Sky’s the limit for Aus, ROK

Ask anyone to name Australia’s largest trading partner and you’ll get a quick answer: it’s China, right? Right. Top three? That would include the US and Japan – no surprises there. But after that?

That’s where the answers dry up. But at number four (and climbing) lies a country that is and will continue to be extremely important for the future of Australian trade – South Korea.

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Unfortunately, the Australia-Korea relationship is one that isn’t well understood or well recognised in Australia. Yet it is a relationship that is incredibly significant and strategic.

"We shouldn’t need boppy tunes and smokey bulgolgi for us to start paying attention [to a valuable bilateral relationship].” 

Most do not realise the complementary nature of the two economies. Two-way trade based on mutual supply and demand of goods, services and resources exceeded a net total of $US34 billion in 2015-16. Indeed, POSCO, the fourth-largest steelmaker in the world, is Australia’s single-largest customer.

Korea is home to the world’s fourth-largest pension fund, the National Pension Service. Korean pension funds are actively looking abroad for investment opportunities and Australian fund managers are well placed to service them, especially as the Australian services economy is growing rapidly. 

Many of the household goods and appliances in our homes such as LG and Samsung are not necessarily recognised as Korean brands.

South Korea is playing a big role Australian infrastructure. Hyundai Rotem is building the rolling stock for the New Intercity Fleet project and Samsung C&T is a key partner in the WestConnex project in New South Wales. Why we don’t hear more about it?


Instead when people think ‘Korea’, they think North Korea. North Korea receives far more media attention than the South and this impacts the Australian public’s perception of South Korea as a place to do business.

South Korea is currently not a strategic market for the majority of Australian businesses as a result of low awareness. While Korean culture embodied in K-pop (such as PSY’s viral hit Gangnam Style) or Korean BBQ has piqued some interest, we shouldn’t need boppy tunes and smokey bulgolgi for us to start paying attention.

Despite this lack of awareness, we have a solid foundation to build our relationship based on our strong military alliance. Over 17,000 Australian soldiers fought in the Korean war during 1950-53 and this is not forgotten by the Koreans. The lasting gratitude and appreciation towards Australia for fighting in their war is often expressed when Koreans meet Australians.

This mateship gives Australians the ability to earn instant respect and an advantage to build deeper relationships with Korean counterparts. Many Australians do not recognise the importance of this piece of history.

It’s time to change. It begins with education.


Despite the size and scope of our trade relationship, the Korean language has one of the lowest-enrolment rates among Australian school students. By any measure, provision of and participation in Korean language programs is very low.

Data shows that Korea was ranked 14th in terms of the number of enrolments in language courses in Australian schools in 2009. In Victoria, enrolment in Korean language is as low as 1,951 enrolments from both primary and secondary government schools.

French and Italian, however, have some of the highest rates of enrolment with up to 45,554 and 75,556 enrolments respectively. This is a disconcerting trend considering the terms of bilateral trade - France and Italy do not rank among the top 15 trading partners for Australia.

Astoundingly, in 2016, only 12 Victorian students enrolled to study Korean at a government secondary school. For comparison, there were greater enrolments in mainstream schools for Maltese, Filipino, Serbian and Bosnian. This is not due to a lack of a Korean community in Victoria – more than 11,000 Korean-born people reside in Victoria.

Only eight schools (primary and secondary) offer Korean language programs in Victoria, making it difficult to simply gain access to the language.

One of the reasons cited for low provision of Korean language is the very low level of mainstream Australian community awareness of Korea and the Korean language, even in places where a relatively large Korean community exists (for example, metropolitan Sydney).

The economic future for young Australians is unlikely to lie in France or Italy, but rather in the strength of our bilateral trade relations in the “Asian Century” with South Korea, China and Japan. It is essential schools encourage our young Australians to become aware of this reality to maximise the full potential of the Australia-Korea relationship.

I am lucky enough to be one of the few Australians who learnt Korean in school and I continue my education to this day.

When I speak to a group of Koreans in their native language, it is met with respect and appreciation. Unfortunately, I am one of very few Australians of non-Korean heritage who can do so.

We cannot expect a one-sided effort in learning a second language. Out of respect, we need to introduce Korean language and culture into the school curriculum to equip the next generation with intercultural competency to take our relationship to the next level. 

Emerging opportunities

The Australia-Korea Young Professionals Association (AKYPA) aims to help raise awareness of the relationship between the two nations. AKYPA hopes to play an active role in fostering the development of future business leaders aged 25-40 in the Australia-Korea corridor.

AKYPA wants to stimulate new interest from young professionals not currently involved in the bilateral relationship. As the only organisation targeted at young professionals, AKYPA acts as a platform for knowledge and information sharing and is focused on inspiring these future leaders to develop a deeper understanding of opportunities and challenges facing businesses and organisations in Australia and Korea.

AKYPA will primarily do this through events, advocacy and policy development, networking, and information exchange.

AKYPA also hopes to develop a talent pool for Australian companies doing business in Korea and for Korean businesses active in Australia. 


Whether it is in traditional areas of export such as raw materials or emerging opportunities such as funds management and financial services, Australian business must position itself to take full advantage of these opportunities.

With the implementation of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement in December 2014, opportunities are only increasing.

With the support of government programs such as the Hamer Scholarship and New Colombo Plan, we expect to see more young Australians gain in-country experience and grasp these opportunities.

The sky really is the limit for young Australians, established businesses and entrepreneurs alike to take full advantage of Australia’s strong relationship with Korea.

With education, awareness and understanding, I am confident these opportunities will be realised to further strengthen the ties that bind our two nations so that together we can reach our full potential.

Liz Johnston is Victorian chapter president of the AKYPA

Shayne Elliot, CEO of ANZ and Bill Paterson PSM, former Australian Ambassador to Korea were the key note speaker at the launch of the AKYPA Victoria Chapter at ANZ headquarters on 5 October 2017. 

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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