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Republic of Korea (South Korea)

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Republic of Korea country brief

Introduction

Australia and the Republic of Korea (ROK, also known as South Korea) are close partners with a strong bilateral relationship underpinned by trade, shared regional strategic interests, and strong people-to-people links. The ROK is Australia's fourth-largest trading partner and fourth-largest export market.

We share common strategic interests, including our alliances with the United States, and our commitment to a stable, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, including the denuclearisation of North Korea and permanent peace on the Korean peninsula (see also DPRK country brief).  Our economies are highly complementary, deeply intertwined with the growth economies of the Indo-Pacific, and dependent on resilient supply chains. Australia and the ROK cooperate closely within 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).

On 12 June 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and ROK President Moon Jae-in met in the margins of the expanded G7 summit in Cornwall and agreed to work towards elevating the Australia-ROK bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Both countries are now working toward this elevation by deepening our cooperation bilaterally and in the Indo-Pacific region. Prime Minister Morrison and President Moon have also held summits in November 2018 in the margins of the APEC Leaders' Meeting in Papua New Guinea, and in September 2019 in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

History

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 geopolitics 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. A DPRK invasion of the ROK sparked the Korean War of 1950-1953. An armistice in 1953 ended the fighting but a more comprehensive peace agreement has not been negotiated.

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 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. President Moon's presidential term is due to conclude in May 2022, with elections to be held in March.

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 Minjoo Party won and gained a majority.

Foreign relations

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. Although the ROK-US alliance is still  focussed on the DPRK, it has evolved to now encompass cooperation throughout the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.  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 attain a place in the international community commensurate with its status as the world’s 10th-largest economy.

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 and hosted a Commemorative Summit with ASEAN leaders in Busan in 2019. President Moon announced a refreshed New Southern Policy Plus in 2020, which incorporates further ROK support for the region, such as regional health initiatives in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ROK joined the United Nations (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), ASEAN Plus Three, MIKTA, the Forum for East Asia–Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC) and regional fisheries organisations. It has trilateral leader and ministerial level engagements with the US and Japan, and with China and Japan. 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 and the Indian Ocean Rim Association. In 2009, the ROK joined the Proliferation Security Initiative.

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 (MPVA) 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. 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and the ROK.

Development cooperation

The ROK's official development assistance (ODA) budget is large and growing (AUD 4.5 billion for 2021). 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.

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.

Security cooperation

Australia and the ROK share key security interests in North Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific, with peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and a stable, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific 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 September 2021, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton participated in the fifth 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers' Meeting in Seoul with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Minister for National Defense Suh Wook. The four ministers welcomed Prime Minister Morrison and 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

Foreign Minister Marise Payne and then-Defence Minister Linda Reynolds hosted the fourth 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers' Meeting in Sydney in December 2019. The ministers committed to closer engagement to support a peaceful, prosperous, and stable Indo-Pacific region. Ministers also signed the refreshed MOU on Development Cooperation and the MOU on Missing Korean War Personnel.

Joint Statement: Republic of Korea-Australia Foreign and Defence Ministers' 2+2 Meeting 2019

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 enhancing bilateral cooperation across a range of areas. Ministers strongly condemned the DPRK’s sixth (and most recent) nuclear test, which the DPRK had carried out shortly before the meeting. They stressed the importance of advancing inter-Korean relations, agreed to strengthen security and defence cooperation, including through joint exercises, increased reciprocal attendees for defence education and training courses, regular cyber policy dialogues, and increased Korean National Police Agency and Australian Federal Police (AFP) exchanges. The leaders undertook to deepen bilateral cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, including through an MOU on sharing information and bolstering capacity on emergency management.

Joint statement: Republic of Korea-Australia Foreign and Defence Ministers 2+2 Meeting 2017

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. Ministers agreed a Defence and Security Blueprint that sets out areas for practical security and defence cooperation between Australia and the ROK, including increased patterns of bilateral and joint exercises.

Blueprint for Defence and Security Cooperation Between Australia and the Republic of Korea (2015)

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.

Vision statement for a secure, peaceful and prosperous future between the Republic of Korea and Australia 2014

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, as well as in Defence Policy Talks. Additionally, each ADF service (Navy, Army and Air Force) holds an annual staff dialogue 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.

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

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 2020.

The ROK government has outlined plans for a ‘Korean New Deal' to aid the country’s COVID-19 economic recovery, focusing on digital infrastructure to drive future economic development and green initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.

The ROK economy faces long-term structural challenges: 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

Trade

In 2020, the ROK was Australia's fourth-largest trading partner (accounting for A$34.9 billion) - representing 4.4 per cent of all of Australia's international trade - and Australia’s fourth-largest export market (accounting for $25.2 billion). The trade relationship is complementary, with Australia’s major exports including iron ore, coal, natural gas and beef, and its major imports from the ROK including cars and refined petroleum.

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.

Investment

The level of investment between Australia and the ROK is growing. ROK investment in Australia has risen from $12.8 billion in 2011 to $32.7 billion in 2020, but the ROK still only ranks as Australia's 17th-largest foreign investor.

Australian investment in the ROK was $24.9 billion in 2020, making it the 16th-largest destination for Australia's stock of foreign investment abroad.

Major ROK investments in Australia are concentrated in the resources sector. The recent trend is towards diversification into other areas.

The ROK's $1 trillion public 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. In 2019, Hanwha Corporation invested $25 million to acquire a cattle farm in NSW, and Lotte International acquired a large Queensland cattle farm. 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 in December 2015 in Sydney to manage its growing Australian portfolio.

The ROK’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and plans to develop a hydrogen economy, present opportunities for Australia. Opportunities exist for supply and collaboration, especially in carbon-neutral LNG and low-emissions technologies, including hydrogen, low-emissions steel and iron ore, clean fuel ammonia, clean hydrogen, and batteries as well as carbon capture and storage and carbon recycling.

Australia has rich deposits of critical minerals, including rare earths, lithium, graphite, vanadium, nickel, and cobalt. Opportunities exist in securely supplying the ROK’s high-tech advanced semiconductor and electric vehicle battery manufacturing sector with critical minerals.

Major Korean investors include POSCO, the Korean Gas Company (KOGAS), SK E&S and Korea Zinc through its Sun Metals subsidiary. Many of these are moving towards investment in low-emissions technology.

POSCO’s  investments  include a 12.5 per cent share in the  Western Australian Roy Hill iron ore project and more recent investments such as an investment in South Australia’s Renascor Resources to develop a battery anode material manufacturing facility and offtake agreement for purified spherical graphite, an MOU with Rio Tinto to explore low-emissions technologies from iron ore mining to steelmaking, a 30 per cent stake in First Quantum Minerals’ Ravensthorpe nickel mine in Western Australia, and a 3.2 per cent stake in Queensland Pacific Metals, which will eventually supply advanced battery materials nickel sulfate and cobalt sulfate.

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  acquired a 37.5 per cent share in the Barossa-Caldita LNG field for $608m from ConocoPhillips in 2012 and announced a further $1.4 billion investment into these gas fields in March 2021. SK E&S also acquired a 25 per cent interest in the Darwin LNG and Bayu-Undan project for US$390 million from Santos in March 2021, supporting further LNG exports to Korea. The companies have signed an MOU to jointly investigate opportunities for carbon-neutral LNG, including carbon capture and storage and potential development of zero-emissions hydrogen.

Sun Metals established its zinc refinery in Townsville in 1996. In 2018 the company invested in a 124 MW solar farm next to the refinery, becoming one of the first major energy users to source some of its electricity demand from renewables. In 2020 Sun Metals announced it was building a renewable hydrogen facility alongside its refinery.  

In July 2021, a consortium of South Korean investors signed an agreement with Australian Strategic Materials (ASM) to acquire a 20 per cent stake in the Dubbo rare earths project for $250m. The agreement includes a provision for a ten-year offtake agreement for neodymium oxide from ASM’s Dubbo plant, which will feed into ASM’s Korean Metals Plant, currently under construction in Ochang, South Korea.

Information on doing business and opportunities in the Republic of Korea

People-to-people and institutional links

Australia's economic and strategic links with the ROK are underpinned by extensive people-to-people and institutional ties. 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 eight-largest source of international students, with over 18,000 Korean students studying in Australia in 2020. 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. The ROK was the fifth-largest group of working holiday-makers in 2019-20 and ninth-largest market of short-term visitors to Australia. Since 2014, the New Colombo Plan has awarded more than 2,000 scholarships and mobility grants to Australians studying in the ROK.

ROK soft power is strong and growing, particularly in Southeast Asia and, more recently, the Pacific, where ‘K-pop’ and ‘K-dramas’ are extremely popular. 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 leads the world in innovation and has the potential to become a major research partner for Australia. 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-ROK Science and Technology Bridge” (Tech-Bridge) is one example that supports collaboration in areas of mutual strategic interest and explores further research cooperation on hydrogen and renewable energy.

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.

2021 marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations, which is being commemorated in both countries by many significant activities and events, most of which are being held virtually due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements and travel restrictions.

High-level visits

Government contacts

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 October 2021, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan met with ROK Minister for Trade Yeo Han-koo in the margins of the G20 in Sorrento, Italy.
  • In September 2021, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton participated in the fifth 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers' meeting in Seoul.
  • In July 2021, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Dan Tehan visited Seoul and met with then-ROK Minister for Trade Yoo Myung-hee.
  • In June 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with President Moon Jae-in whilst both leaders were attending the expanded G7 leaders meeting.
  • In December 2019, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds hosted ROK then-Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and then-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 then-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, then-Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Simon Birmingham travelled to Seoul and met with then-ROK Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, and members of the Australian business community in the ROK.
  • In May 2019, Her Excellency, Pi Woo-Jin, then-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 then-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, then-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.
  • Then-Minister for Finance, Senator Mathias Cormann visited Seoul from 11-13 October 2017 and held bilateral meetings with government and business leaders, including then-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.
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