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.