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It's time to talk more about South Korea

Image Credit: Dickson Phua (Flickr: Creative Commons)

For the first time in a long time in February 2018, Australia’s attention turned to the Korean peninsula for a positive reason - the Winter Olympics. So much is written and spoken in Australia about North Korea and Australia’s relationship with China, but so little is mentioned of South Korea, or the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Australia-ROK relationship. Generally speaking, everyday Australians know little about the ROK beyond Korean BBQ and K-Pop – which is a shame for an ancient culture such as Korea’s. Similarly, little is known about the relationship, which exists between Australia and the ROK. It’s time this was corrected.

What may come as a surprise to many Australians is the depth of the Australia-Korea relationship. This relationship was forged during the Korean War where 17,000 Australians fought to protect the freedom of South Koreans against an invasion from the Communist North, in a conflict that claimed approximately 2 million lives. Since then, the Australian-ROK relationship has developed and become one of our most important in our region, particularly with respect to economic, defence and security matters.

Much is said about the role of China as Australia’s largest trading partner, however the Republic of Korea is our third largest export market and fourth largest trading partner, and has been for quite a while. In 2016, two-way trade between the two countries hit AUD32 billion, as Australian minerals and gas fuelled the production of Korean ships, cars and electronics, while Australian beef accounted for 50% of all ROK beef imports in 2016. South Korean companies are also heavily invested in major projects in Australia including KOGAS, KEPCO, and SK Energy with their investments in the Australian resources sector and Samsung C&T in the construction of the Westconnex project in Sydney. Future prospects for trade between Australia and the ROK also look bright, as the economies of our two countries complement each other – Australia provides the energy to fuel ROK industry. This can be seen in contracts between Australian and Korean companies to provide Australian Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to Korea for the next twenty years, which will see Australia provide over 5 million tonnes of LNG per annum to Korea – equivalent to 20% of Korea’s LNG imports in 2010.

Australia also enjoys a very close relationship with the ROK in the defence and security space. Driven by a shared history, and shared security concerns such as North Korea and an increasingly assertive China, Australia and the ROK have established strong security ties. Specifically, this is evident in the 2+2 Ministerial meetings between the Defence and Foreign Ministers of our two countries – a type of meeting that the ROK only holds with one other country (the United States). Australia also regularly contributes to military exercises with Korea, including the Key Resolve and Ulchi Freedom exercises, and has signalled intentions to continue to deepen this aspect of the relationship moving forward.

Finally, like Australia, Korea is a democracy and respects the same liberal democratic principles and values that Australians do. While debate exists over the extent of democratic consolidation in the ROK, the impeachment of former President Park Geun-Hye in March 2017 has demonstrated the Korean people’s commitment to democracy and liberal democratic values, and the ability of their institutions to protect democratic governance.

Despite these deep economic and defence ties and shared values, there is very little knowledge and understanding of Korean history, politics, language and culture in Australia. At present, finding an intensive Korean language course in Australia is very difficult, and organisations that promote Korean history and culture are few in number and under-resourced. So, it’s time we spoke more about the ROK, to raise awareness about the ROK and celebrate the strength and history of the Australia-ROK relationship.

James Tucker has recently graduated with a Masters in Intelligence and International Security (Distinction) from the War Studies Department at King’s College London.

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