Saturday 08 Aug 2020 | 21:15 | SYDNEY
Saturday 08 Aug 2020 | 21:15 | SYDNEY

Australia and Korea: Not so close

15 April 2008 16:31

Guest blogger: Brendan Howe (pictured), Professor of Diplomacy and Security, Ewha Womans University GSIS, Seoul and visiting CISS Research Fellow, responds to Malcolm Cook's post on our undervalued relationship with Korea. 

Malcolm Cook highlights the importance of Korea to Australian trade and security interests, the degree of shared interests between the two countries, and the surprising blind spot among Australian practitioners and commentators when it comes to this dynamic regional power. But the two sides might need to make even more effort to improve ties than Malcolm Cook realises.  I agree with much of what Malcolm has to say, and would add for the benefit of those possessing the blind spot, that South Korea is, in addition to being a large contributor of forces to the coalition and a top ten global economy, also the world's largest producer of ships and dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chips, sixth largest steel maker and fifth largest automobile manufacturer, with the fourth largest number of internet domains in the world, and the highest cellular phone and broadband internet penetration in Asia. In my experience, Australia has a great deal to learn from Korea when it comes to getting connected. 

Malcolm also points to the recent Korean elections as having ‘put a government in power that is likely to be more active and have interests more in line with Australia's.’ I am not sure that I agree with this reading of the Lee Administration when compared with that of his predecessors. President Lee Myung-bak has made repairing relations with the US a top priority, and has promised a tougher stance towards North Korea. President Lee said on Sunday (13 April) that his new government will stick to principles in dealing with North Korea without being swayed by threats from the North. Lee’s remarks follow North Korea’s expulsion of South Korean officials from the Gaeseong joint industrial complex, its test firing of short-range missiles in the Yellow Sea and threats to cut off dialogue with Seoul after the inauguration in February of the new conservative administration, which has linked further aid to the North to its denuclearization. The prospects for the Six-Party Talks are not good.

The new administration in Korea appears intent on band-wagoning with the US. Lee would seem to be heading in exactly the opposite direction to that envisaged by Malcolm when he mentions that ‘Australia should work closely with other middle powers and not simply try to engage with the great powers.’ Previous administrations in Korea have pursued a foreign policy distinct from that emanating from Washington, and indeed at times widely divergent, but the new administration appears far less interested in leveraging the good-cop, bad-cop dynamic of their trilateral relationship with the US and DPRK than in demonstrating itself to be a good regional deputy to the American sheriff.

I agree Australia needs to work more closely with South Korea, has much to learn, and much to gain. But the multilateral, independent foreign policies of the previous Roh and (to an even greater extent) Kim administrations would have provided a better fit with the incoming Rudd Government than the conservative, US-centric government recently inaugurated in Korea.