Australia-Korea Relations about commerce, not strategy

By Jeffrey Robertson, Associate Professor, Diplomatic Studies – Yonsei University; Visiting Fellow, Asia Institute – University of Melbourne

It’s a mistake to believe Australia can build relations with South Korea on shared strategic interests, writes Jeffrey Robertson.

South Korea’s Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup made a brief visit to Australia in early August to meet his Australian counterpart Richard Marles. Topics discussed included defence links, regional security, and defence material cooperation. The visit included the perfunctory visit to the Korean War Memorial, talks with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), and a visit to Geelong, the site for a Hanwha Defence factory, building the Korean-designed K9 self-propelled howitzer for the Australian army. For some in Australia, the visit presented evidence of converging strategic interests. They’re wrong.

It's easy to see why Australian commentators fall into the trap. Successive Australian governments have promoted the narrative of shared strategic interests. As the country brief on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website states, Australia and South Korea share “common strategic interests, including our alliances with the United States, and our commitment to a stable, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”. There’s logic behind the narrative.

First, Australia’s foreign policy outlook is dominated by China. South Korea also faces challenges with a growing China. It’s easy to imagine that the strategic challenge is similar for both. But for millennia, South Korea and its predecessor states have been dealing with China in growth and decline. There’s an inherent cultural and historical acceptance of China both as a threat and as a dominant state. Australia’s experience is limited to British and American regional dominance. Recent trade and cultural spats may seem similar on the surface, but below the surface, the two countries view China very differently. Australia and South Korea do not share strategic interests on China.

Second, certain sectors within the Australian policy community understandably view security as an ideal selling point to build bilateral relations. Australia has been a relatively prominent security actor in the region and maintains relevance as a US alliance partner. Security interests have in the past acted as steadfast building blocks for relations within the region, and contributed to significant improvements in relations with Singapore, Indonesia, and Japan. Since the conclusion of the bilateral Free Trade Agreement, Australia’s interests in Korea have turned decidedly towards building closer security ties. Security seems like an ideal building block.

SK submarine, 2022
Republic of Korea Navy submarine ROKS Shin Dol-seok sails in formation during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022, joining Royal Australian Navy ships Canberra, Supply, and Warramunga - July 28, 2022. Image credit: Australian Defence Force Image Library.

Third, there’s a certain lack of knowledge regarding Korea. The older generation of policy thinkers and decision-makers grew up studying Japan (and perhaps China). They were at university before the spread of Korean language and area studies programs across Australia’s leading universities, and before the emergence of Korea as a global cultural icon. Their knowledge of Korea focuses on the Korean War, perhaps the Asian Financial Crisis, and of course the ever-present media darling of North Korea. To older generations of Australians, modern Korea is as familiar as the lyrics of a BTS pop tune. Korea is an incredibly dynamic place and not an easy target to understand.

Many Australian strategists suffer from a similar disconnect that affects their counterparts in the US. With no language skills they mix with a coterie of cosmopolitan gatekeepers at a small number of Korean institutes, discover little or nothing about conditions on the ground, and leave with an image of Korea confirming exactly what they expected before departure. The result is a fundamental misunderstanding of Korea and the bilateral relationship.

Korea’s dynamism outpaces Australia. Its trajectory in dealing with issues such as the region and China; the state’s role as a middle power; the US alliance; and security, including nuclear weapons; is fundamentally distinct from Australia. There remains much space for cooperation in areas such as e-governance, digital studies, green energy, and migration. But until both countries put in the effort to build people-to-people links, there will remain a fundamental disconnect. Supporting Australian studies in Korea, and Korean studies in Australia will be the key to building the bilateral relationship.

Until the next generation moves into positions of authority, Australia will probably continue to see South Korea through a security lens. This makes Australia an easy mark for South Korea.

Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup’s main goals on his visit were to present South Korea as an ideal furnisher of defence materials. On the sales brochure were the already purchased Hanwha K9 self-propelled howitzer, and its Redback Infantry Fighting Vehicle – a contender for the LAND 400 Phase 3 procurement. The visit also presented the chance to mark Korea’s interest in the recently announced Defence Force Review. Lastly, it gave the chance to bring up longer shots, such as the Daewoo Shipbuilding and Hyundai Heavy Industries air-independent propulsion (AIP)-powered submarine to fill the capability gap between the end of life of the Collins and the entry into service of the AUKUS nuclear vessels, and to gage interest in the KAI KF-21 Boramae fighter jet, currently in development. South Korea is now a major arms supplier with a growing list of clients, including India, Indonesia, Iraq, Turkey, Finland, and Poland. Australia is more a customer than a strategic partner. More commerce, less strategy.

There’s an oft-repeated anecdote that circulates amongst the more cynically minded foreign policy analysts in Seoul – if you understand how to sell washing machines, you understand South Korea’s foreign policy. The contrast was most recently seen in Australia and South Korea’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The former provided direct assistance; the latter made proposals for reconstruction contracts. In foreign policy and strategic analysis, it pays to not impart your own beliefs on those of the target.

Jeffrey Robertson is an Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies at Yonsei University and a Visiting Fellow at the Korea Studies Research Hub, University of Melbourne, currently undertaking a Korea Foundation Grant Project looking into Australia-Korea bilateral relations.

Banner image: Australian Deputy PM and Defence Minister Richard Marles meets with South Korean Minister for National Defence Lee Jong-sup at Parliament House, Canberra - August 4, 2022. Credit: Australian Defence Force Image Library.