A Window of Opportunity in Australia-Korea Relations?

Seoul’s change in political leadership is promising for the West. Australia must do more to take advantage of the opportunity.

On 10 May 2022, Yoon Seok-yul will be sworn in as South Korea’s thirteenth president. There are already widespread expectations that the Yoon administration presents opportunities for the Australia.


In the background, there’s a new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in place, which reflects both states’ concern regarding market diversification and supply chain security. In the foreground, the president-elect has emphasised that the Quad and Australia are a priority, and candidates favourable to Australia are lining up for prominent positions. But there are reasons to temper expectations. Behind the hype lies an uncertain trajectory for the incoming administration and an unprepared Australia.


Yoon Faces Challenges


Much about the incoming administration remains unpredictable. The words and steps clearly lead towards closer relations with the US and alignment with the Quad. What remains unclear is how to get there.


First, China looms as a challenge. Attempts to strengthen US-Korea relations will attract China’s concern. If concern turns to economic pressure, Yoon’s objectives will attract greater domestic opposition, including from erstwhile political allies invested in the China economic relationship.


Second, Yoon won the election by a historically narrow margin. The polarising nature of the campaign suggests opposition voices will remain a prominent check on ambitions. President Lee Myung-bak (2008-13) provoked substantial and largely unforeseen public demonstrations within two months of inauguration after he implemented measures to improve US-Korea relations. Park Geun-hye (2013-17) showed that political scandal and public demonstrations can rapidly escalate to impeachment. With low opinion ratings as Yoon enters office, public demonstrations hindering policy implementation could be a continuing problem.


Third, there’s the roll of the dice that determines the trajectory of every South Korean presidential administration – North Korea. Pyongyang has a way of swallowing even the most promising plans. On the domestic front, it sucks the life out of hopes and attempts at reform. On the international front, it narrows South Korea’s policy options. Any semblance of creativity, change, and diplomatic momentum gives way to an inward Korean Peninsula focus, marked by predictable patterns of firm resolve, restraint, and close coordination with the US.


While we cannot reliably predict the trajectory of the Yoon administration, we know much more about Australia’s lack of preparation to exploit any window of opportunity. Australia has much to do.


Australia is Unprepared


The Australia-Korea bilateral relationship has suffered from around twenty years of neglect – a victim of its own problem-free economic complementarity and domestic political irrelevance. The rhetoric of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership needs to be followed through with action. As noted by Australia’s former ambassador to Seoul, an early visit to Seoul by Australia’s next government would add action to the rhetoric.


Australia also desperately needs to raise its profile in Seoul’s policy circles. In South Korea, Australia is irrelevant. It’s seen more as a beach, a mine, or a place to learn English, rather than a serious dialogue partner. This is the result of government “quick fixes” to make Australia cute, fun, and popular, rather than committing to long-term investment to make Australia politically relevant.


Canberra needs to build cohorts of students and professionals who invest their time and money in learning about Australia. There is not a single course at a South Korean university focused on Australia’s history, politics, or foreign relations. To overcome this, funding an Australian Studies institute would be the first step, supporting university faculty and student exchanges a second step, and supporting an Australia-Korea institute an important third step.


An Australia-Korea institute, mirroring successful examples such as the Australia-India Institute, could raise the profile of the relationship in both Australia and Korea. It could work closely with Australia’s rich academic and think-tank communities, act as a conduit for cooperation with Korean counterparts, and publish relevant materials in both English and Korean — not just the all-too-common North Korea-focused hype. With a focus on shared challenges in public policy, regional and global governance, economics, and culture, the institute would raise Australia’s policy relevance in Seoul.


The least favourable, and perhaps most likely, option to raise Australia’s profile would be to again wheel out the middle power moniker. Yes, Australia and Korea are both middle powers. This may mean something to some academics, but to diplomats it means only one thing – an empty talk. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of the “great weather” or “did you see the footy” awkward workplace elevator chatter between colleagues who are not friends. Australia must aim higher than this.


If the Australia-Korea relationship is to grow to a level that can shoulder the highs and lows, and negate the need for “windows of opportunity,” then there needs to be a serious rethink on how to strengthen people-to-people links, especially between Australians in Korea, Koreans in Australia, and that growing body of individuals with one foot in each country. Strong bilateral relationships are not built on “comprehensive strategic partnerships” but ultimately on people-to-people links.


As published in Australian Outlook 11 April 2022.