South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Australia this week comes at a critical point in the relationship between the countries.
Moon is the first world leader to visit Australia since the COVID pandemic began and the federal government shut the country’s borders.
The two countries have signed a billion-dollar weapons contract, which has dominated the headlines in Australia. But while this contract is significant, it is only a very small step - there is much more to do.
A relationship on the back burner
Australia and South Korea haven’t really paid attention to the relationship in recent years. It’s basically been ignored for at least a decade, if not longer.
The problem is, the relationship is a victim of its own success. Australia and South Korea have a highly complimentary trade relationship and there are no major problems. As a result, they’ve just let it linger.
This means they are starting from an empty chair in terms of improving the relationship, so this visit is an important first step.
In South Korea, not many people think about Australia. There isn’t an option for students to focus on Australia in high school or university and see Australia as a place to invest their time and efforts for future careers.
As a result, there are cohorts of students going into government and business with absolutely no knowledge of, or interest in, Australia.
If you compare this to Australia, there are students who are studying Korean or are focused on Korean studies for business, defence, and pop culture, of course. But Australia isn’t doing anything to promote itself in South Korea.
Finding common ground
There are some commonalities on which to build a stronger relationship. Both Australia and South Korea are mid-sized, secondary powers. This is important, as they are both facing similar challenges negotiating between major powers and with other regional powers.
They are also both advanced societies facing similar challenges on health care, the environment and governance. So, there are lots of areas where they can work together.
On strategic issues, the major defence contract announced this week is going to the South Korean defence giant Hanwha to build 30 self-propelled howitzers and 15 armoured ammunition resupply vehicles for the Australian army.
It’s part of a new memorandum of understanding on defence industry and materials cooperation, which comes after the previous agreement between the two nations lapsed a decade ago.
The Hanwha contract is certainly large, but there’s a big difference in the way South Koreans and Australians see the deal.
Australians believe it’s of great strategic consequence, tied to regional tensions and China’s rising influence. But South Koreans don’t see it that way. They are viewing it as a commercial transaction that has nothing to do with China at all.
In fact, if you look at the South Korean press – and particularly the Korean language press – it doesn’t mention China in relation to Moon’s trip to Australia. Rather, it is focused on securing resources – in particular urea – and maintaining those resource supplies.
South Korea’s future role in the region
This shows the countries are on fundamentally different pages when it comes to regional security, and this is going to become more of an issue in the future.
A lot of it depends on what happens in the South Korean presidential elections next year. If a conservative leader is elected, South Korea will be more willing to cooperate with Australia and the US, and play a larger role alongside the two of them (to a degree). This won’t happen if there’s a progressive administration.
But even if there’s a conservative leader, South Korea will never go as far as Australia in condemning China’s actions. It’s not in South Korea’s interests to do that. Not only does Seoul need China to help in its negotiations with North Korea, but South Korea’s largest businesses are heavily invested in China, and they won’t want to damage the relationship.
So, the long-term trend of South Korea’s position is not towards lining up with Australia and the US.
However, South Korea will be making some major decisions over the next ten years or so, and these include reassessing its relationship with both the US and China and potentially securing its own independent nuclear weapons capacity.
South Korea has been reassessing its relationship with the US for some time. One issue, for instance, is returning wartime operational command of South Korean troops from the United States Forces Korea to the South Korean military. This is a small step towards South Korea becoming more independent from the US.
There’s even talk in security circles of South Korea aiming for a neutral role in the region, becoming the Switzerland of North Asia. Ten years ago, this wasn’t even talked about.
Where Australia fits in
South Korea doesn’t view Australia as an important actor in its decisions. But there’s an important role for them to play together in the region, which is why these strategic discussions are so vital. Australia needs to increase its voice in South Korean policy circles and make its opinions heard.
This problem goes back to the Howard years, when Australian foreign policy decisions basically just followed the US. During the Rudd years, there was some good collaboration between Australia and South Korea, but at the end of those administrations, this deteriorated somewhat.
Now, there’s an opportunity for Australia to do much more. For instance, it should open a formal Australian Studies Institute in South Korea, similar to the ones it has in China and Japan, and try to establish more joint university degrees programs between the countries.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute could also do more work on South Korea and translate this into Korean. These sorts of things can raise the profile of Australia as an independent thinker and actor in the region. Importantly, it could also make it more visible in South Korean policy circles.