Reflections from notes I wrote in 2013 on state of the relationship Australia enjoys with Korea. Your thoughts?

The 2013 Australian Government Issues Paper Towards  2025, Republic of Korea Strategy in the Asian Century alludes to the problematic nature of this relationship: low awareness of Korea poses a challenge in terms of building demand.:

  • How do we want our relationship with the ROK to look in 2025?
  • Where are we going right and where are we going wrong?
  • Have we missed hidden opportunities?
  • How will we measure progress?”

Taken for granted?
It is worth reminding ourselves what former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating wrote about Australia’s relationship with the ROK in his insightful book Engagement: Australia faces the Asia-Pacific published in 2000:

By the early 1990s, almost without either side being aware of it, we found ourselves with increasingly close economic links. By 1992 our two-way trade was over $5 billion. South Korea was our fourth largest export market, and just three years later it would surpass the United States to become our second largest.

The accuracy of the words “almost without either side being aware of it” convey a ‘taken-for-granted’ nature of the relationship between Australia and the ROK which is key to understanding the current situation referred to by many as a ‘two-speed relationship’ where trade is well developed through traditional channels, but recognition of people and culture is neglected. A Whole-Of-Australia strategy must address this ‘two-speed relationship’ by encouraging new forms of collaboration to broaden and deepen people-to-people linkages.

Greater participation through networks, physical hubs and social media has increased collaboration in business defined by many as a new ‘Connection Economy’. Collaboration and relationships have become key enablers to build capacity for business.

2011 marked the Year of Friendship, declared between our two countries on the 50th anniversary of the commencement of diplomatic relationships. Knowledge of each other country remains somewhat of a mystery, as if the friendship has yet to reach its full potential, despite the description of a deep friendship by Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she visited Korea for her second time that year:

Friends, these are the human stories from days of courage and mateship, and of the deep friendship with the Korean people.

During Julia Gillard’s visit to the ROK in April 2011, together with the then President Lee Myung-bak, the leaders agreed that negotiations on an Australia-ROK Free Trade Agreement (FTA) were in their final stage as they reaffirmed their joint goal to conclude the negotiations toward the end of 2011.

Over two years later in 2013, the FTA seemed to be further away than ever before. Briefings and discussions about the FTA are scant in the media today as if it has fallen off the agenda. Still today, little in found through a websearch of information about Australian businesses in Korea. The information that is there is out of date, or restricted to closed entry access only.

Empty road running alongside an assembly of 70,000 people
The route for the cavalcade of the Park Guen-hye Inauguration awaiting her arrival.

The Focal Point Is A Forgotten War
The veteran community is often seen as the mainstay of our relationship with the ROK. It is unfortunate that most of the effort to maintain this relationship has been initiated by the ROK. The Australian Government until around 2005 had a particularly poor track record of acknowledging or supporting the veteran community who had served in the ROK, particular those who were deployed between 1953-1956. Sadly, for many of our veterans, the renewed focus that Australian has shown in recent years comes too late.

The rekindled focus on Kapyong is appropriate, but risks becomes the defining experience for Australians looking to better understand our wartime contribution. As a result, very little in known of the Korean conflict and the service rendered by Australian sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen, not to mention skill at tactical planning, mixed with sad stories of loss and futility. Remembrance of Kapyong should be encouraged, but not such that it diminishes the bravery and sacrifice of Australians in other actions during the Korean War.

The Australia Day reception held on 24 January 2013 in Seoul was on a bitterly cold night similar to one exactly 60 years earlier which resulted in the costly compromise of a snatch patrol: one of many sent from the Australian trenches to capture a Chinese prisoner for interrogation. Almost every one of these patrols failed to achieve their objective despite the courage and guile showed by the Australians, with only one prisoner known to have been captured during a to year period. On the night of 24-25 January 1953, the cost to Australia was especially high: 13 missing in action, two killed in action and 10 wounded in action. Today, their legacy mostly forgotten, as if just another story in a Forgotten War. The Australia Day reception was pleasant, but with no mention of this tragedy.

Private Lionel ‘Bomber’ Terry, MID, was among those missing in action (presumed killed) on 24 January 1953. He was nominated to receive the Victoria Cross (posthumously) for his conduct, but the nomination was not approved on the basis that the action was not observed by a Commissioned Officer (the patrol commander was killed in the contact). Private Terry’s actions that evening almost certainly saved the lives of his entire patrol during the intense fire fight when it seemed all but certain that they would be overrun by the enemy.

His citation Mentioned in Despatches includes the following remarkable account:

During the ensuing fire fight, PTE Terry was wounded, but he still remained an effective fighting member of the patrol. At a critical stage when the patrol was being heavily attacked from the flank PTE Terry observed 20 enemy coming at the patrol from the rear. PTE Terry immediately called for assistance and despite his wounds charged this group of enemy firing his Owen gun and throwing grenades. This shock action effectively stopped the enemy’s advance and allowed the patrol to move forward again unhindered. PTE Terry was not seen again after this charge…By his complete devotion to duty and personal sacrifice PTE Terry made it possible for his patrol to break cleanly from an overwhelmingly superior force and extricate itself with its wounded.

One of the programs of the Korea Roundtable is to establish a memorial fellowship for Indigenous students to undertake tertiary studies in Korea, particularly relevant noting Private Terry’s background.

Every July, a small group of veterans gathers at Regimental Square off George Street in Sydney to remember their mates who fought and died in Korea, and especially those involved in the final battle at The Hook. This event passes entirely without notice or representation from any level of government or corporate business, and is poorly attended from the community at large. Last year, a small plaque remembering those listed as missing in action was unveiled by veterans (no official from any government organisation was in attendance). It smacks of a shallow concern for our veterans, through whose actions we enjoy a strong trading relationship with the ROK today. On the 60th anniversary of this battle, can we expect a similar focus to that given to Kapyong and Maryang San in previous years?

In recent years, a new generation of veterans have returned from Active Service after serving in campaigns such as East Timor and Iraq alongside Korean soldiers. This aspect of our people-to-people linkages rarely raises a mention. This linkage is a way of joining the past with the present, especially with the newly assumed responsibility bestowed upon both Australia and the ROK as non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. This is relevant noting the emphasis made by Australia of peacekeeping in East Timor during the recent campaign to secure the non-permanent seat on the Security Council.

Korean War veteran Wilfred Charles Hall who had fought at Kapyong summed up the views of the veteran community when interviewed at Gapyeong on 24 April 2011 after a memorial service had been conducted which was attended by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He said in relation to the knowledge among Australian students of the Korean War: “They don’t know anything about the whole bloody war. The education system doesn’t teach it. It’s an embarrassing situation.”

Who is advancing Australia?
The prominence of Australian themed marketing which was highly visible around Seoul on Australia Day 2013 gave reason to ask ‘who is advancing Australia?’ The American brands of McDonalds and Outback were flying the flag, literally, for Australia through the sale of such products as the ‘Hoju-Burger’. This is nothing new, and for example, Koreans are well known for capturing the sushi market in Australia with their faux-Japanese restaurants. Australia has a vested interest in being among the leading brands promoting Australia in the ROK, and it is worth wondering why this hasn’t occurred. An Australian themed pie shop in Gangnam is apparently owned by a New Zealander and again makes a great statement with the Australian flag proudly displayed. This is all the more conspicuous is the absence of the very successful Australian franchise ‘Pie Face’. Without the FTA, Australian wine is significantly overpriced while trying to complete with wine from Europe, USA or Chile. High-end food halls around Seoul provide an international experience through the purchase of food, but Australia has little presence other than a small section of ‘Hoju-san’ beef. What sets Australia apart?

Food placement in popular culture medium in the ROK is an opportunity going wanting. With so much interest in television drama, this might present an appropriate place to feature Australian wine which could be arranged on good terms for mutual benefit with the producers of the broadcasting channel.

Cultural ambassadors that are engaged by Austrade and DFAT in Seoul are often entertainers of whom Australians, let alone Koreans, are unaware. Embracing young Australian talent is a good idea, but the profile also has to be right. If the person is simply parachuted into Seoul and then leaves a short time afterwards, there is no relationship and no real benefit gained.

The recent death of Yunupingu (lead singer of Yothu Yindi) is a sobering reminder of the considerable wealth of talent which could be drawn upon through using the right cultural ambassadors to portray the distinctive face of Australia. There is a generation of social leaders through music in Australia who can appeal to a broad audience to tell an important part of the Australian story. It ought not to be forgotten that much of the income from the ROK has been gained through the sale of resources, and an appropriate tribute of country is more than warranted.

Additionally, there is a wide range of emerging young Australian artists, many yet to be recorded who can boast exceptional talent. This brigade of quiet achievers producing original material is a resource Australia ought to be doing more to promote.

Dancing Gangnam Style
Cultural literacy involves more than knowing how to greet someone with a business card. A basic understanding of 20th Century history across North-East Asia is almost essential to grasp the interplay of north-east Asian countries and the significance of their distinct cultures. A Whole-Of-Australia strategy must embrace a better grounding in cultural literacy. Evidence of cultural literacy is found in the small things. Working more closely together will help to develop practical expressions of a stronger cultural literacy along the pathway to 2025.

Korean students studying in Australia find themselves somewhere between bemused and amused when some Australians ask them with every good intention after learning that they are Korean: “Are you from South Korea or North Korea?” As comical as that might sound, it is a very common question asked. That level of understanding ought to be elementary and demonstrates a poor understanding of the region. We ought to expect the Whole-Of-Australia strategy trickles down to the simple things that make a difference to the ordinary visitor to Australia, as well as meeting the needs of big business.

Back in July 2010, the Republic of Korea Ambassador to Australia, His Excellency Dr Kim Woo-sang, was reported in the Australian Financial Review expressing his concern that our relationship was not as strong as it could be stating: “It is unfortunate that not many Australians seem to know about Korea. They know Korea either as a still-developing country or as a divided poor country living with the DPRK nuclear threat”. This frustration is a sentiment shared commonly among many Koreans living in and visiting Australia. Perhaps the poor grounding in cultural literacy can be anecdotally measured by the lower proportion of Australians visiting the ROK and the very small number of Australian students studying in the ROK. The issuing of country specific strategies through the implementation of the White Paper is a timely occasion for Australia to recognise that we are not the Asia-savvy nation that we might like to think of ourselves. The White Paper sets a clear course to correct this situation.

Part of cross-cultural literacy is coming to grips with a foreign business work ethic in Korea, which some Australians have found as demanding as it is frustrating. These experiences to some degree must be encountered first hand, and can’t adequately be learnt from reading a book or watching a video. The more time we can spend with our Korean counterpart, the greater the opportunities for understanding and forming a strong grounding for collaboration.

In October 2012, Rowan Callick the Asia-Pacific Editor for The Australian newspaper wrote a very lucid article “A Seat At Asia’s Table: Gangnam Style typifies the soft-power transition in our engagement with Asia”. He points to a glaring deficiency in our engagement with Asia, and more so the ROK:

Australia’s engagement with Asia… is not so evident. While we send two-thirds of our exports to Asia, only about 7 per cent of our direct investments are there. Almost no one among our top chief executives and chairmen, public service chiefs or university heads has ever lived or worked in Asia or speaks an Asian language.

Callick continues, and raises a question that ought to be considered when the Country Strategy is drafted:

The Zeitgeist … is typified by Psy’s Gangnam Style “soft-power” bandwagon… Does Ken Henry dance Gangnam Style? We’d better hope that the former Treasury chief drafting the long-overdue white paper on Australia in the Asian Century has a robust grasp of what the explosive success of this Korean phenomenon tells us.

The anomaly in perception that Australia has towards the ROK through the ‘two-way relationship’ is an example of why a Whole-Of-Australia strategy is so badly needed. The White Paper makes a convincing case for greater use of public diplomacy. Sometimes described as cultural diplomacy or Track 2 diplomacy, public diplomacy is an example of what has been described as ‘soft power’ by the author Joseph Nye in 1990 to explain the exchange of culture, values, and ideas. Too often, business might downplay the importance of such issues as being of less importance.

People-to-people links: whose responsibility?
If the Issues Paper is correct in stating “Our relationship is underpinned by significant people-to-people linkages”, who is then responsible to maintain these linkages? An analogy is drawn to the use of the term ‘triple bottom line’ used to describe an integrated business strategy where economic performance is valued alongside social contribution and environmental impact. In a traditional business sense ‘triple bottom line’ takes what was previously considered a business cost and turns it into a profitable business case. So too here with the implementation of the White Paper might we identify a ‘triple bottom line’ defining the shared importance for business of maintaining strong economic performance alongside useful knowledge of people and culture to aid in the development of people-to-people linkages. There is no specific formula or blueprint for a ‘triple bottom line’, but it does provide the basis for qualitative metrics by which to assess performance. In a business sense, ‘triple bottom line’ is sometimes referred to as a ‘licence to operate’. The same should be true of any business or government agency wanting to engage with our regional partners.

Maybe Rowan Callick was right in his article using the allusion of Psy’s ‘soft power’ bandwagon by asking if Dr Henry can dance Gangnam style. Rowan Callick isn’t talking about how well Dr Henry can move, but he is referring to our capacity for engaging Asia through the application of soft power and public diplomacy. Soft power extends beyond the ‘hard’ considerations of political and economic performance to engage in the ‘softer’ side of engagement through people and culture that is argued to yield better results in the longer term. What might ‘dancing Gangnam style’ mean for Australia changing its approach to engaging with the ROK in the Asian Century?

The big question is how does Australia get other organisations and agencies involved into a domain that is still regarded by many to be ‘owned’ by government departments? We have to be more nimble if we as a country are to legitimately implement a Whole-Of-Government strategy. Social Alchemy is working hard to support the Government through the Korea Roundtable in ways that are defined by the White Paper:

Diplomacy is increasingly a skill-set, not a job description. It calls for building relationships, trust, collaboration and creativity… Diplomacy is no longer confined to dealing with governments and officials. To achieve the National Objectives of the recent White Paper, Australia will need to be open to a new narrative of public diplomacy dialogue through non-official channels. Public diplomacy promotes the national interest of a country through engaging, understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences… Australia must draw on the connections and interests of a broad group of individuals and organisations who provide what is referred to as Track 2 Diplomacy. Track 2 Diplomacy is defined as activity that is taken by non-governmental individuals or agencies.

Australia was once reliant on international trade through the use of sea-going vessels to transport cargo to a foreign port. Often the goods that were shipped would provide the ballast to give stability to the ship when at sea, and returning to the home port this might be replaced with other supplies for trade. It is appropriate that the Issues Paper refers to our people-to-people linkages as the ballast to Australia’s well-developed economic, political and strategic ties with the ROK. Much like sailing the course of a ship, if the ship’s company have little concern for the condition or substance of the ballast, it can result in a disastrous situation that would otherwise be avoidable when encountering bad weather or rough seas.

Team Australia
Many commentators on business culture both domestically and internationally have been found to ask whether Australia has lost the capacity to innovate. The Australian-born Andrew Liveris heading the US Business Council recently commented:  “Barriers are being removed everywhere…My observation is that Australia is actually in rigor mortis. It has lost its ability to actually innovate.

To paraphrase Keating, have we as a country become complacent in the success that the juggernaut of big business has enjoyed almost without being aware of it through our luck in the resources boom? Australia must become more competitive, and to do so we must rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit.

Jarring in the relationship
In  2011, there were around 200,000 Korean visitor arrivals in Australia, and the ROK was Australia’s third‐largest source country of international students, after China and India. That is a resource Australia is fortunate to receive, but it is questionable how well it is utilised and cared for. It only takes one idiot on YouTube to damage our reputation in the region, and investing on broadening and deepening people-to-people links now is critical for shoring up our vulnerabilities. This is as much about business performance as it is about public diplomacy.

Fostering a positive experience of time spent in Australia is important for a Whole-Of-Australia strategy. Australia has failed to effectively leverage the tertiary student population from the ROK studying and working in Australia. There is an inadequate means of engaging this alumni after they complete their studies. This is a hidden and mostly unexplored opportunity to better harness the knowledge and skill of these Koreans visiting Australia and Australians studying in the ROK to help promote cross-cultural learning.

Presently, Australia is failing to best utilise the ‘knowledge partners’ created through cross-cultural experience through people studying on exchange in either Australia or the ROK respectively. It will be necessary to perform better, and not to be exclusive only to the interests of business if we are to generate a meaningful ‘Whole-Of-Australia’ approach.

Given that language can quite often present a barrier, many Korean students and visitors on a working visa end up performing menial duties far below their competence and capacity. They are employed within a cash economy which is not only unsafe as they are not covered under Workcover, but in many cases avoids payment of tax which ought to be collected from their employers. Worse still is how this situation drives many young Korean students to consider a profession which is largely undiscussible, but damaging for Australia’s reputation in Korea because of the impact it has to perception through domestic Korean media.

The decision for the White Paper not to include Korean as a priority language was met with considerable disappointment among the Korean community, many of whom have lived in Australia for well over 20 years. The relationship with the ROK would be significantly strengthened through a sign of goodwill if there could be an inclusion to see Korean within a list of five priority languages reflecting the five priority economic relationships.

The problem with dropping language from the agenda is that it sends the wrong signals to the community about the level of investment that Australia is prepared to commit with strengthening a relationship with the ROK. Schools could understandably default to a better resourced or higher priority language other than Korean. Teachers are more likely to seek employment if there is work, which would be found among the priority languages. Students might question their motivation for studying Korean if other languages are held in higher esteem as a priority by the government.

Embracing innovation: ‘Dress classy, dance cheesy’
Against all the odds, Psy has achieved through social media what no publicity firm or government could ever do. Psy showed the strength of unconventional engagement which has the potential to change a relationship. This does not mean that everything that Psy touches will turn to marketing gold. It could be expected that the current Korean Tourism Organisation initiative using Psy to promote the ROK in Australia might appeal to Koreans but not so much to Australians. There is a salient lesson here that top-down, push-led initiatives rarely create the desired cut-through.

The success enjoyed by Psy teaches us to consider engaging in a new way with the world. Psy encourages all that listen to his music to ‘Dress classy, dance cheesy’. This does not mean to dispense with the suit and tie or the conventional business meeting. The Issues Paper asks the question: “As the Republic of Korea seeks to build an innovative economy, how can Australia get involved?” Our method of engagement could be more imaginative and less of a throw-back to networking of the late 20th century. Psy wasn’t an overnight success, but he has always been unconventional. Similarly, change to the relationship with the ROK might well come unexpected initiatives, and ought not be expected to be achieved within the span of a government term. Engaging a younger generation with credible dialogue about the future of business and our role in the region is important.

The strong levels of trade exchanged by both countries doesn’t fully recognise the disproportionate contribution of traditional markets where the export of resources is a significant majority. In a relative sense, the involvement of small and medium sized enterprises is a very small part of the Australia-ROK exchange and is an area where, because of the capacity for innovation and technology within both countries, there are opportunities for growth and expansion into new markets for Australia. This will require the development of a greater entrepreneurial capacity between our two countries, including new ways of collaborating and sharing information. Developing innovation between Australia and the ROK deserves greater investment in both time and money.

Innovation might also benefit from servicing the ‘ripple effect’ of large scale investment and major projects established between Australia and the ROK. Other opportunities are likely to be found in areas where Australia has a good reputation and an increasing need exists in the ROK, such as in aged care.

Moving Out From The Shadows
Sister-city and sister-state relationships are positive steps forward, but to date have been poorly utilised or worse completely neglected. Discussions with Strathfield City Council in 2012 revealed a surprisingly disappointing level of awareness or engagment with the Korean community. This has in part been corrected more recently especially with the election of a prominent member of the Korean community to Council, and last month a delegation of counsellors visited the ROK as a friendship exchange. We need a new generation of advocates, and working through sister-city and sister-states to help strengthen these relationships is a good place to build momentum.

우리가 함께 일 하기를 원합니다 (Let us all work together!)

It is an investment in our future.


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