Bill Paterson, ASPI senior fellow and former federal government strategic adviser, argues that Australia should work on strengthening ties with South Korea.
On the back of a robust bilateral relationship that has flourished since the last throes of war petered out on the peninsula, Paterson makes the argument that doubling down on these ties serves both countries' interests in the years to come.
Of course, this plays into the Pacific Step-up and recent strategic policy updates – which revolve, in essence, around the idea of playing a more central role in the defence of our region.
In view of these documents, there are few countries better placed than South Korea, which borders on a number of potential belligerents envisioned (but not outwardly discussed) in either. For obvious reasons, South Korea's strategic outlook is largely focused on threats from the North.
While Seoul remains conscious of broader strategic threats such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction proliferation, there is a tendency to view these issues through a prism of how they impact on the North Korean situation or the South Korea–US alliance.
Australia has a strong interest in these goals – in particular, the stability and security of the Korean Peninsula – as well as broader motives of countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and promoting the retention of the US as a stabilising regional presence.
As Seoul gradually moves towards a more self-reliant defence posture, Defence has argued that it is likely that South Korea will become a more important and influential element of the north-east Asian security community – especially as South Korea moves to acquire an aircraft carrier.
The first of South Korea's aircraft carriers is an enlarged variant of the currently in service Dokdo Class landing platform dock ships, which are more akin to Australia's Canberra Class LHDs and the US Navy's Wasp and America Class LHDs.
Construction of the LPX-II Class is expected to commence in 2021 by Hydundai Heavy Industries (HHI) for launch later in the 2020s – the proposed vessel is expected to be longer and heavier than the Dokdo Class vessels with a displacement of approximately 30,000 tons and capable of accommodating 20 F-35Bs and an unspecified number of helicopters.
Yet Paterson's arguments run deeper than all this.
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Current defence pairing
Since the close of the Korean War, the coalition has been maintained as the United Nations Command, a "shell framework" for continuing involvement led and nurtured by the 28,000-strong United States Forces Korea (USFK).
As Paterson notes, Australia has been one of the most active – if not the most active – participant in this continuing arrangement. "Aside from 'Five Eyes' partners," he writes, "the participation of other members is largely token."
To this end, he notes that Australia has headed up the Japan-based UNC (Rear) since 2010, and has contributed top-level officers to the USFK on an embedded basis. While accepting that we are clearly one of the country's closest partners, he questions how exactly this relationship can be further consolidated and developed.
As Australia’s fourth-largest trading partner and a growing source of foreign investment, ties with Korea have been reinforced in December 2014 with the entry into force of a free trade agreement (Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement, or KAFTA) between the two countries – with the strategic partnership between the two nations dating back to Australia’s participation in the United Nations-led force during the Korean War.
These ties were further reinforced in September of last year, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, to outline plans for an expanded period of collaboration on key national security issues, including defence, industry development and energy security, during a meeting at the UN headquarters in New York.
While Paterson notes that diplomatic talk of tightening ties has been forthcoming – if frivolous – there are a number of other areas identified as lacking:
- While Australian troops can exercise on the peninsula under the UNC umbrella, they cannot do so bilaterally. At the time, it appeared that Korea did not want to further antagonise China through a closer defence partnership with a close US ally.
- Australia tends to shop for "big ticket" defence items from American or European suppliers, in lieu of Asian sources. While Korean companies have made competitive bids for major Defence infrastructure overhauls – including Korean shipyard DSME, which was pipped to the post by Navantia in 2005 for the naval fleet replenishment ship contract, as well as the Hanwha Redback prototype currently underway – Australia has yet to sign off on any major works from Korean companies, which may formalise the relationship.
Last month, South Korean defence manufacturer and LAND 400 Phase 3 contender Hanwha Defense said it plans to deliver the prototypes of its ‘Redback’ armoured vehicle to Melbourne as part of its bid for the $10-15 billion project to replace Army’s Vietnam-era M113 armoured personnel carrier (APC) force.
However, in addition to the Hanwha bid, Paterson notes that a number of ongoing projects from South Korean companies have the potential to "provide impetus to the bilateral defence relationship, offering training and collaboration opportunities, and building understanding in Australia of Korea’s advanced defence industrial capability, and vice versa".
And while a process to acquire 30 Korean K9 self-propelled howitzers, to be built in Australia by project partners Samsung Techwin (now Hanwha Defense) and Raytheon, was cancelled following cuts in 2012, the project has since been revived.
"Defence exports to, and greater collaboration with, a reliable regional partner may stimulate a Korean rethink," writes Paterson. "Korean concerns, publicly muted but real, about Washington’s reliability and Beijing’s aggressiveness were acutely felt by Korea when China responded with stiff and damaging sanctions to its agreement to host a US THAAD battery in 2016. These concerns are growing. With North Korea sabre-rattling again, and a parlous relationship with Japan, Koreans will again be feeling increasingly vulnerable."
As tensions rise in the region and Australia refocuses towards our backyard, relations with South Korea will become more important than ever. Of course, even if defence contracts are the way to stronger ties with Seoul, this poses a host of complicated questions at a time when internal production and supply chains are considered more important than ever.