On Thursday 19 July the Institute welcomed the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Australia, HE Lee Baeksoon, who spoke on the long-standing and complex issues of Korean peninsula security and on ROK-Australia bilateral relations. The Ambassador began with the observation that since 2016, despite ever more UN sanctions, tensions on the peninsula had intensified because of North Korea’s three nuclear tests and continued development of its long range missile program and the tone of US President Trump’s rhetoric. Last year we seemed to be on the brink of war.
Yet within four months the North and South Korean leaders met and shook hands at the historic inter-Korean summits of April and May 2018, and in June the US and North Korean presidents met in Singapore. There had been previous milestones: Clinton’s summit in 2000, George W. Bush’s in 2007, and Obama’s 2012 “strategic patience” policy. But the Ambassador described the turning point as ROK President Moon’s negotiation of North Korean participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
The Ambassador considered that Trump’s unique leadership at the Singapore summit had seen a dramatic change in dealing with North Korea. Trump differed from his predecessors in employing an exit strategy, requiring action on denuclearisation before the promise of reward (by lifting sanctions). Although the Ambassador was optimistic about the inter-Korean summit process, he noted that there was still no peace agreement following the 1953 truce at the end of hostilities; North and South Korea had agreed to work towards a peace treaty, but the US and China, as key stakeholders, would want to be signatories. The United Nations General Assembly was the most likely forum for an agreement.
The Ambassador noted that a fifth inter-Korean summit was to be held in the northern autumn of this year, and a further North Korea-US summit was likely later in the year. He foresaw possible future summits bringing North and South Korea, the US and China together to discuss denuclearization and a peace treaty. But North Korea and the US had not found it easy to implement policy cooperation over the last twenty-five years. Although these historic summits had brought new hope, the Ambassador used the metaphor of a roller coaster to describe the times ahead.
The Ambassador acknowledged the last thirty years of positive bilateral relations between Korea and Australia. A free trade agreement had entered into force in 2014. We had nothing to dispute, and our two countries’ economic structures were very similar: we should expand our trade volume and investment, and up-grade our relationship to a strategic partnership..
A question from the audience raised the issue of the ROK’s ultimate objective, reunification or living in peace? The Ambassador’s reply, simply put, was that the priority is to eliminate the possibility of war at all costs.
Report by Ciara Morris
AIIA NSW intern