Amidst the furore over the Huawei 5G decision and New Zealand’s increasingly turbulent relations with China, it would be easy to overlook the news that the leader of another important Northeast Asian partner is visiting this week. South Korean president Moon Jae-in has touched down in Auckland for a two-day state visit on the way home from the G20 meetings in Argentina. It marks the first visit by a Korean president in nine years.
The visit promises some respite for the Ardern government after a bumpy few weeks in its Asian diplomacy. One important focus of talks will of course be the situation on the Korean peninsula, which has seen a roller coaster 12 months of nuclear crisis and unconventional diplomacy. President Moon will be keen to enlist New Zealand’s support for his efforts to engage North Korea, including plans for a summit with Kim Jong-un in Seoul, possibly as soon as the middle of this month. His government is working to re-establish links between north and south and looking for ways to offer North Korea economic incentives without violating UN sanctions. He is likely to get a sympathetic hearing. Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ interest in North Korean issues is well known and Prime Minister Ardern will welcome the chance to play up her government’s disarmament and anti-nuclear credentials.
The Ardern government has talked up the importance of values in underpinning foreign policy, but looking across Asia the number of potential progressive democratic partners can be counted on one hand. Happily, the Moon government shares some of the coalition’s domestic priorities, including tackling climate change, aiding women’s empowerment and finding a way to reduce economic inequality. Both sides also have an interest in promoting trade and countering protectionism. Korea in particular has been buffeted by the fallout from the US-China tit-for-tat tariffs.
Korea is now New Zealand’s 5th largest trading partner and the leaders will be keen to find ways to build on the momentum of the 2015 Free Trade Agreement given the gloomy outlook for trade generally. Like the Ardern government, the Moon administration has committed to developing the social license for trade negotiations by ensuring the benefits of trade liberalization are shared more widely. Seoul has expressed interest in being included in the first round of an expanded CPTPP, something New Zealand will be enthusiastic to encourage.
As well as broader common interests, there are signs of a new approach to bilateral relations. The Moon government is pursuing a ‘southern strategy’ which seeks to build closer ties with Southeast Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand. That provides an opportunity for the Ardern government. In the past New Zealand officials have often lamented that their Korean counterparts have often been so focused—understandably perhaps—on the peninsular they’ve been difficult to engage with on broader issues. The fact that Seoul has signalled it wants to work with New Zealand on the Pacific Re-set shows a new and welcome attention to New Zealand’s priorities.
During the visit President Moon will lay a wreath at the cenotaph to remember the New Zealanders who died during the Korean War. For a generation of New Zealanders, war used to be the first thing that would come to mind when Korea was mentioned. Today a new generation of New Zealanders, including a large Korean-New Zealand population, is more likely to think of BTS, Rain or other K-Pop idols. Ardern and Moon will be anxious to find ways to capitalize on those positive associations and on common interests and to use this visit to build a deeper and sustainable partnership.