Australia-Korea: Sixty years of benign neglect

Executive Summary

  • The Australia - Korea bilateral relationship is successful but lacks the foundations upon which stronger relationships are built, including people-to-people, cultural and education links.

  • Both countries have much to gain from greater interaction, but interest and effort is lacking. Current levels of interaction support only intermittent, surface-level engagement.

  • The expatriate community in each country is relatively small and lacks voice. There is much that could be done to facilitate expatriate communities to enable them to grow and serve as foundations to build the bilateral relationship.

Policy Recommendations

  • A comprehensive study looking at improving people-to-people links, including a focus on expatriate living, needs to be undertaken.

  • Australia needs to promote itself as a relevant international partner in Seoul. This includes through a stronger targeted digital diplomacy presence, facilitating thinktank and academic interaction, and supporting stronger people-to-people links.

  • Australia desperately needs a long-term plan to support Australian studies in South Korea with a focus on growth industries and areas of public policy relevance.

2021 celebrates sixty years of the Australia-Korea diplomatic relationship – or sixty years of ‘benign neglect’ in which the relationship has prospered despite a lack of attention. This article goes through five talking points to argue that benign neglect will no longer suffice.

First, in measures commonly used to assess bilateral relationships, the relationship is successful. In political, economic, and security terms, there is ample evidence of this: an acceptable number of high-level political visits, a mutually beneficial trade relationship, and growing cooperation in defence and intelligence. This is marked by a number of key diplomatic achievements: the Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, Australia (MIKTA) informal consultative group, the Korea Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA), the MOU on Development Cooperation, the Foreign and Defence Ministers’ (“2+2”) meetings, and a “strategic partnership”. Each achievement ticks the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) boxes in foreign ministry annual reports – a kind of bureaucratic theatre that obfuscates a lack of deeper engagement These indicators gloss over underlying weaknesses of mutual disinterest and misunderstanding, and above all, neglect.

Second, the relationship is not as strong as it should be. With all due respect to Australia’s hardworking diplomats, success in the relationship has not resulted from focused government effort. The relationship is more borne of circumstance and luck than anything else: compatibility as middle power liberal democracies, mutual trade compatibility, and compatibility within the existing US alliance framework. The relationship could be much stronger. As middle powers with divergent economic and security interests balanced between Beijing and Washington, the two states should have much to discuss. In South Korea, strategic dialogue regularly questions the utility of the US alliance, relations with China, an independent nuclear weapons capability, and even armed neutrality. These topics are rarely discussed, even at conferences specifically targeted towards bringing together Australian and South Korean strategic and international relations thinkers. Dialogue undertaken for a day or two at an academic or thinktank conference hardly scratches the surface. Such conferences bring together visitors with “gatekeepers” – the cosmopolitan, often overseas-educated, English-speaking foreign policy and political elites. They rarely delve into deeper, less mainstream views. Yet, dialog on strategic affairs is just one topic that is lacking. For both Australian and South Korean policy makers, there are lessons to be learned from each other on energy, climate, immigration, population, e-governance, gender, public health, and every area of governance and regulation.

Third, the Australia-Korea bilateral relationship is not a priority. In both countries, there is a distinct lack of interest.

In Australia, before Squid Games, it was rare to see Korea on TV outside the usual North Korea routines (the recent deployment of an ABC correspondent to Seoul is a welcome exception – save for the awkward pronunciation of Korean names!). Most of Australia’s commentators are still defence or strategic studies specialists treating Korea as a headline-grabbing sideline, or at best China or Japan specialists spreading themselves to reach a wider audience. Significantly, with Korean studies programs at several Australian universities under pressure to cut research capability it is increasingly difficult for students to commit to research programs on Korea.

In Korea, there is even less interest in Australia. Just over twenty years ago a DFAT-sponsored study pointed out that to most Koreans, Australia was a farm, a quarry, and a nice place to visit, but little more (M Porter, S Doszpot, and R Maxwell, Australia-Korea: Strengthened economic partnership, report prepared for the Australia-Korea Foundation, August 2001, p. 53). Nothing has changed. Australia remains an afterthought as evidenced by the array of texts in libraries and bookshops. There are books on holidays, working holidays, migration, and little else. Most research on Australia is undertaken by academics with a connection to Australia.

Expatriate communities are building blocks of people-to-people links. Yet, both countries put little effort into encouraging or facilitating these communities. For South Korean citizens resident in Australia, and Australian citizens resident in Korea, there are a myriad of hurdles to maintaining residence, such as maintaining bilingual education for children, recognition of school leaving qualifications and gaining entry into university, dual citizenship renunciation, and securing expatriate mortgages and business loans – it is strange to think that in Australia’s fourth largest export partner, not a single Australian bank provides dual currency accounts or expatriate mortgages, as they do in Singapore, Hong Kong, the US, UK, and multiple other locations.

Fourth, the narratives used to frame the relationship are inadequate. In a recent study, I investigated G20 member embassy website, promotional material, and ambassadorial relationship narratives. I tested them for effectiveness on students studying in the fields of international relations and public administration at Korea’s top universities with plans to enter the public service. Australia’s narratives were largely ineffective. They were either considered bland and meaningless or confused with other countries. There is more that Australia could do to promote itself to a Korean audience, including through more targeted digital diplomacy, facilitation of links between the Australian thinktank and academic community and their Korean counterparts, and stronger support for initiatives that build person-to-person links, such as the Geelong Korea Australian Baseball League team

Fifth and last, if we were to apportion any blame on the current state of the relationship, I would argue it is largely an Australian problem (with no blame apportioned to Australia’s overseas representation). As most Australian students and academics would be aware, there are rewards for making Korea your focus. Despite threats to existing programs, there are currently ample courses, even majors, to pursue; scholarships for language study or research; and well-respected and globally recognized academics to study under. There are careers to pursue in Korea, and as always, Korea remains important in an international relations and strategic studies context.

In Korea, there are no rewards for making Australia your focus – or rather, it is impossible to make Australia your focus. In major universities you would be lucky tofind one course that focuses on Australia. The only Australian studies centre in Korea consists of one academic with a Facebook page attracting scant media interest. Canberra needs to invest in Australian studies in Korea.

Education builds long-term relationships. Students studying a country and its region year after year make an investment of time, money and effort. Ultimately, some of them will become government and business leaders who see Australia as an ideal partner, rather than merely a beach, a mine, or a good place to study English. Parliamentary groups, business groups, professional groups and others may sustain relationships, but it is cohorts of students developing skills and profiles that stay with them throughout their careers that build bilateral relationships.

"Australia-Korea: 60 years of benign neglect", Toward deeper engagement: Prospects and reflections on the 60th anniversary of ROK-Australia diplomatic relations, Korea Research Centre Paper Series, University of Western Australia, December 2021.