In addition to examining general consultative frameworks, enhancing U.S.-South Korea technology cooperation requires assessing the state of bilateral interactions sector by sector and issue by issue. The two countries occupy leading roles in many foundational technology ecosystems within the evolving global economy, such as semiconductors, telecommunications, and advanced batteries. In emerging fields such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) collaboration harbors the potential not only to raise living standards through technological breakthroughs but also to promote governance norms in accordance with liberal democratic principles.

The two countries are at the very beginning of defining how an augmented alliance will approach technology coordination, but they have decades of economic and trade ties on which to build.

Potential opportunities for Washington and Seoul to deepen cooperation extend beyond the bilateral context to regional and global affairs, through coordination of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy and South Korea’s New Southern Policy or its successor under the new president-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol. Rapid technological growth and digitization in Indo-Pacific countries, particularly those of Southeast Asia, present both immense economic opportunity and a range of governance challenges. The United States and South Korea have an important opportunity to ensure that technological development promotes a free, open, secure, and prosperous region.

Taken together, the strategic rationales for enhancing U.S.-South Korea cooperation on technology issues are strong. Meaningful efforts to that end are already underway, but more can and should be done to deepen alliance coordination. Policymakers in Washington and Seoul should consider recommendations spanning the areas of foreign policy and international organizations, coordination on key technologies, trade and investment, and digital governance and domestic policy. Doing so will enable the alliance to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities presented by the current regional and global landscape.

Introduction

Rapid advances in digital and other emerging technologies have become a defining feature of international geopolitics in the 21st century. The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) both possess key advantages as leading technological powers and robust democracies. The U.S.-ROK alliance serves as the linchpin for peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, which sits at the heart of Northeast Asia. In this context, digital and other emerging technologies—most of which come from the commercial rather than the defense sector—are becoming more important to foreign and security policy. Indeed, just as nearly every modern business must be a technology company to some degree, no conception of national security would be complete without considering the crucial role technology plays in driving security outcomes.

This report explores how the United States and South Korea can broaden and deepen their alliance relationship through expanded cooperation on issues related to civilian technology and innovation. (CNAS will cover cooperation on military and defense-related technologies in a subsequent report.) It proceeds in four parts. The first section explores the role of technology cooperation in the broader context of the U.S.-ROK alliance. The second section takes a sector-by-sector look at the state of play between Washington and Seoul in key technology areas. The third section explores the overlap between the technology pillars of U.S. and South Korean policies toward the broader Indo-Pacific. The fourth section offers recommendations for policymakers for advancing U.S.-ROK technology cooperation, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.

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Authors

  • Jacob Stokes

    Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Jacob Stokes is a Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS, where his work focuses on U.S.-China relations, Chinese foreign policy, East Asian security affa...

  • Alexander Sullivan

    Adjunct Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Alexander Sullivan is an Adjunct Fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program, where he focuses on US-China relations, maritime security, regional military modernization and U....

  • Joshua Fitt

    Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Joshua Fitt is an Associate Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. He focuses on U.S. East Asian security strategy and specializes in Japanese and Korean penins...

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