Déjà vu for Australia-Korea relations

By Peter K Lee, Research Fellow, Foreign Policy and Defence Program – United States Studies Centre

The coincidence of a newly elected Labor prime minister in Australia and a conservative president in South Korea revives memories of the last time the two countries set ambitious bilateral strategic goals, writes Peter K. Lee.

A new Australian Labor leader promises deeper regional engagement while a new South Korean conservative leader promises to look beyond North Korea. Both pledge to strengthen their alliance with a Democratic US president committed to prioritising Asia but facing multiple international crises. The year is 2008.

There are echoes of this time in the Indo-Pacific today. But the stakes are higher.

The Biden administration has rallied a global coalition to punish Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has provided Europe with tens of billions of dollars in assistance even as its military edge in the Indo-Pacific fast erodes. Most Asian countries have supported the US response, but many are also quietly concerned that the United States is once again distracted and unprepared for competition with an increasingly assertive and coercive China.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people across Asia and is far from over, climate change brings unending environmental disasters, North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities continue apace, and countries are retreating behind the walls of economic protectionism.

In the late 2000s, leadership rapport was crucial in collectively responding to some of these challenges. Kevin Rudd, Lee Myung-bak, and Barack Obama, together with other leaders, stepped up by elevating the G-20 summit to a leaders’ meeting to deal with the global financial crisis. Obama soon joined the East Asia Summit. The US “Rebalance to Asia” was announced and US Marines set foot in Darwin shortly thereafter.

PM Rudd and President Lee
Then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and President Lee Myung-bak meet at 2009 G8 Summit, L'Aquila, Italy - July 10, 2009. Image credit: Republic of Korea Government, Flickr.

Australia-South Korea security relations also blossomed during this period. Shared strategic interests saw early visits by Rudd and Lee to each other’s countries. Collaboration on global governance reform and economic ties culminated in the 2009 Joint Statement and Action Plan on security cooperation that continues to guide much of their policy cooperation to this day.

Such was the level of rapport that Rudd and Lee even co-authored an op-ed about the global financial recovery. When North Korea sunk a South Korean navy corvette in 2010, killing 46 sailors, Rudd was one of the first leaders that Lee called to discuss the attack and an Australian naval commander participated in the international investigation. That degree of high-level trust and friendship has been noticeably absent in recent years.

The election victories of Anthony Albanese and Yoon Suk-yeol therefore evoke a striking sense of déjà vu. But if history rhymes, as the saying goes, there are lessons for both sides from the Rudd-Lee days and in the decade since they both left office.

First, Albanese’s ministry will have hopefully learnt how to better deal with Korea. For example, last year’s contract for self-propelled howitzers with a Korean defence firm was a variation of the original deal that Labor cancelled a decade ago. Australia’s abysmal track record on defence procurement with key strategic partners must not be forgotten. Closer industrial cooperation with Korea can support Australia’s sovereign manufacturing base but also, as in the case of renewable energy, help Australia become an export powerhouse.

Second, Yoon’s team will have hopefully learnt how to better deal with Australia. Seoul has closely watched the evolving AUKUS and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partnerships with apprehension and envy. Diplomatic ambiguity towards China has undermined South Korea’s credibility in US eyes. Biden’s visit to Seoul two weeks into Yoon’s presidency was an early litmus test of how far he will live up to his promises of closer alignment with US allies. Given troubled relations with Tokyo, Seoul’s slide towards second-tier ally status can be reversed in partnership with Australia.

Finally, both will need to champion US initiatives wherever possible. Canberra and Seoul will quietly sigh at the gaping holes in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework proposal given their free trade agreements with the United States and their commitment to regional free trade, but they must work around the new Washington consensus.

Just as Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit did not denuclearise the world, Biden’s Summit for Democracy will not democratise it. But the support of Australia and South Korea is necessary for any progress.

The opportunity presented by changes in government is not without its hurdles. For better or worse, Albanese and Yoon are not as diplomatically ambitious as their predecessors, posing a challenge for leadership rapport. The threats today are not just economic but also military, and with great powers against which they will never be fully on the same page.

Australia’s security ties with Japan and, to a lesser extent, India have also reached new heights that will impose high entry costs for Korean engagement. And the South Korean military risks tilting back towards the North Korea mission at the cost of adopting a regionally oriented force posture.

It is therefore easy to be cynical about the Australia-South Korea relationship’s prospects. Expectations also must be kept in check about the potential of these new leaders.

Nonetheless, this déjà vu moment is as good a chance as any to reinvigorate and advance the bilateral relationship at a time of intense US support and pressure for closer cooperation among allies.

The necessity of an early plunge into diplomacy for the newly elected Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the Tokyo Quad leaders’ meeting can set the pace for foreign relations, including engagement with Seoul.

The window of opportunity is still there but, if history is any guide, it might not stay open for long.

Dr. Peter K. Lee is a research fellow in the Foreign Policy and Defence program at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and also a Korea Foundation research fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Banner image: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol addresses crowds at inauguration ceremony - Seoul, South Korea - May 10, 2022. Credit: Republic of Korea Government, Flickr.