South Korean association to Horizon Europe “imminent”

11 Mar 2024 | News

Alongside New Zealand and Canada, Korea would be one of the first countries from outside the European region to join the EU’s research and innovation programme. Association is set to start in 2025

Yoon Suk Yeol, President of South Korea, on the left, and Ursula von der Leyen.

Yoon Suk Yeol, President of South Korea (left) and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. Photo: Dati Bendo / European Union

South Korea is set to strike a deal with Brussels to join Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5 billion research and innovation scheme, as the European Commission wants more democracies outside of Europe to associate.

Speaking last week, Park Sang-ook, a senior science and technology official in the office of the Korean president, said that a deal was “imminent”, according to several Korean news outlets.

"Starting next year, we will join Horizon Europe and pay a portion of the contribution, so that researchers can directly obtain EU funding for their research,” he said, according to the Korea Herald, relayed by the EU’s Euraxess research funding news service.

"Despite being a geographically distant country, Korea is in negotiations to join the programme, and a deal is imminent," he said during a press conference.

A Commission spokesperson confirmed a deal is near. "It is the intention of the two sides to complete the ongoing negotiations on the association of the Republic of Korea to the pillar II of Horizon Europe and we hope to reach a deal in the nearest future," they said. 

Korean science minister Jong-ho Lee will meet research commissioner Iliana Ivanova for a "bilateral exchange" on 25 March in Brussels, they added. 

If association with South Korea is confirmed, it will be a win for the Commission, which has opened up Horizon Europe for the first time to scientifically advanced democracies globally.

This drive to forge stronger scientific and technological links with likeminded democracies has taken on even more urgency for the EU since the Russian invasion of Ukraine rattled European security.

Meanwhile, South Korea has committed to ramp up its own international scientific collaboration as it grapples with how to preserve its technological leadership in areas such as semiconductors.

“I’m pleased to hear that negotiations are almost reaching its final stages,” said Woohyun Cho, director general of the Korea-EU Research Centre (KERC) in Brussels.

“This will open up a new era for research cooperation between Korea and Europe. Through collaboration in Horizon, Korea and Europe will increase their mutual understanding, share research values and practices, and eventually become more attractive research destinations and partners for each other.”

Soeul and Brussels have already been preparing South Korean researchers to join the programme. In February, they hosted a joint event in Seoul to share experiences from Horizon Europe with South Korean researchers.

Reporting from the joint event in Seoul, the Czech embassy said in a press release that “negotiations on the Korean association are currently underway and the European Commission is confident of a successful conclusion and the country's participation from 2025.”

Yale Song, a network and policy officer at KERC, confirmed the expectation is that association will start in 2025. 

“Thanks to this early announcement, potential partners in Europe and Korea will be able to prepare ahead for the next cycle of the framework programme,” he said.

Formal negotiations only began last October, he said, but there has been a “strong push” from the South Korean government for association.

Latest association

New Zealand is already associated, meaning that researchers there can access funding on a par with EU scientists, in return for a contribution by Wellington into the budget.

Last November Canada announced it would join too, with prime minister Justin Trudeau describing Horizon Europe as “the greatest research and innovation mechanism in the world right now”.

If Korea does seal a deal, it will become the first Asian country outside the European region to associate to Horizon Europe. Seoul and Brussels have already launched other forms of cooperation: in February they opened up three semiconductor calls, with an EU contribution of more than €200 million.

Japan and the EU opened exploratory talks in 2022, but these haven’t yet advanced to a more formal stage. Negotiations are thought to have ground to a standstill, in part because the Japanese side is concerned it won’t get enough of a say in the governance of the programme.

In 2022, the EU’s lead association negotiator Signe Ratso flew to Singapore to scope out association, but this has not yet led to formal talks.

South Korean association would open up further questions over the future governance of the programme as more and more countries join from outside the EU. Currently, non-EU countries do not get a formal vote over the work programmes that detail specific calls, and are excluded from a tiny fraction of calls on in sensitive.

Chief negotiator in Washington

Ratso has been visiting Washington DC this week for a second meeting of the so-called Joint Consultative Group on EU-US scientific relations. The meeting involves all US science agencies, and the aim is to discuss common priorities to see if it’s possible to coordinate calls or programme resources to facilitate more trans-Atlantic collaboration, although there's no prospect of the US joining Horizon Europe. 

Speaking at a breakfast meeting Tuesday of the Science Diplomats Club, she said the talks with South Korea are about it joining the main research-collaboration part of Horizon, pillar II, by 1 January 2025. Negotiations are not yet concluded, but she hopes to finalise a deal “soon.”

Ratso said the South Korean financial contribution to the programme was part of the negotiations. As for specific, sensitive technologies like AI and quantum, she said any possible exclusions from the collaboration would be set out in the individual Horizon work programmes that the Commission drafts for each technology sector, and would not be part of the formal association agreement with Korea. The law undergirding the programme gives the Commission wide latitude to restrict non-EU access to sensitive technology collaborations, as it has already done with the UK on certain late-stage space and quantum research efforts.

Japan and Singapore are “considering the possibility” of joining as well, she added. 

When asked about how the associations will affect Horizon governance, Ratso confirmed the newcomers won’t have a vote on programme priorities and policies but “they can participate in relevant committees” of EU member states planning the programme. “They can express their opinions” and build alliances with like-minded EU members, she added. 

This article has been updated to include comment from European Commission sources

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