Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited South Korea (ROK) earlier this week as the two U.S. allies prepare to finalize a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The FTA could be a major boon for ROK-Israel relations, but it includes a specific clause excluding Israel’s disputed territories from FTA benefits – an exception Seoul did not insert in its FTAs with other countries involved in territorial disputes.
Bilateral trade and investment between Israel and South Korea reached a historic high of $2.7 billion in 2018, according to the South Korean president’s office. South Korean conglomerates such as Hyundai invest in Israeli technology companies, including Opsys, Autotalks, and MDGo. In 1997, Samsung became the first Asian company to open a research and development facility in Israel, followed by LG in 1999.
The completion of this FTA will further increase South Korean exports to Israel by reducing tariffs on automobiles, LED screens, refrigerators, and mobile phones. The ROK will also reduce customs duties on Israeli goods to help increase Israel’s export volume to South Korea. Both Israeli President Rivlin and ROK Trade Minister Yoo Myong Hee expressed eagerness to complete the FTA in order to enhance cooperation in the automotive, biotech, and medical technology sectors.
While Israel is undoubtedly thrilled to ink the deal, Seoul’s double standard with regard to disputed territories remain disconcerting. The ROK’s inclusion of a limited territoriality clause excluding the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights from the free trade benefits is problematic. This is not because Seoul doesn’t have a right to insist on it. But Seoul has not included similar clauses in any of its free trade agreements with countries that have territorial disputes.
For example, Seoul has signed FTAs with both China and Vietnam, which dispute control over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea. Despite this ongoing feud, the ROK does not exclude these disputed territories from either trade agreement and instead recognizes all areas over which its trading partner exercises sovereignty or jurisdiction. The FTA with China similarly ignores Beijing’s occupation of Tibet and claims to Taiwan. Seoul’s FTAs with Turkey and India, which are embroiled in their own territorial disputes in Northern Cyprus and Kashmir, respectively, also lack territorial exclusion clauses.
Israel, however, is no stranger to double standards on territorial disputes. In March 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for a blacklist of companies operating in Jewish communities in the West Bank, a measure not imposed on other contested regions. In January 2018, the Danish parliament passed a resolution excluding the West Bank from Denmark’s trade agreements with Israel and expressing support for the blacklist. The online accommodations firm Airbnb, which is reportedly on the blacklist, decided to delist Jewish properties in the West Bank in November 2018. Faced with accusations of discrimination and double standards, Airbnb decided to include a few other disputed territories before ultimately abandoning the exclusionary policy.
Jerusalem and Seoul stand to gain tremendously from increased collaboration and decreased barriers to trade. Both countries are leaders in innovation and technology, facing enemies that threaten them with annihilation. Nonetheless, as long as Seoul applies a double standard to the Jewish state, their partnership cannot realize its full potential.
Mathew Ha is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where David May is a research analyst. Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk and David @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy