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Republic of Korea (South Korea)

Flag of South Korea

Republic of Korea country brief

Introduction

Australia and the Republic of Korea (ROK, also known as South Korea) are comprehensive strategic partners with a strong bilateral relationship underpinned by shared strategic interests, complementary economies and strong people-to-people links. In 2021-22, ROK was Australia's fourth-largest trading partner and third-largest export market.

On 12-15 December 2021, former ROK President Moon Jae-in travelled to Australia on a state visit, marking 60 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and the ROK. During the visit former Prime Minister Morrison and President Moon elevated the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). The CSP establishes the foundations of enhanced bilateral cooperation under three pillars – strategic and security; economic, innovation and technology; and people-to-people exchange.

Political overview

Government and administration

Under the ROK's 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 authority over all executive functions of government, within the constraints of the constitution. The president appoints senior public officials, including the prime minister (with the approval of the National Assembly), ministers (who are not 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 2022, Yoon Suk Yeol of the People Power Party was inaugurated as the 20th President of the ROK.

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 proportionally 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 Democratic Party won a majority.

Bilateral relations

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 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, sponsored Revisit Korea 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 was in place from April 1962 (later, the ROK moved the Embassy to Canberra). In June 1962, Australia opened its Embassy in Seoul.

Security cooperation

Australia and the ROK share key security interests in North Asia and the Indo-Pacific, with peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific critical to the security of both countries.

Australia is the only country, other than the United States, to hold a 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meeting with the ROK. In September 2021, then Foreign Minister Marise Payne and then Defence Minister Peter Dutton participated in the fifth 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers' Meeting in Seoul with then Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and then Minister for National Defense Suh Wook. The four ministers welcomed then Prime Minister Morrison and then President Moon’s agreement to work towards elevating the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and agreed to explore new institutional foundations to enhance defence cooperation. Ministers agreed to advance cooperation in a wide range of areas including pandemic response, post-COVID-19 economic recovery, military training and exercises, defence science and technology, defence logistics and support, climate change, and enhancing the already robust trade relationship. Minister Chung and Minister Payne signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cyber and Critical Technology Cooperation.

Joint Statement: Republic of Korea-Australia Foreign and Defence Ministers’ 2+2 Meeting 2021

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 a Strategic Dialogue between senior foreign ministry and defence officials, and in Defence Policy Talks. Additionally, each ADF service (Navy, Army and Air Force) holds routine dialogues with its ROK counterpart. 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 participated in Exercise Talisman Sabre for the first time in 2021. In September 2022, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) signed an arrangement formalising their cooperation in air-to-air refuelling.

Australia also continues to support the United Nations Command in the ROK, including through the appointment of an Australian officer to the role of Deputy Commander on a rotational basis.

Development cooperation

The ROK's official development assistance budget is large and growing (AUD4.9 billion for 2022). It 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.

Both countries are exploring ways to strengthen practical development cooperation, with a focus on the Indo-Pacific, inclusive and sustainable development and strengthened program effectiveness.

Economic overview

When Japanese occupation ended in 1945, Korea was impoverished, and its economy largely based on 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 leading economy. According to the World Bank, the ROK was the 10th-largest economy on a nominal GDP (USD) basis in 2021.

The ROK government announced ‘Korean New Deal 2.0’ on 14 July 2021, one year after the release of its original plan to support the country’s COVID-19 economic recovery through investment and regulatory improvement. The plan focuses on digital infrastructure to promote new business, green initiatives to reduce carbon emissions, upgrades to job and social security programs to drive inclusive growth, regulatory reform to support business restructuring, funding for local government projects and attracting private sector investment.

The ROK economy faces long-term structural challenges: it has an ageing population and the world’s lowest birth-rate (0.8 in 2020 according to the World Bank), high housing prices and household debt and low service-sector productivity. It also faces increasing competition in global markets, particularly from emerging exporters.

Trade and investment

Trade

In 2021-22, the ROK was Australia's fourth-largest trading partner (valued at AUD68.7 billion) – representing 6.5 per cent of Australia's total trade – and Australia’s third-largest export market (valued at AUD48.8 billion). The trade relationship is complementary, with Australia’s major exports including iron ore, coal, natural gas and beef, and our major imports from the ROK including refined petroleum and cars.

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 advantageous treatment from the ROK.

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.

Investment

ROK investment in Australia has almost tripled from AUD12.8 billion in 2011 to AUD29.8 billion in 2021, making it Australia’s 17th largest foreign investor.

Major ROK investments in Australia are primarily concentrated in the resources sector, though there has been a recent trend towards diversification into other areas. Australian total investment in the ROK was AUD27.1 billion in 2021, making it the 16th-largest destination for Australia's investment abroad. KAFTA protects investment commitments and enhances investment in both directions.

Information on doing business and opportunities in the Republic of Korea

People-to-people and institutional links

The extensive people-to-people and institutional ties between Australia and the ROK are an important component of our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Under the people-to-people pillar, Australia and the ROK have committed to enhancing collaboration across the arts, research, education, tourism, and entertainment.

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.

The ROK is Australia's tenth-largest source of international students, with almost 14,000 Korean students studying in Australia in 2021. More than half of these students were enrolled in vocational education and training. There are over 300 formal university partnerships between Australian and ROK institutions. Australia welcomes an agreement by Woodside Energy Ltd to support the Australia Korea Foundation to establish a Chair of Australian Studies hosted by a university in the ROK. Since 2014, the New Colombo Plan has awarded 104 scholarships and 2266 mobility grants for Australian undergraduates to undertake study and work-based experiences in the Republic of Korea.

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.

In the 2021 Census, over 102,000 people said they were born in the ROK and over 136,000 claimed Korean ancestry. In 2019-20, prior to COVID-19, the ROK was the fifth-largest source of working holiday-makers and ninth-largest market of short-term visitors to Australia.

High-level visits

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.

  • The Hon Don Farrell, Minister for Trade and Tourism visited Seoul and met with ROK Minister for Trade, Dr Anh Duk-geun for the inaugural Australia-ROK Trade Ministers’ Meeting under our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in October 2022. He also met with ROK Minister for Trade, Industry and Energy Lee Chang-yang.
  • Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Richard Marles hosted the ROK Minister for National Defense, Lee Jong-sup at Parliament House, Canberra in August 2022.
  • From 12-15 December 2021, former ROK President Moon Jae-in travelled to Australia on a state visit. Former Prime Minister Morrison met with President Moon both one-on-one and in a Joint Ministerial meeting.
  • In September 2021, then Foreign Minister Marise Payne and then Defence Minister Peter Dutton participated in the fifth 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers' meeting in Seoul.
  • In July 2021, then Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan visited Seoul and met with then ROK Minister for Trade Yoo Myung-hee.
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