Republic of Korea (South Korea)
Republic of Korea country brief
Australia and the Republic of Korea (ROK, also known as South Korea) share a strong bilateral relationship underpinned by trade, shared interests, and strong people-to-people links. The ROK is Australia’s fourth-largest trading partner and third-largest export market.
We share common strategic interests, including our alliances with the United States and commitment to regional security and stability, particularly in seeking the peaceful denuclearisation of North Korea (see also DPRK country brief). Both countries are active members of the G20, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum and the MIKTA grouping (Mexico, Indonesia, the ROK, Turkey and Australia).
An independent Korean state or group of Korean states has existed almost continuously for several millennia. Between its initial unification in the 7th century — from the three kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla — until 1910, Korea existed as a single independent country. From 1910 to 1945, the Korean Peninsula was subject to Japanese colonial rule. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, Korea was temporarily divided into two zones of occupation, with the United States administering the southern half of the Peninsula and the Soviet Union administering the area north of the 38th parallel. Initial plans to unify the Peninsula under a single government quickly dissolved due to domestic opposition and the politics of the Cold War. In 1948, new governments were established in each occupied zone — the ROK in the south and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north.
From the outset, the ROK and the DPRK operated under vastly different political, economic and social systems. Unresolved tensions created by the division led to the Korean War of 1950-1953, sparked by a DPRK invasion of the ROK. An armistice in 1953 ended the fighting but a more comprehensive peace agreement has not been negotiated.
Government and administration
Since its establishment in 1948, the ROK has maintained a presidential system (except for a brief period when a parliamentary system was in place between June 1960 and May 1961). Under the presidential system, power is shared by three branches: the executive (headed by a president), the legislature (a single-house National Assembly) and the judiciary.
The president holds supreme power over all executive functions of government, within the constraints of the constitution. The president appoints public officials, including the prime minister (with the approval of the National Assembly), ministers (who do not need to be members of the National Assembly) and the heads of executive agencies. The president is also Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces. The president is limited to serving a single five-year term.
On 10 May 2017, Moon Jae-in of the Minjoo Party was inaugurated as the 19th President of the ROK, following an election to replace his predecessor Park Geun-hye, who was impeached by the National Assembly and removed from office.
Legislative power is vested in the unicameral National Assembly, comprising 300 members elected for a four-year term. The current National Assembly includes 253 members elected by popular vote, with the remaining 47 seats distributed proportionately among political parties according to a second, preferential ballot. A regular legislative session, limited to 100 days, is convened once a year.
Extraordinary sessions, limited to 30 days, may be convened at the request of the president or at least 25 per cent of the Assembly members. Several extraordinary sessions are usually held each year. The most recent National Assembly election was held on 15 April 2020, where the Minjoo Party won and gained a majority.
More detailed information on the ROK's system of government can be found at the official ROK Government website.
Since the Korean War, the ROK has been preoccupied with the military threat from the DPRK and has been closely allied with the United States to guarantee its security. At present, the United States maintains around 28,500 troops in the ROK.
By virtue of geography and economic influence, China, the United States, Japan and Russia remain the most important foreign policy priorities for the ROK, alongside its focus on the DPRK. Over time, the ROK has sought to diversify its diplomatic and trade links and has made considerable efforts to ensure itself a place in the international community commensurate with its economic status.
Announced by President Moon in 2017, the ROK’s New Southern Policy (NSP) aims to elevate the ROK’s relationships with ASEAN countries and India. The NSP’s pillars are people, prosperity and peace. President Moon fulfilled his pledge to become the first ROK President to visit all ten ASEAN countries in 2019.
The ROK joined the UN in September 1991 (as did the DPRK) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1996. The ROK is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), G20, UN agencies and regional organisations such as APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), MIKTA, the Forum for East Asia–Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC) and regional fisheries organisations. In 2010, it chaired the G20, culminating in the Seoul G20 Summit in November. It also takes part in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and is a dialogue partner of the Pacific Islands Forum. In 2009, the ROK joined the Proliferation Security Initiative. It also joined the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) in November 2009, signalling its support for the international consensus on principles of good donorship and aid effectiveness. It hosted the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011 which established the Global Partnerships for Effective Development Cooperation. The ROK is the current Chair of MIKTA, which Australia will take over in 2021.
The first recorded contact between Australia and Korea took place in 1889, when missionaries from Australia landed at Busan. Australian photographer George Rose travelled the length of the Peninsula in 1904 and photographed the country and people. Today, his images of everyday Korean life, clothing and customs form a valuable part of Korea's documentary history.
The Australia–ROK relationship was strengthened by Australia's participation in the United Nations (UN) Commissions on Korea (beginning in 1947) and in the Korean War (1950-53). Approximately 17,000 Australian troops served under UN command (1950-56) and 340 Australians died during the Korean War. Australian veterans of the Korean War regularly travel to the ROK as part of the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs (MPVA) sponsored Veterans revisit program. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in 2019 formalised an already strong partnership between our countries in the recovery of Korean War remains. It will greatly contribute to our combined attempts to recover and identify missing Australian personnel, particularly through the facilitation of DNA sharing.
Australia and the ROK established full diplomatic relations in 1961. The ROK Consulate-General in Sydney (opened in 1953) was elevated to embassy status with a chargé d'affaires from January 1961 and the first ambassador in place from April 1962 (later, the ROK moved the Embassy to Canberra). In June 1962, Australia opened its Embassy in Seoul. 2021 will mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and the ROK.
An updated version of a 2009 MOU on Development Cooperation between Australia and the ROK was signed by Foreign Ministers in Sydney on 10 December 2019. It provides a framework for greater cooperation on development assistance across the Indo-Pacific.
Both countries are exploring ways to strengthen practical collaboration, with a focus on the Indo-Pacific, inclusive and sustainable development and strengthened program effectiveness.
Australia and the ROK share key security interests in North Asia and the Indo-Pacific, with peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula critical to the economic prosperity and security of both countries.
Australia is the only country, other than the United States, to hold a 2+2 ministerial meeting with the ROK. In December 2019, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds hosted the fourth Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meeting (“2+2”) in Sydney where ministers committed to closer engagement between Australia and the ROK to support a peaceful, prosperous and stable Indo-Pacific region. Both countries agreed to explore avenues to cooperation between Australia and the ROK based on the principles of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, and respect for international norms. Ministers also signed the refreshed MOU on Development Cooperation and the MOU on Missing Korean War Personnel.
Then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and then-Defence Minister Marise Payne participated in the third 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meeting in Seoul on 13 October 2017. The ministers affirmed the strength of the relationship and committed to further enhancing bilateral cooperation across a range of areas.
On 11 September 2015, then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and then-Defence Minister Kevin Andrews hosted their then-counterparts Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, and Minister for National Defense Han Min-koo, at the second 2+2 Foreign and Defence Minister's Meeting in Sydney. At this meeting, the Ministers agreed a Defence and Security Blueprint. The Blueprint lists areas for practical security and defence cooperation between Australia and the ROK, including increased patterns of bilateral and joint exercises.
On 8 April 2014 then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott met then-President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, where they discussed regional and global security issues and agreed to a vision statement for a secure, peaceful and prosperous future between the ROK and Australia.
Australia's security cooperation with the ROK continues to expand in practical ways. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) regularly participates in exercises with the ROK. Australia and the ROK have also cooperated under the multinational Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) since the ROK joined the PSI in 2009. In addition to joint biennial Foreign and Defence Ministers' Meetings, security and defence issues are discussed regularly by the two countries, including at Defence Ministerial Dialogues, in Political-Military Talks between senior foreign ministry and defence officials, as well as in Defence Policy Talks. Additionally, each ADF service (Navy, Army and Air Force) holds an annual staff dialogue with their ROK counterparts. The Royal Australian Navy also makes regular ship visits and has held bilateral maritime exercises with the ROK Navy, referred to as Exercise HAEDOLI WALLABY, since 2012.
The ROK has made remarkable economic progress in the last half-century. When Japanese occupation ended in 1945, Korea was impoverished and its economy largely based around agriculture. Much of its infrastructure was destroyed during the Korean War, which also had an enormous human cost. As a result, by 1960 the ROK's per capita GDP was comparable with those of the poorer countries of Asia and Africa. Sustained high economic growth since the 1960s, supported by significant US investment, has enabled the ROK's transformation into a highly industrialised and internationally competitive economy. In 2019, the ROK was the 12th-largest economy on a nominal GDP (USD) basis or the 30th-largest economy on a nominal per capita basis.
The ROK was one of the few OECD countries besides Australia to record growth and not enter into recession after the global financial crisis of 2009. Factors supporting this included the rapid devaluation of the Korean won, providing exporters with a significant buffer, and a series of government fiscal stimulus packages.
The ROK has outlined plans for a ‘Korean New Deal’ to aid its COVID-19 economic recovery, focusing on digital infrastructure to drive future economic development and green initiatives to reduce emissions.
Long-term, the ROK economy faces the challenge of structural pressures: it has an ageing population and low birth-rate, has low service-sector productivity and faces increasing competition in global markets, particularly from emerging exporters.
Trade and investment
In 2019, the ROK was Australia's fourth-largest trading partner (accounting for A$41.3 billion) and third-largest export market (accounting for $28.2 billion), representing 4.5 per cent of all of Australia's international trade. The trade relationship is complementary, with Australia exporting resources, food and travel and education services and importing goods like cars, refined petroleum, telecommunications equipment and computers.
The Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) entered into force on 12 December 2014. KAFTA is one of Australia's most comprehensive trade agreements, delivering significant improvements in market access and tariff liberalisation for merchandise trade. Under KAFTA, Australian services providers receive the best treatment the ROK has agreed with any trade partner. Investment commitments in the agreement protect and enhance investment in both directions.
Business links are supported by the Korea-Australia Business Council and the Australia-Korea Business Council. Their annual joint meeting allows members to exchange views and expand private sector links between the countries.
The level of investment between Australia and the ROK is growing. ROK investment into Australia has risen from $5 billion in 2006 to $31.4 billion in 2019 but the ROK still only ranks as Australia's 16th-largest foreign investor, representing 0.8 per cent of Australia's total foreign investment stock. This investment is beginning to diversify into areas such as tourism and real estate, from a dominant focus on the resources, energy and electronics sectors. Australian investment into the ROK was $22.7 billion in 2019, making it the 15th-largest destination for Australia's stock of foreign investment abroad.
Australian financial services providers in the ROK are active in areas including funds management and infrastructure investment. The state-owned Korean Development Bank opened its first Australian office on 8 December 2015 in Sydney in order to manage its growing Australian portfolio.
Major ROK investments in Australia are concentrated in the resources sector. POSCO, a ROK-owned steel-making company, is a significant investor with investments totaling $2.2 billion across over 10 projects, including a 12.5 per cent share in the $6 billion iron ore project at Roy Hill in Western Australia, coal and a lithium mine. The Korean Gas Corporation (KOGAS) holds a 15 per cent stake in the Gladstone LNG project valued at $600 million and a 10 per cent stake in the Prelude LNG project valued at $1.5 billion. SK E&S has acquired a 37.5 per cent share in the Barossa-Caldita LNG field for $608m from ConocoPhillips. They have also acquired a 25 per cent interest in the Darwin LNG and Bayu-Undan project for $390 million from Santos, supporting further LNG exports to Korea. Korea Zinc, the world’s top zinc smelter, is also planning on a major expansion of its zinc smelting operations based in Queensland (through a subsidiary), committing over $300 million in ongoing capital investment. The ROK has also made explicit their intentions to evaluate opportunities for commercial hydrogen production and export by 2030.
A more recent trend is towards diversification of ROK investments into other areas. The ROK’s $8 billion sovereign pension fund, the National Pension Service, has shown increasing interest in investing in Australian real estate and infrastructure assets. In 2016, it acquired a $500 million share in a 50-year lease of the Port of Melbourne. Agricultural and food operators have also elevated their investment interest in Australia. Hanwha Corporation has invested $25 million to acquire a cattle farm in NSW in 2019, while Lotte International has acquired a large Queensland cattle farm.
People-to-people and institutional links
Australia's economic and strategic links with the ROK are underpinned by extensive people-to-people and institutional links. In the 2016 Census, almost 100,000 people said they were born in the ROK and just over 123,000 claimed Korean ancestry. The ROK is Australia's seventh-largest source of international students, with over 21,000 Korean students studying in Australia in 2019. More than half of these students are enrolled in vocational education and training. As of 2018, there were over 300 formal university partnerships between Australian and ROK institutions. The ROK is the fifth-largest group of working holiday-makers and ninth-largest market of short-term visitors to Australia. Since 2014, the New Colombo Plan has awarded 2000 scholarships and mobility grants to Australians studying in the ROK.
Australian artists, performers and cultural institutions are building links with ROK partners, recognising the strong, distinctly Korean contributions being made to worldwide culture by ROK artists building on their rich cultural heritage and using traditional methods and sophisticated technology.
The ROK has the potential to become a major research partner for Australia, particularly as the ROK focuses on innovation to drive its economic growth. A solid foundation of bilateral cooperation exists, yet there is much scope to increase collaboration, particularly in connecting Australia's strength in research and the ROK's expertise in applied research and commercialised innovation.
The Australia-Korea Foundation (AKF) advances Australia's engagement with the ROK through an annual grants round to fund projects supporting cross cultural collaborations, trade and commerce relationships, technological, scientific and education innovation and strategic international relations.
People-to-people links have also been fostered through sister-city relationships, such as those between Townsville, QLD and Suwon; Parramatta, NSW and Jung-gu; Burwood, NSW and Geumcheon-gu; and most recently Strathfield, NSW and Gapyeong County. Sister-state relationships include those between Queensland and Gyeonggi Province, New South Wales and Seoul, South Australia and Chungnam Province, Tasmania and Jeju and Victoria and Busan.
Next year’s 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations will be commemorated in both countries by many significant activities and events. A competition for a logo design for use to promote all 60th anniversary events and activities will highlight the beginning of these activities. Competition details will be advertised soon on this and other social media platforms.
- Australia-ROK high-level contact is substantial, with regular meetings and contact between leaders and senior ministers. Below is a summary of recent high-level visits.
- In December 2019, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds hosted ROK Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo for the fourth 2+2 meeting in Sydney.
- In November 2019, Foreign Minister Payne visited Seoul to meet with the ROK Minister for Gender Equality and Family Lee Jung-ok.
- Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with President Moon Jae-in whilst both leaders were attending the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019.
- In September 2019, then-Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Matthew Canavan visited Seoul and met with the Vice Minister for Trade, Industry and Energy and private and public ROK companies.
- In August 2019, Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham travelled to Seoul and met with ROK Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, and members of the Australian business community in the ROK.
- In May 2019, Her Excellency, Pi Woo-Jin, ROK Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, visited Melbourne for the unveiling ceremony of the Korean War Memorial in Quarry Park, Footscray. Minister Pi was received by Victorian Governor, the Hon. Linda Dessau AC.
- In February 2019, Senator Anne Ruston visited the ROK in her capacity as Minister for International Development and the Pacific.
- Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with President Moon Jae-in in Papua New Guinea on 17 November 2018 during APEC.
- Foreign Minister Payne met with Foreign Minister Kang at the MIKTA Foreign Ministers’ meeting on 27 September 2018 in New York.
- Then-Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and then-Defence Minister Marise Payne met their respective counterparts, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and then National Defense Minister Song Young-moo during the third Foreign and Defence Ministers’ 2+2 Meeting in Seoul on 13 October 2017.
- The Minister for Finance, Senator Mathias Cormann visited Seoul from 11-13 October 2017 and held bilateral meetings with government and business leaders, including the former Trade Minister, Dr Joo Hyunghwan, and the Chairman of the Korean Financial Services Commission.
- Then-Defence Minister Marise Payne met then-Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon and then-National Defense Minister Song Young-moo on 7 September 2017, when she visited Seoul to deliver the Keynote Address for the 6th Seoul Defence Dialogue.
- Then-Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop met former President, Lee Myeong-bak, former Foreign Minister Yoo Myeong-hwan, and then-Director of National Security, Kim Kwan-jin during a visit to the ROK in February 2017.
- Then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott met then-President Park Geun-hye during a visit to Seoul in 2014 where they agreed to a vision statement for a secure, peaceful and prosperous future between the ROK and Australia.