Australia-Korea Year of Friendship 2011


Australia and the Republic of Korea (ROK) share a history of bilateral relations marked by early cultural exchange between Australians and Koreans through missionary activity in Korea at the turn of the 19th century; shared sacrifice in the Korean War (1951–53); and a vibrant trade relationship. In October 1961, the relationship between Australia and the ROK was formalised with the establishment of full diplomatic relations. To mark the 50th anniversary of this occasion, the Governments of Australia and South Korea designated 2011 as a 'Year of Friendship'. This brief provides a background on the relationship within the context of the Australia-Korea Year of Friendship.

Early contact

Early contact between Australia and Korea was limited, with Australian missionary activity in Korea being the main conduit for interaction. The Presbyterian Church of Victoria began missionary work in Korea in October 1889, which laid the foundations for an early Australian presence in Korea (A Hamish Ion, The cross and the rising sun, Wilfred Laurier University Press, Waterloo, 1993, p. 268).

It is the degree of cultural exchange which occurred during this early period, which today stands out as significant. Two collections are often cited as exemplary records of early cultural interaction between Australia and Korea—the photographs of George Rose and the literary collection of Mrs Jessie McLaren.

In 1904, Australian photographer, George Rose, visited Korea. He travelled from the south of the peninsula, through the capital Seoul, to the west coast and as far north as Pyongyang. During this time, Rose took photos of everyday life in Korea. The images of Seoul, Incheon and Pyongang are some of the few remaining photographs which document the period of Korea's annexation by Japan in August 1910.

One hundred years after George Rose took his photographs, these same images were displayed in exhibitions put together by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Australia-Korea Foundation, and were subsequently published by Kyobo Publishing. The exhibitions and the book demonstrate a tangible and long-lasting cultural link between Australia and Korea.

Around the same time that George Rose was taking his photographs, another Australian was in Seoul, collecting books. Jessie McLaren, who was from Melbourne, accompanied her doctor husband to Korea in 1911. Her interest in Korean history, literature and culture led her to collect many texts, some of which she brought back to Australia during the Second World War.

The McLaren-Human Collection now held at the National Library of Australia, contains 82 titles in 150 volumes dating from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. The texts are testament to a young Australian’s strong interest in Korean history, literature and culture at a point in time when very few foreigners demonstrated such an interest. One of the most unique texts is the Samgang Haengsilto, or The Three Principles of Basic Human Relationships. The text consists of illustrated Confucian moral tales written in both Chinese and Korean script.

Today, the Korean language collection at the National Library of Australia numbers some 45 000 volumes of monographs and 1500 serial titles, as well as 20 newspaper titles. It is the largest and most significant Korean collection in Australia, and is one of the largest Korean language collections outside of Asia. The National Library of Australia has assigned a high priority to the development of its Korean collection and it continues to grow.

Shared sacrifice in the Korean War

On 25 June 1950, seven infantry divisions, an armoured brigade and several independent regiments of the North Korean People’s Army crossed the border into the Republic of Korea. From 27 June 1950 to 19 April 1956, some 17 000 Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen served in the defence of Korea. Tragically, Australia suffered 340 killed and 1216 wounded (These figures change dependent upon classification. [The figures quoted above are taken from the Australian War Memorial (AWM) website (, which currently lists 340 records on the Roll of Honour for those who served in the Korean War (27 June 1950 to 27 July 1953 and lists some 17 000 records on the Nominal Roll of Australian Veterans of the Korean War (service during the period 17 June 1950 to 19 April 1956)].

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) entered the Korean War in the first week and remained in action during the entire war as part of the US 5th Air Force. Airpower was critical in deciding the outcome of the war. Climatic extremes, particularly the freezing cold Korean winters, made the RAAF task especially difficult. In all there were 41 RAAF casualties and seven taken as prisoners of war. The RAAF Nursing Service also made an invaluable contribution to the Australian efforts.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) committed to the Korean War on 29 June 1950, four days after the war commenced. RAN action included the landing at Incheon (September 1950), the evacuation of Chinnampo (November 1950) and the Han Estuary bombardment. Like the RAAF, the cold of the Korean winters added to the normal naval challenges of the region, including high seas, blizzards, and extreme tidal conditions. RAN ships included the HMAS Warramunga, Murchinson, Shoalhaven, Bataan, Anzac, Tobruk, Condamine, and Culgoa.

The Australian Army undertook a strong commitment to the defence of Korea. Third Battalion (3RAR) commenced operations in early October 1950 and remained in Korea throughout the war. Two other battalions (1RAR and 2RAR) served on rotation in 1952–53. Many soldiers had previous service, but many also enlisted specifically for what became known as ‘K force’. 3RAR undertook battles during the mobile phase of the war at Sariwon, Yongju, Pakchon, and Chingju. Later in the war, 3RAR fought major battles at Kapyong and Maryang San. The last 20 months of the war were static. Notable incidents include 1RAR’s attack against Chinese positions at Hill 227 and Operation Fauna. The army suffered 293 killed, 1210 wounded, and 24 taken as prisoners of war.

Of the numerous battle honours won in Korea, three major honours are emblazoned on Regimental Colours: “Korea” 1950–53 (1RAR, 2RAR, 3RAR), “Kapyong” April 1951 (3RAR) and Maryang San October 1951 (3RAR).

For Australians, the Korean War was more important than most realise. It brought about a fundamental change in Australian defence planning. Firstly, it demonstrated that despite Australia’s cultural and social links to Europe, the strategic future of Australia was in its own geographic region of Asia. Secondly, it reinforced the relevance of Australia’s relationship with the United States as an ally and friend to the region.

The Korean War was also a turning point in other aspects. Not only did it represent a turning point in Australia’s strategic outlook, but also in the way wars were fought. It marked a link between Australians who had served in the First and Second World Wars, and those who serve in today’s armed forces—sharing the difficulties, hardships and sacrifices of both. As noted by historian Michael Evans (M Evans, 'Australia’s war in Korea: strategic perspectives and military lessons', The Korean War: A fifty year perspective, Army History Unit, Canberra, 2000, p. 163):

It was both an epilogue to the Second World War and a prologue to the new age of the Cold War, as the conflict reflected the old and the new…. The actual fighting in Korea seemed to recall not only the Second World War but also the First World War…[Yet] the Korean War was the birthplace of the doctrine of limited war and was fought against a background of atomic weapons, new jet-craft and new psychological warfare techniques.

However, this link between the old and the new also pushed the Korean War out of public attention. Between the major conflicts of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, the Korean War became known as ‘the forgotten war’. As noted by one veteran [Sergeant (later Air Vice Marshal) Bill Collings, RAAF, as quoted in Ben Evans, Out in the Cold: Australian involvement in the Korean War 1950-53, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2000, p. 87]:

No one knew I was home from Korea. ‘What are those medals for?’—they just didn’t have a clue, really.

To most Australians the war seemed irrelevant. It was far from the national crisis that had accompanied the direct attacks of the Second World War. In Australia, this has changed significantly in recent years with the contribution gaining greater attention as a result of both Australian and South Korean government efforts.

In South Korea, the Australian contribution is never neglected. It is routinely commemorated in services at the 12.4 hectare United Nations Memorial Cemetery (UNMCK) in Pusan, South Korea—the resting place for 2300 UN forces personnel who died during the Korean War. Of the Australian war dead, 281 rest in the UNMCK. A Memorial to the Missing also commemorates the 44 Australians and other members of the UN forces who died during the Korean War but have no known grave. Ceremonies are held at the Pusan War Memorial each Anzac Day by the expatriate community, often accompanied by representatives of Korean veterans associations, members of the diplomatic corps and serving personnel.

An economic-centred relationship

Trade between Korea and Australia increased exponentially during the 1970s, as Korea launched its dirigiste heavy and chemicals industry (HCI) development drive under President Park Chung-Hee. The HCI drive fuelled demand for raw materials to the rapidly growing South Korean energy, steel, petrochemical, automobile, machine tools, shipbuilding, and electronics sectors.

The Australia-Korea trade relationship grew to become one of Australia's most successful bilateral trade relationships. In 2009–10, South Korea was Australia’s 3rd largest export destination and demonstrated a five-year trend growth of 12.8 per cent (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Composition of Trade 2009-10, Government of Australia, Canberra, 2010, p. 35).

Bilateral trade has been consistently high and has demonstrated continuously strong long-term growth, marked by a highly complementary trading relationship. Australian raw materials sent to South Korea return in the form of elaborately transformed manufactures (ETMs), such as cars, electronic equipment, and manufacturing materials.

There have been relatively few trade disputes and those that have occurred, have been settled expeditiously without raising public concern. Finally, issues that previously dominated bilateral trade discussions, namely South Korean concern regarding the trade imbalance and Australian concern regarding agricultural tariff barriers are today playing a less central role.

On 5 March 2009, the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and President Lee Myung-Bak launched bilateral Free Trade Agreement negotiations. A joint feasibility study published in April 2008 estimated that a comprehensive FTA between Australia and South Korea could contribute up to US$22.7 billion in the period 2007–20.

In addition to the economic benefits, there are also a wide range of non-economic benefits that could accrue from an FTA. These include:

  • Head-turning effect—perhaps because of its complementary nature and overall success, the Australia-Korea relationship has long suffered from a degree of complacency and disinterest on both sides. The media attention that could result from an FTA would potentially increase public, and ultimately, political interest in the relationship.

  • Multilateral cooperation—Australia and Korea are widely considered to share a degree of interest as regional middle-powers. FTAs provide for ongoing interaction through annual reviews and consultation. This can increase understanding and facilitate further cooperation on wider multilateral issues, such as multilateral trade liberalisation, regional financial cooperation and economic regionalism.

  • Competitive liberalisation—the implementation of an FTA with Korea could provide an impetus for Australia's negotiations with China and Japan. Similarly, an FTA with Australia would aid Korea by placing further pressure on US lawmakers to pass the KORUS FTA, which is currently stalled in the US Congress.

Australian and South Korean negotiators are now believed to be in the final stages of securing an agreement. During Prime Minister Julia Gillard's visit to Seoul on 24–25 April 2011, both leaders reiterated their hope that an agreement will be completed by the end of the year.

A relationship of shared interests

The starting point of most official functions that focus on the Australia-Korea relationship is invariably an account of shared sacrifice in the Korean War (1950–53). The habitual acknowledgement of this sacrifice demonstrates a tacit understanding that the relationship is bolstered by very strong foundations.

The next point of discussion is routinely the economic relationship. As noted, Australia and South Korea have enjoyed a remarkably strong bilateral economic relationship, which continues to evolve and grow.

Until recently, this is where the discussion dried up. The Australia-Korea relationship was essentially an economic-centred relationship, with both sides demonstrating little interest in widening the economic relationship, let alone pursuing a more comprehensive economic, political and strategic relationship.

Most Australians neglected South Korea in favour of its larger neighbours, China and Japan, and as noted by a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) sponsored study in 2001, many South Koreans thought of Australia as 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).

However, official functions that focus on the Australia-Korea relationship have changed over the last five years. A new topic of discussion has entered the scene—shared interests. As noted by the then Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, speaking in May 2008 at the Korea Press Foundation:

Two hundred and eighty-one Australians lie at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan. ... But as important as our historical ties are, we are even more closely linked today through the confluence in the way we see each other, the world and our aspirations for the future of our region.

Foreign Minister Smith paid tribute to the shared sacrifice as a foundation to the relationship, but did so with the suggestion that the two nations are today 'even more closely linked' as two countries with an increasingly strong set of shared interests. The increased level of shared interests includes:

  • Strategic dialogue—the Australia-Korea relationship moved beyond its overt economic focus with the February 2009 Joint Statement on Enhanced Global and Security Cooperation Relations; the May 2009 Agreement on the Protection of Classified Military Information; and the December 2009 Memorandum of Understanding on Development Cooperation. The agreements consolidate the existing moderate levels of cooperation and establish a framework for a future increase in strategic and defence cooperation.

In addition, during Prime Minister Julia Gillard's visit to Seoul on 24–25 April 2011, it was announced that bilateral defence minister talks would be held on a regular basis, commencing in 2011, and that the two sides would work toward establishing a regular “2+2” meeting of foreign and defence ministers (J Gillard (Prime Minister), Joint press statement with the President of the Republic of Korea, media release, 25 April 2011, viewed 15 June 2011,

  • 'Middle-power' cooperation—Australia and Korea have acted together across a number of international issues, including climate change, recovery from the global financial crisis and development assistance.

  • In September 2009, Australia and Korea co-chaired one of the four interactive round-table discussions, which took place as part of the United Nations Summit on Climate Change. Throughout 2009, Australia and Korea were strong supporters of the G20 playing a larger role in the international response to the global financial crisis with the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and President Lee Myung-Bak contributing a joint opinion article to the Financial Times, entitled 'The G20 can lead the way to balanced growth' in September 2009.

  • During Prime Minister Julia Gillard's visit to Seoul in April 2011, it was announced that Australia would contribute A$10 million and join as a core partner in the Global Green Growth Institute, a Korean multilateral initiative, which seeks to support the development of green growth strategies and policies in developing countries (ibid).

  • Track-2 and track 1.5 dialogue—there has been a substantial increase in Track-2 and Track 1.5 dialogue between Australia and Korea. Track 2 dialogue refers to the informal interaction between individuals (typically academics, retired service and government personnel, and/or business leaders) who have an influence on the policy process, with the aim of increasing strategic understanding, developing new ideas, and laying the groundwork for future formal dialogue. Track 1.5 dialogue refers to informal interaction between individuals who currently serve in decision-making positions within the policy community.

  • A recent example includes the 2010 Korea-Australia Dialogue, which included participation by 14 policymakers, scholars and experts from each side, led by Mr Han Sung-Joo, former ROK Minister for Foreign Affairs and Robert Ray, former Australian Minister for Defence.

  • Parliamentary diplomacy—efforts to deepen cooperation between parliamentarians and parliamentary institutions have increased. An Australian Parliamentary delegation to the Republic of Korea led by the President of the Senate in February–March 2010 agreed to explore options for establishing formal exchanges between the parliamentary libraries and parliamentary research services of both countries (Commonwealth of Australia, Report on the Australian Parliamentary Delegation to the Republic of Korea 28 February—4 March 2010, March 2010, p. 17). During Prime Minister Julia Gillard's visit to Seoul in April 2011, it was announced that the Korea-Australia Young Political Leaders Exchange Program would be revitalised (J Gillard, op. cit).

The widening of the Australia-Korea relationship beyond its foundations of shared sacrifice in the Korean War and a mutually beneficial complementary trade relationship, serves as a basis for future growth. The Australia-Korea Year of Friendship aims to increase awareness of this important and growing relationship.

Australia-Korea Year of Friendship events

Key events for the Australia-Korea Year of Friendship, reproduced courtesy of DFAT, are listed below. Further events are yet to be confirmed and are awaiting confirmation by Australian and Korean Government agencies (further information on these and other events can be found on the website promoting the Year of Friendship at

20110620 Australia-Korea Year of Friendship
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