If South Korea Joined NATO, How Would It Measure Up Against Other Member Countries?

Last Updated: July 11, 2024By

Comparing South Korea and NATO’s national power

South Korea is strengthening its cooperation with NATO, attending its first NATO meeting in 2022, and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s visit to the country in May 2024 emphasized that South Korea is a close partner of NATO. So, let’s take a look at where South Korea would stand in each of these areas if it were to become a NATO member.

South Korea’s economic strength

South Korea’s economy is projected to have a GDP of $1.7 trillion in 2024, which ranks seventh among NATO members. This is lower than Canada’s $2.2 trillion, but higher than Spain’s $1.6 trillion.
For a more detailed analysis of South Korea’s economic strength, let’s take a look at the components of GDP and their share of South Korea’s GDP.

GDP components and their share

South Korea’s GDP is mainly composed of the following items
Private (household) final consumption expenditure: about 46.46%.
Investment (gross fixed capital formation): about 31.07%.
Government final consumption expenditure: about 18.17%.
Net exports (exports – imports): about 3.72%.
Inventory growth: about 0.58%.

From this data, we can see that private consumption accounts for the largest share, followed by investment.

Background of Korea’s GDP growth

South Korea’s economy has been growing steadily. It experienced a temporary dip in 2020 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has since recovered. In 2021, South Korea’s nominal GDP was $1.8 trillion, which dropped to $1.6 trillion in 2022 due to a stronger dollar.

Total Trade and Economic Weight

As of 2023, South Korea’s trade totaled more than $1.2 trillion, ranking fifth among NATO members. This indicates that South Korea has strong competitiveness in import and export activities.

Economic challenges and outlook

The South Korean economy faces a number of challenges, including the strong dollar and global economic uncertainty, but it continues to pursue economic growth through technological development and trade expansion. The IMF forecasts South Korea’s economic growth rate to be 1.5% in 2024, which is slightly higher than the average for advanced economies.
As such, South Korea’s economic strength is quite high when compared to NATO members, with particular strengths in trade and investment. South Korea’s economic contribution as a NATO member is expected to be significant.

South Korea’s military strength

As of 2023, South Korea’s military is ranked as the 6th largest in the world, which is quite high among NATO members. South Korea’s defense spending is $47.9 billion, which ranks between France ($66.8 billion) and Italy ($35.5 billion) among NATO members. South Korea’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP is 2.8%, which ranks fourth among NATO members.

Indicators for evaluating military power

According to the Global Firepower (GFP) report, South Korea has a military force assessment index of 0.1505, with a value closer to zero indicating a stronger military. This indicator is evaluated by taking into account not only aircraft, ships, and troops, but also natural resources, territory, coastline, and borders.

Defense spending and arms exports

South Korea’s defense spending is $47.9 billion, which is quite high among NATO members. This is not far behind the likes of the United States ($73.2 billion) and China ($230 billion). South Korea also ranks ninth in global arms exports, surpassed only by Israel, which has a high level of advanced manufacturing technology.

Weapons and defense industry

South Korea’s defense industry requires a high level of manufacturing and the ability to produce finished products with reliable operational capabilities. South Korea has been increasing its share of arms exports in recent years, which can be seen as a result of increased defense spending and the growth of the defense industry.

Future prospects and challenges

While South Korea currently maintains a high military power ranking, the country faces challenges in its future arms reduction policy and relations with its neighbors, notably a shortage of skilled personnel and the need for continued investment to maintain its military capabilities.
As such, South Korea’s military power is at a significantly higher level compared to other NATO members, and it has a strong national defense along with its economic strength. These strengths suggest that South Korea can play an important role as a NATO member.

South Korea’s Resources

South Korea has very few oil and natural gas reserves, which means that it is one of the weaker members of NATO in terms of resources. In contrast, the United States, Canada, and Norway have world-class oil and natural gas reserves, which makes them stronger in terms of resources.

Oil and natural gas reserves

South Korea has very few oil and natural gas reserves and is far from self-sufficient. South Korea relies on imports for most of its energy, which presents a vulnerability in terms of energy security. Oil in particular is a major import, and is mostly imported from the Middle East to meet South Korea’s energy needs.

Comparison with NATO members

United States : One of the world’s largest oil producers, production has increased significantly in recent years thanks to the shale revolution. Natural gas production is also very high.

Canada : Rich in oil and natural gas reserves, with the oil sands of Alberta being the main resource.

Norway : A resource powerhouse with offshore oil and natural gas development in the North Sea.

Economic weight

Energy accounts for a significant portion of South Korea’s GDP. The high dependence on energy imports has a significant impact on the economy, making it sensitive to fluctuations in international oil prices. This means that rising energy prices can have a negative impact on the economy as a whole.

What South Korea is doing

South Korea is exploring a variety of measures to strengthen its energy security

Expanding renewable energy : Various government-led projects are underway to increase the share of renewable energy such as solar and wind power.

Improving energy efficiency : We are introducing efficiency measures to reduce energy consumption.

Strengtheningenergy diplomacy : We are strengthening diplomatic relations with the Middle East and other energy suppliers to ensure stable energy imports.

These measures will strengthen South Korea’s energy security and contribute to maintaining economic stability.

Population and territory of South Korea

Population status and projections

South Korea’s population is approximately 51.2 million, placing it between Italy and Spain among NATO members. However, according to Statistics Korea, the population is expected to decline by more than 5 million by 2050, dropping the country’s ranking within NATO by one spot.
Currently, South Korea’s population density is very high, especially in the metropolitan area. People living in Seoul and the metropolitan area account for more than half of the country’s population, which has led to a variety of social and economic problems.

Background and Causes of Population Decline

The main causes of population decline are low fertility and aging. The fertility rate has been steadily declining, and currently stands at 0.81, one of the lowest in the world. This is a result of a combination of increased pressure on young people to marry and have children, economic instability, and rising housing costs.
Aging is also a serious problem. By 2070, the number of people aged 65 and older is expected to account for 46.4% of the total population, the highest in the world. Labor shortages and economic burdens are expected due to the aging population, and the defense sector in particular is concerned about weakening due to a decline in active duty personnel.

Territorial Status

South Korea’s territory is approximately 100,210 km², which is in the middle of the pack among NATO members. It is about the size between Iceland and Hungary. The limited territory and high population density create a number of urban challenges, including housing, transportation, and the environment.

Solutions and policy proposals

To solve the problem of population decline and aging, the following policies are needed

Overcoming the declining birthrate : financial support and improved housing policies are needed to reduce the economic burden of marriage and childbirth. Expanded childcare support and work-family policies are also important.

Preparing for an aging population : It is important to expand healthcare and welfare services for the elderly population, as well as create an environment that allows them to remain productive in retirement.

Balanced development : Strengthening the economic and social infrastructure of rural cities and promoting the relocation of public institutions and businesses to rural areas is necessary to alleviate the concentration in the metropolitan areas.
As such, a comprehensive policy that takes into account Korea’s population and territorial situation is needed, and this will enable sustainable growth.

South Korea’s Technological Competitiveness: Comparison with NATO Member Countries

Technology Competitiveness Status

South Korea ranks in the top five in 26 out of 62 future high-tech fields, which ranks fourth among NATO member states. This is narrowly behind Germany (3rd), but ahead of Italy (5th). The gap with China in technological competitiveness is particularly noteworthy, as China ranks first in fields such as AI, batteries, and aerospace.

Background and Causes of Technological Competitiveness

Korea’s technological competitiveness is the result of a combination of the government’s active investment in R&D and the technological innovation efforts of companies. The government provides various support policies for the development of advanced technologies, and companies continue to invest in R&D to secure global competitiveness. In addition, Korea’s education system contributes to technological advancement by fostering excellent human resources.

Solutions to improve technological competitiveness

Continued R&D investment: The government and companies should work together to continue investing in research and development and expand infrastructure to develop new technologies.
Fosteringtalent: We need to strengthen education programs and expand international educational exchanges to foster the talent needed in high-tech fields.
International collaboration: International research collaborations and technology exchanges should be promoted to enhance global technological competitiveness.
Policy support: Various policy supports are needed to promote technological innovation, which will facilitate technology development and commercialization.
Through these strategies, South Korea will be able to further strengthen its technological competitiveness and reduce the technology gap with NATO member countries.

R&D spending

South Korea’s R&D spending is 4.93% of GDP, ranking fourth among NATO members. This indicates high investment in R&D, which plays an important role in strengthening South Korea’s technological competitiveness.

Top 500 Companies

South Korea has 13 of the world’s top 500 companies, which places it between France (31) and the United Kingdom (21) among NATO members. This is an indicator of the global competitiveness of Korean companies.

Foreign exchange reserves

South Korea’s foreign exchange reserves are projected to be $419 billion in 2024, the largest of any NATO member. This is an important indicator of the stability of the Korean economy.

Background and drivers of R&D and corporate competitiveness

South Korea’s high R&D spending rate is the result of active policy support from the government and continuous innovation efforts by companies. The Korean government offers a variety of tax incentives and support programs for R&D to encourage companies to focus on R&D. In addition, large companies are investing heavily in developing advanced technologies to ensure their global competitiveness.

Solutions and policy suggestions

Continued R&D investment : Korea should continue to maintain and even increase its current R&D investments to accelerate technological innovation and enhance its competitiveness in the global marketplace.
Support SMEs : More support and funding should be provided to strengthen the R&D capabilities of SMEs, which can be an important driver of innovation.
Strengthen international cooperation : To enhance global technological competitiveness, we need to promote international research cooperation and technology exchanges. This will maximize synergies in technological innovation.
Cultivatingtalent : We need to strengthen education programs to foster talented people and promote the influx of talent in science and technology.
With these strategies, South Korea will be able to maintain its high technological competitiveness and economic stability among NATO members and further strengthen its competitiveness in the global market.

South Korea’s place and role in NATO

South Korea ranks among the top NATO members in many areas, including economic strength, military strength, and technological competitiveness, and is positioned to play a key role in NATO membership. South Korea’s 2024 GDP is projected to be $1.7 trillion, the seventh largest among NATO members, and it is strongly competitive in trade and exports. Its high R&D spending (4.93% of GDP) and technological competitiveness position it as an important technological innovator within NATO.
In terms of military power, South Korea is ranked 6th in the world in 2023, which is high among NATO members. Its defense budget of $47.9 billion sits between France and Italy, and its defense spending as a percentage of GDP of 2.8% ranks fourth among NATO members.
Despite its lack of resources, South Korea’s economic stability and high foreign exchange reserves ($419 billion) support its economic stability and allow it to fulfill its important economic role as a NATO member.
With a population of approximately 51.2 million people, South Korea sits between Italy and Spain among NATO members, allowing it to continue its role as a middle-income country despite a declining population. South Korea’s demographic structure and concentration in the metropolitan area requires sustainable urban policies and population decentralization.
South Korea also ranks high among NATO members in terms of technological competitiveness, with strengths in high-tech sectors such as AI, batteries, and aerospace, meaning it is an important partner within NATO for mutual advancement through technological innovation and cooperation.
In conclusion, as a NATO member, South Korea is in a strong position to play an important role in the economic, military, and technology sectors. Through this comparison, we can understand South Korea’s position and role as a member of NATO and the opportunities it has for mutual development through cooperation with NATO.

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