South Korea joins Horizon Europe in multi-billion euro push to globalise science

25 Mar 2024 | News

Deeper ties with the EU are part of a broader effort by Seoul to open up its research and innovation system to the wider world. And as in the West, Korea also has concerns about China

Korea’s science minister Lee Jong Ho (right) met EU research commissioner Iliana Ivanova in Brussels on Monday 25th, March, 2024. Photo credits: Korea EU Research Centre

South Korea has officially completed negotiations to join the EU’s research and innovation programme Horizon Europe, making it the first Asian country outside the European region to associate.

It’s the latest expansion of Horizon outside Europe, with Korea joining New Zealand and Canada in signing up to the programme.

Today, Korea’s science minister Lee Jong Ho met EU research commissioner Iliana Ivanova in Brussels to sign off the deal, which has been anticipated for several weeks. “I am happy to welcome Korea into the Horizon family,” said Ivanova in a statement.

From 2025, Korean researchers will be able to apply for grants on an equal footing with EU researchers in Pillar II of the programme, which makes up the majority of Horizon Europe’s €95.5 billion budget and is focused on industrial and global challenges.

However, as with Canada and New Zealand, equal access to the European Research Council, which funds bottom-up science, is not part of the deal.

For the European Commission, the association of South Korea is the latest plank of a policy to open up Horizon and future framework programmes to geographically distant, scientifically advanced democracies.

The idea is to create a global network of “likeminded” nations cooperating on science and technology -  a goal given greater urgency by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile for South Korea, association to Horizon Europe is only one part of a much broader strategy to make the country’s science and technology system less hermitic.

“While Korea boasts exemplary science and technology innovation capabilities, international cooperation remains a comparatively weak aspect,” said the Korean Ministry of Science and ICT in a statement.

Association to Horizon Europe should help the country move away from a “domestically reliant innovation system to an open one that proactively leverages technological resources worldwide”.

Seoul appears to have been keen to get a Horizon Europe deal done quickly, with Brussels insiders surprised at the speed of progress. South Korea entered formal talks with the Commission around ten months ago.

On the Korean side, there was the “willingness and the commitment to conclude quickly” at the “highest” political level, said Signe Ratso, the EU’s lead negotiator. The country wants to expand its global science and technology links, and the EU is a “natural partner”, she said.

Terms and conditions

Under the standard Horizon agreement to “associate” to the programme, a country’s government agrees to pay a negotiated amount into the programme’s funding pot, in exchange for its researchers being able to apply for Horizon grants alongside EU researchers.

As with Canada and New Zealand, the amount Korea pays depends on how much money its researchers win through the programme, said Ratso. Upfront payments are based on estimates of success rates, with Seoul’s contribution adjusted if it does better or worse than expected.

It’s expected to be a gradual take-off. “They are new to the programme, it takes time,” Ratso said. “But certainly we foresee a gradual increase in terms of participation.”

A language barrier is “one potential obstacle” to Korean researchers getting involved, she said, but there was “great enthusiasm” at a promotional event held last month in Seoul, and both sides will continue these outreach efforts.

Once the deal is fully signed off, the EU could introduce transition arrangements so that Korean researchers can start applying for 2025 calls this year, Ratso added.

Global R&D plan

Both sides have declined to say exactly how much Korea will pay, until the association agreement is made public.

But Seoul now has a huge fund available over the next three years to build international research bridges.

Under a global R&D plan unveiled last November, the government plans to spend 6% to 7% of its budget on creating international linkages, roughly quadrupling what it spends now.

This means that in 2024-26, the county will spend the equivalent of €3.7 billion in international science and technology projects.

It’s still not precisely mapped out exactly how this will be spent, as budgets are set annually, explained Young Dae Ryu, director general of the Directorate for International Affairs at the National Research Foundation of Korea.

But some of this money will flow into so-called “Global R&D Flagship Projects”, focusing on various strategic and green technologies.

There’s little detailed public information on what these involve, but candidate projects include partnerships with Germany’s Fraunhofer institutes and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on robotics, for example, and on hydrogen production with Norway’s Sintef research body.

Korean officials are currently deliberating which to take forward.

As part of this global R&D plan, Korea will also map out the world’s leading researchers in strategic technologies, and target them with exchange programmes.

The plan also includes a proposal for a “Korean Marie Curie programme,” to boost researcher exchange with the rest of the world, named after the EU’s own Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

There’s also going to be more money for schemes to get leading Korean researchers based abroad to partner with those back home.

Fear of isolation

The root of this activity is anxiety in Korea that while the country still leads in some technological areas, like semiconductors, its research system is too inward looking to keep up in a period of deepening technological competition.

“There is a lack of need and incentives to conduct joint research with foreign researchers,” said Ryu.

The country produces fewer internationally co-authored papers and patents than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, he stressed.

In addition to this fear of isolation, there is some nervousness in Korea that technological innovations could be leaking to China, as in western countries.

Last August, officials said they would set up new research security measures following revelations that there had been nearly 100 leaks of industrial technology between 2018-2022, including 24 in critical semiconductor technology.

Leading Korean researchers working on semiconductors, displays and batteries have been targeted by “unconventional” joint research proposals from Chinese universities, including lavish funding and even offers to cover the Korean researchers’ salaries, Korean media have reported.

Ryu didn’t respond directly when asked if nervousness of China had pushed Korea to strengthen ties with the rest of the world, including the EU.

But he said that “globalisation of research through international linkages is needed” in a period of “global competition for tech hegemony”.

It’s in this context that Korea has not only associated to Horizon Europe, but is on a global partnership-building spree with other countries and individual member states.

Earlier this month, Korea’s science minister discussed digital cooperation with the UK, for example, and joint work on clean energy with Denmark.

And on 26 March, minister Jong Ho met internal market commissioner Thierry Breton to talk about the digital partnership between the EU and Korea, when they discussed continued cooperation in areas like quantum technology, semiconductors, 5G and artificial intelligence.

Corporate links will be key. South Korea’s economy is dominated by massive conglomerates known as chaebols – world leading technology firms like Samsung, Hyundai and SK Hynix. Even more so that in Europe, Korean R&D spending is dominated by the private sector.

Ratso said there is “interest” from these corporate behemoths in joining EU partnerships, including industrial joint undertakings, bringing “cutting edge research and innovation”. They already engaged in the framework programme through EU bases, but now will be able to join through their home base, she added – although stressed she also wanted Korean SMEs to engage too.

EU next steps

South Korean association leaves Japan as the next country in the queue to join Horizon Europe, although negotiations are believed to have stalled over Japanese concerns that it will lack a say over governance.

“We still continue with exploratory talks,” said Ratso. “They need to make up their mind”.

Singapore is also a possibility. Ratso flew to the city state in 2022 to discuss association, and said there had been “informal exchanges” since.

“I think they are they are looking at the other countries’ progress,” she said, and weighing up the benefits for themselves.

Singaporean association could prove controversial, because geographically distant countries can only join if they have “respect of human rights” and “democratic institutions,” according to the programmes’ underpinning rules.

Singapore has been ruled by the same party since independence in 1965, and the opposition is hampered by a “pro-government media sector”, a winner-takes all electoral system, “high financial barriers to electoral candidacy, and legal restrictions on free speech”, according to the US think tank Freedom House.

But Ratso said an internal assessment, conducted with the European External Action Service, “didn’t see any conflict” with Horizon Europe’s democracy provisions.

Still, she played down any prospect of an immediate breakthrough with Singapore, for which the Commission would need a mandate from member states to start formal negotiations.

“As long as they haven't decided that they would like to start the process, then it's too early to say,” she said.

Editor’s note: this story was updated on 26 March to reflect comments from Signe Ratso

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