Celebrating a Half-Century Korea-New Zealand Link: Brian Lynch Reports on a Roundtable Held in Wellington in February

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A day-long roundtable discussion was held on 17 February 2012 jointly hosted by the Seoul-based Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) and the NZIIA. The function was not a routine affair. It was the first in a programme of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and New Zealand. Appropriately in that anniversary context, the theme of the roundtable was 'Beyond 50 years of Friendship; Towards an even Stronger Partnership'.

To underpin the significance of the occasion, the roundtable was attended by senior representatives from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and by the ambassador and staff from the South Korean embassy in New Zealand. At the close of proceedings a memorandum of understanding which provided a framework for future collaboration between the two institutes was signed by the leaders of the IFANS/NZIIA delegations.

In his welcoming remarks, NZIIA President Sir Douglas Kidd noted that the close bilateral relationship had deep roots in the Korean War of the early 1950s in which more than 6000 New Zealanders served and 45 lost their lives. This point was also prominent in the keynote addresses by Ambassador Yong-kyu Park and David Walker, an MFAT deputy secretary. Both speakers drew attention to the shared values of the two countries. They highlighted social and educational priorities and security objectives held in common, joint commitment to liberal and multicultural societies, and a solid record of bilateral co-operation in multilateral settings. The contribution of more than 30,000 Koreans living in New Zealand to the economy, politics and society and on sporting fields was applauded.

The keynote speakers found a relationship that was mature and in good health. The sharp differences in the two countries' geo-strategic environments had not stood in the way of building strong ties across many fields. Korea is, for example, New Zealand's second largest source of foreign students, and its seventh largest source of tourists, while 1500 New Zealanders teach English in Korea. But both speakers asked the same questions: 'Good health, yes, but is that enough? Is this as good as it can get?' And both were drawn to the same conclusion: 'No, there is unfulfilled opportunity in the relationship'.

Both opening presentations identified trade and economic linkages as the obvious area of under-performance. While South Korea ranks fifth among New Zealand's trading partners and is the fifteenth largest economy in global terms, New Zealand languishes below 40th on Korea's trading list and has been losing market share. How to rectify this situation? The opening speakers agreed that the prospective game-changer would be a quality free trade agreement. In his introductory comments IFANS Chancellor Ambassador Lee Joon-gyu eloquently expressed a similar view.

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It was a matter for regret for the four opening speakers that trade negotiations had stalled. David Walker believed such an agreement would 'provide enormous impetus to the relationship, enhance regional economic integration, and unlock the unrealised potential for greater trade, investment, and people to people flow'. It could help counter rising food prices and contribute to food security. Ambassador Park fully supported efforts towards a mutually satisfactory trade agreement although not as a 'litmus test' of the value of the overall relationship; he saw scope in the Korean market for New Zealand to deploy its innovative skills and 'smart' strategies.

Strategic environment

Following the introductory comments, the roundtable entered its formal agenda. The first session was devoted to the Asia-Pacific strategic environment, where the main presenters were Professor Robert Ayson, Centre of Strategic Studies (CSS), Victoria University of Wellington, and Choi Wooseon, IFANS. …