Features | Politics | East Asia

Australia-Korea – Going Forward, Looking Backward

A new dialogue is inaugurated. But the relationship should be about more than just security.

By Jeffrey Robertson for

On July 4, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defence Minister Stephen Smith, are scheduled to visit Seoul to meet Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-Se and Minister for National Defense Kim Kwan-Jin, for the inaugural Australia-Korea 2+2 Dialogue.  

As the first country outside the U.S. to establish an annual 2+2 ministerial-level dialogue with South Korea, the Australian Government has promoted the talks as evidence that the Australia-Korea bilateral relationship is going forward.

In fact, the relationship has always been a victim of its own success. The two countries share a highly complementary trade relationship, are close allies of the United States, and are familiar partners in regional forums. The only challenge policymakers face is making the relationship more relevant. The oft repeated clichés still apply.

To South Koreans, Australia is still a beach, a mine and great place to study, but little more. To Australians, South Korea is  remembered as a distant battlefield, caricatured as a source of parliamentary scuffles, and sensationalized as a bizarre remnant of the Cold War. Bilateral efforts to celebrate fifty years of diplomatic relations in 2011 with the Australia-Korea Year of Friendship fizzled unconvincingly with Australian interest in South Korea peaking a year too late, and only then as a result of the global internet pop-sensation of Psy’s Gangnam Style.

Australia has consistently sought to bring more relevance to bilateral ties. The Australia-Korea 2+2 Dialogue is an important component of this approach. Annual ministerial-level 2+2 talks are an important dialogue format. They both recognize the importance accorded to a bilateral relationship and serve as a platform to improve strategic policy coordination. 

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The 2+2 dialogue format was traditionally reserved for longstanding strategic partnerships. Australian foreign and defence ministers, as well as senior departmental officials, have met their U.S. counterparts at the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) since 1985. Australia formalized similar level talks with the United Kingdom (AUKMIN) in 2008, and has held biennial talks with Singapore under the auspices of the Singapore Australia Joint Ministerial Committee (SAJMC), since 1996. 

In more recent examples Australia has not necessarily used the format to formalize longstanding strategic partnerships, but rather to strengthen and widen bilateral relationships in which strategic cooperation has not been prominent. Thus, in September 2012, Australia and Japan held their fourth Australia-Japan 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers' Meeting; in April 2013, Australia and Indonesia held the second Australia-Indonesia Annual 2+2 Dialogue, and now on July 4, Australia and Korea will meet for their inaugural 2+2 dialogue. Australian policymakers hope the 2+2 dialogue format will strengthen and widen the Australia-Korea relationship. 

However, the establishment of the Australia-Korea 2+2 Dialogue fits into an alarming trend in Australian discourse on the Australia-Korea bilateral relationship – a trend that some see as increasingly backward-looking and dominated by security. 

This trend is demonstrated by Australia’s recent diplomatic interaction with Korea. In April 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited South Korea. The visit coincided with ANZAC Day in Australia, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand commemorating those who served and died in conflict. Julia Gillard’s visit to Seoul included a visit to Kapyong, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a major battle of the Korean War, in which 32 Australians died.

During her next visit to Seoul in March 2012, Australia’s participation in the Korean War remained a key feature. Thus, when asked “How can ties between the two countries move further forward?”, during an interview with the Yonhap News Agency, the then Prime Minister started her response with “our friendship was forged during the Korean War”, and went on to detail the number of Australians who served in the Korean War.

Understandably, nearly every speech an Australian parliamentarian or senior official delivers on the subject of Korea involves an invocation of Australia’s efforts in the Korean War. Such invocations serve a purpose in diplomacy just as they do in psychology. They demonstrate commitment and encourage reciprocity. In an almost ritualistic way, every speech delivered in response by a South Korean official reiterates indebtedness and thanks. Yet, for the younger generations in both countries, such invocations seem inherently backward looking.

Australian speaking points on the Korean War often segue into contemporary security affairs. This is the biggest challenge in Australian efforts to bring greater relevance to the relationship. There is a great difference between the helpless, threatened South Korea of the 1950s, and the economically advanced, highly capable, contemporary South Korea – the globe’s 13th largest economy, home to several of the globe’s leading high-tech giants, and boasting a modern, high-tech, well-trained military. While the Australian public worries about North Korean missiles reaching their shores, South Koreans go about their daily business making money and moving forward.

From Seoul, Australia’s emphasis on security issues seems comical, as epitomized by Julia Gillard’s March 2012 visit to Seoul.

At a keynote address at Yonsei University, a leading South Korean university, Prime Minister Gillard was asked a question on racial discrimination from a student concerned about her friends studying in Australia. Gillard responded with an answer pertaining to Australia and South Korea’s shared commitment to regional security. She then responded to a second question on North Korean refugees in China from a VIP guest with an answer once again pertaining to the shared commitment to regional security.

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The perplexed looks on the faces of the South Korean students present during the speech, encapsulated more details than any public opinion survey ever could. Students from one of South Korea’s top three universities, which houses the young (and poorly funded) Australian Studies Centre, looked bewildered. “Did I misunderstand or is the Australian Prime Minister once again talking about security?”

There are any number of issues beside security that South Koreans would like to see discussed in Australia-Korea relations. These include education, immigration, science and technology cooperation, trade and investment, customs and quarantine, culture and the arts, regional cooperation, natural disaster management, and aid and development. There are many areas for Australia-Korea cooperation that deserve more attention.

The establishment of the Australia-Korea 2+2 Dialogue should be welcomed. It serves an important diplomatic objective in coordinating closer cooperation between two significant regional middle-power states, and has the potential to increase the relevance of the relationship. The relationship may be going forward, but with an overwhelming focus on security, it may still be looking backward.

Jeffrey Robertson is a Visiting Professor at the Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management. He can be reached at [email protected]