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Moon Jae-in visit should be start of deeper relationship with South Korea

By William (Bill) Paterson

For the first time in 12 years a South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, will visit Australia, starting on Sunday. The last to do so was in 2009, and no Australian prime minister has visited Seoul since Tony Abbott in 2014.

For two governments that profess to be close and are deeply linked by trade, investment, education, tourism, defence co-operation and shared strategic interests, this is a glaring gap.

South Korea is Australia’s third largest export market and fourth overall trade and investment partner. We are South Korea’s eighth. Australian iron ore, coal, liquefied natural gas, grains and beef power South Korea’s impressive growth, and South Korea’s cars, electronics, consumer goods and refined petroleum hold major shares of the Australian market. South Korean investment in Australia is growing. A free-trade agreement, in place since 2013, makes each other preferred trading partners.

South Korea’s soft power, from Squid Game and Parasite to K-pop, cosmetics and cuisine, is increasingly popular here.

Australia’s substantial commitment to the Korean War has led to an enduring Australian defence role in the US-led UN Command, which has ensured a fragile armistice on the Korean Peninsula since 1953. A slowly developing bilateral defence relationship makes Australia South Korea’s second most significant defence partner after its ally, the US, which continues to underwrite its security and to deter possible North Korean aggression.

South Korea has become a major manufacturer of sophisticated weaponry it recently has sold self-propelled howitzers to Australia and is bidding for armoured vehicles – and will likely be interested in getting a slice of the action in cyber, artificial intelligence, missiles and drones. It recently has developed a ballistic missile submarine and is interested in nuclear propulsion.

Like Australia, South Korea faces elections in the first half of next year, and Moon’s left-leaning Democratic Party presidential candidate is running neck-and-neck with his conservative opponent. So why is Moon, in the twilight of his single five-year presidency and amid the continuing challenges of pandemic management in both countries, prioritising a visit to Australia?

The easy answer is that this year marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. This is a significant landmark but an insufficient explanation – and Moon and Scott Morrison have met this year at meetings of the G7 and G20.

Moon’s administration clearly has weighed the visit against the possibility of incurring Chinese displeasure when China is turning up the heat further on Australia.

But Australia’s membership of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the bombshell of the AUKUS agreement have sparked intense interest in Seoul – and understanding. The visit signals that interest and is positive recognition – if, as is likely, falling short of explicit endorsement – of the new security structures.

South Korea’s interests are tied closely to a free and open Indo-Pacific. It has a deep commitment to democracy and shares with Australia a commitment to free trade, a more rules-based order and engagement with multilateral institutions. Seoul has the weight and capability, and increasingly the intent, to play a bigger regional strategic role. It needs reliable partners and inevitably shares the widespread concerns about the long-term resolve of the US – another reason for the visit.

South Korea treads a fine line between the US and China. China’s support for North Korea, its proximity and South Korea’s dependence on trade with China (as with Australia, its biggest market) place tough pressures and choices on Seoul. China is critical to any peace settlement on the peninsula. When in 2016 South Korea agreed to deployment of a US antimissile battery to deter incoming North Korean missiles, it was subjected to heavy Chinese sanctions. Chinese regional sabre-rattling deeply worries South Korea, and popular support for China in the country has slumped. But, fearful of further Chinese retaliation, Seoul has resisted US pressures to become linked to the Quad or take a more forward-leaning posture in the South China Sea or over Taiwan.

A difficult relationship with Japan, its former colonial power, also inhibits closer strategic co-operation among like-minded countries in the region. Sharing strategic objectives with Australia, South Korea has noted our increasingly close relationship with Japan and will likely have come to see value, for economic as well as strategic reasons, in enlarging links with Australia.

The two leaders will proclaim a comprehensive strategic partnership to describe the strength of the relationship. Such symbolism can be useful but is of value only if substance matches the rhetoric. Inattention by both countries in past years, though, gives few grounds for high expectations.

Aside from collaboration with Donald Trump’s abortive North Korean diplomacy, and recently a search for an “end of war declaration” with North Korea, Moon’s signature foreign policy initiative has been a “New Southern Policy” to build relations, particularly trade and investment, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region – but it conspicuously omitted Australia. So there’s ground to be made up.

With all that is in play, the relationship merits higher attention in both countries. South Korea’s reliance on Australian energy and raw materials is almost as longstanding as Japan’s, while its significant stake in Australia’s consumer economy also parallels Japan’s. All three are key US regional allies with shared critical interests in regional stability.

Like Japan, South Korea has made an early decision to pursue the hydrogen economy. So while Australia’s fossil fuel exports to South Korea will diminish, South Korea sees Australia as potentially a major, if not the biggest, source of green hydrogen, as well as of battery minerals such as lithium and critical minerals essential to semiconductor manufacture. This has enormous potential, underpinned by long-standing trusted business relationships.

Shared economic and strategic interests suggest both countries aim for a relationship of near equivalent depth to that we have with Japan – but the effort will require both governments to make this a priority and to lend it substance. Both have so far fallen short, but the visit provides an opportunity to re-order their priorities.

Originally published by: on 09 Dec 2021