It’s time to strengthen Korean–Australian defence cooperation
30 Sep 2022|

Few international relationships are as under-recognised as that between Korea and Australia. Many in each country know little of the important role Australia played supporting the fledgling Republic of Korea (ROK) during its 1950–1953 war with its northern neighbour. Nor do they realise that Australia and the ROK are comprehensive strategic partners in a relationship underpinned by complementary economies and shared regional strategic interests. This cooperation flourishes across the economies and the diplomatic relations of these two democracies and there are promising signs that the relationship is deepening.

Recent events have signalled that it’s time for closer cooperation, including in defence.

Last year, the then Korean President Moon Jae-in made a state visit to Australia during which the two countries announced that they would elevate their bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Moon and former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also signed a $1 billion defence contract for self-propelled howitzers and armoured supply vehicles which includes establishing a manufacturing facility in Geelong. This relationship has continued with the new governments in both countries.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Korea’s President Yoon Suk-Yeol met for the first time during the June NATO summit in Spain and agreed to strengthen cooperation. High-level contact between the defence and foreign affairs departments of the ROK and Australia has followed, with more frequent diplomatic visits and talks.

Our respective defence policies should reflect our strategic values and form a basis for further cooperation. Future ROK and Australian strategic update papers, including defence white papers, should comprehensively address the importance of both nations’ roles in maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific region and explore areas of further defence cooperation. Australia’s 2020 defence strategic update and the new ROK government’s Defence Innovation 4.0 initiative demonstrate that developing military capabilities based on cutting-edge technologies is a shared priority. Technological cooperation in the fields of autonomous defence systems, hypersonic technology, space and cyber presents an ideal opportunity to prepare for future challenges.

The ROK and Australia should focus on the areas that would immediately benefit from greater collective efforts. Security at sea is an obvious area in which we can promote a shared maritime domain awareness to comply with international norms at sea and mitigate challenges in the Indo-Pacific. The ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting—Plus and its experts’ working group on maritime security could serve as useful platforms to discuss and promote maritime domain awareness. Similarly, the annual navy-to-navy talks between the ROK and Australia could help maintain momentum and strengthen collective efforts.

In addition, the defence forces of the ROK and Australia should continue to enhance interoperability and build confidence through combined military exercises. The two have been conducting a bilateral anti-submarine exercise, Haedoli-Wallabi, since 2013, and the ROK participated in Exercise Talisman Sabre for the first time in 2021. This year, the ROK Air Force joined Pitch Black, a multinational air combat exercise to strengthen interoperability. These exercises should not remain one-off events but should become routine opportunities for our militaries to train and practise tactics, techniques and procedures based on conceivable scenarios in the region. Moreover, future Australian participation by the Australian Defence Force in large-scale exercises on the peninsula would offer its personnel opportunities to understand theatre operations and contingency planning. Meanwhile, the ROK military would benefit from working with the ADF and capitalising on its considerable combat experience.

A further area of cooperation is defence industry. Last year the South Korean company Hanwha Defence commenced construction of its facility in Avalon, Victoria, to manufacture self-propelled howitzers and ammunition supply vehicles for the Australian Army. This facility will strengthen Australia’s defence capabilities while generating local jobs in highly skilled engineering. During an interview on President Yoon’s 100th day in office, he said the ROK hopes to become the fourth largest defence exporter in the world. According to its strategic update, Australia plans to enhance the ADF’s self-reliance and strengthen its industrial capabilities. To this end, the two governments should encourage Korea’s Defence Acquisition Program Administration and Australia’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group to seek more opportunities for collaboration.

Since human connection is the backbone of cooperation, the ROK and Australia need to consider developing more exchange programs to advance their relationship further. Beyond traditional military attaché roles, not many Australian and Korean regional experts work on bilateral defence cooperation. The ROK and Australia need to put more effort into cultivating military personnel who understand both countries by exchanging more liaison officers and establishing more exchange education and training programs. The ROK has historically sent liaison officers to the UK, but hasn’t sent one to Australia. A prioritisation of international engagement efforts should see the ROK focus on the Indo-Pacific and nations with shared strategic interests such as Australia.

There is a saying in Korea that you should row a boat when the tide comes in, which means that you must take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself. Australia and the ROK are now experiencing many new strategic challenges in the region, creating an opportunity to expand our military relationship in many areas. Australian and ROK defence officials should quickly seize this window of opportunity to develop practical ways to address the challenges we face.