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South Korea is Australia’s 4th largest trading partner – and officials of the Republic of Korea (RoK) often seem surprised that their detailed knowledge of our country and its history is rarely reciprocated.  This lack of awareness also crosses into the security domain with Australian planners and writers mentioning Korea only in passing, if at all – as was the case for the recent Defence Strategic Review.

However, this seeming uninterest in the RoK was at least partially offset by a powerful speech given by Defence Minister Richard Marles at the Korean National Day celebrations in Canberra on September 14.  In remarks that will be greatly appreciated in Seoul, he made not only the comment about strategic alignment but started with a brief summary:

“Korea today is one of the most modern economies on the planet.  Korea today enjoys one of the highest standards of living anywhere in the world. Korea is a liberal democracy and a cultural powerhouse.

“What is remarkable is that just seven decades ago Korea was experiencing the aftermath and devastation of a major war – and it has done all of its economic rebuilding from that moment.  Today, Korea gives the world one of the most extraordinary miracles we have seen in the economic history of humanity.”

The Minister also acknowledged the role of the Korean community in Australia, pointing out their achievements in fields as diverse as sport and diplomacy.  He also spent time with veterans of the Korean War and their families  – another gesture that was not only appreciated by the veterans themselves but will also be in Seoul, which continues to recognise the importance of remembering the sacrifices made on their behalf during the 1950 – 1953 conflict.  He continued:

“The Korean War was fought in the aftermath of World War 2, when we saw the rules based order emerging out of the ashes of that conflict placed under its first great test with resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations at issue.  The world was being asked whether a system of rules was just an idea, or whether it would be a matter of substance.

“That was what was at contest in the Korean War and Australia was – after the United States – the second country to put its hand up to be there to defend Korea and the global rules based order.  18,000 Australians served in the conflict and have served since as UN peacekeepers on the Korean peninsula.  350 made the ultimate sacrifice.

“The relationship with Korea is long and it is one that is connected by blood.

“But by far the greatest sacrifice was by the Korean people themselves.  An estimate 130,000 soldiers died; and there were almost a million civilian casualties during the conflict.”

These figures, by the way, do not include North Korean or Chinese casualties, which are believed to be far greater, including for civilian loss of life.  In the first phase of the conflict the communist forces overran almost the entire peninsula; then the UN forces pushed back almost to the Chinese border; then a huge counterattack reached down into the heart of South Korea.

The final phase of fighting stabilised around the 38th parallel – and following an armistice to which the South Korean government was only indirectly involved, the conflict has been frozen since that time.  The Korean peninsula had more bombs dropped on it during the fighting than in the entire Pacific Theatre during the Second World War.

The Minister commented that Australia and South Korea are now seeing the world in very similar terms as troubling, complex and threatening:

“The appetite and ambition for us to work closely together is enormous.  We saw that at the Pacific Leaders meeting in May, hosted by the Korean government in Seoul, which was my pleasure to attend.  We are seeing it in the tempo of military exercises.

“We have always had a deep trading relationship – but now there is a security dimension to that, and a strategic dimension, which is tying our counties even more closely together.”

He acknowledged the success of Hanwha in being selected as the winner of LAND 400 Phase 3, which will see the company build 129 Infantry Fighting Vehicles for the Army at a new factory near Geelong.  It will also produce 155mm tracked Self-Propelled Howitzers and armoured in-field resupply vehicles.

The Minister’s thoughtful speech could mark an important point in further boosting cooperation between Australia and the RoK.


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Kym Bergmann
Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


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