Executive summary

  • The May 2022 election of Yoon Suk-yeol as President of the Republic of Korea, and his administration’s embrace of a national Indo-Pacific Strategy have once again opened a window of opportunity to realise what many analysts have long identified as the latent potential in the Australia-South Korea defence relationship.
  • The Yoon administration’s 2022 National Defense White Paper, National Security Strategy and 2023 Indo-Pacific Strategy all offer encouraging signs about the near-term trajectory of South Korean foreign policy in the region, highlighting an expansion of Seoul’s foreign policy aperture beyond the confines of Northeast Asia, partially dispel ‘strategic ambiguity’ around key defence and security issues in the region, and articulate the administration’s intent to collaborate much more extensively with likeminded partners like Australia.
  • However, compared with the clarity struck in Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2023 Defence Strategic Review, the role of Korean military power in advancing the nation’s regional strategy beyond the Korean Peninsula remains somewhat ambiguous. For their part, Australian strategic documents offer a comparatively clear assessment of the role of military power in prosecuting the country’s regional strategic objectives, but fail to identify South Korea as a partner of consequence in that endeavour.
  • Nevertheless, the Australia-South Korea defence relationship already possesses much of the necessary architecture – including foundational agreements, official dialogues, joint exercises and other regional activities, and a growing defence industrial relationship – required to progress a more purposeful agenda. The challenge will be to identify those practical areas of cooperation at the intersection of near-term relevance and mid-term durability that are worthy of investments of time and effort – especially for two middle powers with limited national resources.
  • Operationalising cooperation in this window of opportunity will require both engaging in a frank assessment of where Australian and South Korean strategic interests and priorities in the region genuinely converge and diverge and, consequentially, where the possibilities and limitations for defence and security cooperation reside.


As the two countries prepare to update their 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation in the field of Defence Cooperation “to strengthen the defence partnership to better respond to the security challenges in the region,”1 policymakers in Australia and South Korea should consider the following options for giving greater expression to bilateral defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific:

  • Australia should prioritise targeted engagement with key figures of influence in the Yoon administration’s foreign policy apparatus and the Republic of Korea National Assembly familiar with and supportive of Australia-South Korea defence cooperation to amplify awareness of Australia as an actor of consequence and value in Korean strategic and foreign policymaking in the near- and longer-term.
  • Both countries should augment bilateral defence exercises to keep pace with rapid developments at the multilateral level:
    • Stage an edition of the bilateral anti-submarine warfare Exercise Haedoli Wallaby in Australian waters.
    • Building on drills at Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023, incorporate combined live-fire artillery and strike exercises into newly-announced Army exercises in Australia.
    • Explore a roadmap for South Korean advanced fighter jets, including F-35s, and logistics and refuelling aircraft to visit Australia for joint training and exercises.
  • Both countries should consider opportunities for translating defence exercises into real-world encounters or operations beyond the confines of the Korean Peninsula and beyond the remit of enforcing United Nations sanctions on North Korea:
    • Identify opportunities for including South Korea in major US-Australia exercises and initiatives, such as the forthcoming maritime domain awareness initiative announced at AUSMIN 2023.
    • Explore options for operationalising Pacific Vanguard as a new active maritime security grouping in the Indo-Pacific.
    • Encourage the Republic of Korea Navy to assume greater and more regular leadership of multilateral naval exercises and operations in the region.
    • Encourage the Republic of Korea Navy to consider standing-up its own annual regional presence deployment or engagement activity akin to Australia’s annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise.
    • Provide logistical support and access locations for South Korean naval and coast guard forces visiting or operating in Southeast Asia.
  • Stress test bilateral foundational defence agreements to identify operational possibilities and limitations, as well as areas for further discussion (for example, a Visiting Forces Agreement).
  • Capitalise on recent successes for Korean defence industry in Australia to progress collaboration on discreet projects of mutual significance:
    • Explore pilot projects for scaling up cooperation on specific mutual supply chain requirements, such as artillery ammunition.
    • Encourage Korean firms to make competitive bids for a stake in Australia’s Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordinance (GWEO) enterprise.
    • In the mid-term, shift the focus of defence industrial collaboration away from a closing aperture for land systems, and instead towards air and naval systems, including unmanned systems.
Republic of Korea Navy destroyer ROKS Sejong The Great (DDG 991) conducts a replenishment at sea with HMAS Supply during the sea-phase of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022.Source: Australian Department of Defence


It has become a cliché to say so, but there is once again a window of opportunity for Australia and South Korea to inject real substance into their bilateral defence relationship. This moment has arrived primarily due to the advent of the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration in Seoul in May 2022, its embrace of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic framing concept for a more ambitious South Korean foreign policy in the region, and the country’s reawakening to Australia as an actor of consequence in the wider region. As noted by Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles earlier this year, South Korea’s apparent (re)embrace of a more ambitious regional statecraft is “a welcome addition to the collective regional effort to preserve a rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific.2 In a regional strategic environment increasingly characterised by intensifying US-China competition, opaque military build-ups, multifaceted challenges to regional peace and security, and a prevailing pattern of defence and security minilateralism between capable maritime powers, this new convergence is certainly a welcome development.

Granted, this is by no means the first such opportunity for Canberra and Seoul to inject greater substance into their defence and security partnership. Yet the current alignment between Australian and South Korean strategic outlooks with respect to key challenges confronting the regional order have led many analysts in Australia to contend that, this time, things might be different.3 Indeed, publicly available evidence suggests that Australia and South Korea appear to be regarding the value of one another as genuine defence and security partners in a more serious light. Korea’s new Ambassador to Australia Kim Wan-joong has described the two countries as “essential partners” in regional defence and security, noting that as “two [of the most important allies of the US… as likeminded countries which share common values… we have a lot to do together in leading the regional efforts into… collective security and maritime security.”4 Meanwhile, the defence ministers of both countries have committed to “strengthen the defence partnership to better respond to the security challenges in the region” – or, in the words of Richard Marles, to take bilateral defence cooperation to the “next level.”5 Indeed, the defence ministers of both countries have committed to updating the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation to provide “an enhanced bilateral framework” to guide collaboration going forward, building on commitments made by previous administrations in Canberra and Seoul to “explore new institutional foundations to promote enhanced future defence cooperation,”6 seemingly reflecting a bipartisan reawakening in both countries as to the importance of the other.

The current alignment between Australian and South Korean strategic outlooks with respect to key challenges confronting the regional order have led many analysts in Australia to contend that, this time, things might be different.

On paper, Australia stands out as one of South Korea’s most important regional strategic partners beyond the confines of Northeast Asia. Importantly, much of the architecture required to realise a more comprehensive defence partnership. Senior level dialogues – including South Korea’s only other ‘2+2’ Foreign and Defence ministerial with a country other than the United States – foundational logistics and information-sharing agreements, military staff and personnel exchanges, and increasingly complex bilateral and multilateral naval and air exercises are already in place. Indeed, South Korea’s inaugural participation in the US-Australia Talisman Sabre exercises in 2021 and 2023 and recent defence industry successes are “slowly transforming the Australia-South Korea security partnership and elevating its broader geopolitical relevance.”7

Yet much remains to be done to ensure that this moment of opportunity does not pass. Indeed, this is not the first time that senior leaders have pledged to “reinvigorate” the bilateral relationship without delivering lasting breakthroughs.8 Indeed, for all their shared values and history of shared sacrifice during the Korean War, Australia and Korea have historically moved slowly to operationalise their defence relationship. The reasons for this are numerous. Several analysts have contended that commerce, rather than strategy, has driven the bilateral relationship,9 with the result that the two countries have historically enjoyed “a highly symbiotic trading relationship but—to be frank—not much else.”10 Meanwhile, “largely exclusive strategic dilemmas,” the hereto exclusive nature of the US hub-and-spoke alliance system in Asia, and capacity and resource limitations on both sides producing only limited overlap in shared strategic priorities and, therefore, actionable defence priorities.11Some analysts have assessed the bilateral relationship as one “characterised by Australian activism and ROK ambivalence,”12 while others have pointed to Australia’s forward-leaning position on contentious regional issues and its vocal support for US policy positions on these same challenges as off-putting to Korean governments seeking greater accommodation from Canberra.13 Analysts in both countries have observed that a repeated failure for both countries to meaningfully identify the value of one another to their respective regional military strategies is something that will need to change if bilateral defence cooperation is to not only live up to its potential, but to endure into the future.15

In the words one leading scholar on the bilateral relationship: “like in a true friendship, progress first requires some honest conversations."14 In that sense, the challenge in capitalising on this most recent swell of interest in the bilateral relationship is twofold. Firstly, Canberra and Seoul will need to candidly identify genuinely shared strategic interests rooted in a wider regional framework as sources for driving the defence relationship forward. It is these shared interests, rather than common characteristics of the two countries’ societies or histories, that will sustain defence cooperation going forward. Secondly, they will need to prioritise forms of cooperation that simultaneously have the greatest chance of succeeding within the current window of opportunity, and that have enough strategic relevance to endure into a future where political change in both capitals will pose challenges to sustained resourcing and political prioritisation. Only then will the two countries be able to make genuine combined contributions to maintaining what Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has framed as a regional “strategic equilibrium.”16

This report seeks to chart a pathway for Australia and South Korea to advance their defence relationship in the wider Indo-Pacific within the realm of the possible. It begins with a brief overview of 2017 New Southern Policy framework adopted by the former South Korean Government, under progressive President Moon Jae-in, to guide its approach to engagement with the broader Indo-Pacific. With that essential context, it then examines the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s own 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy, identifying five key indicators of distinct relevance to Australian equities and to the bilateral defence partnership: an expanded foreign policy aperture; improved, though not absolute, strategic clarity; an emphasis on collective responses to shared challenges; an acknowledgement of Australia as a consequential regional security actor; and lingering ambiguity around the role that the Yoon administration perceives for South Korean military power in implementing its regional strategy. The report then contrasts this against Australia’s own strategic outlook, before providing a brief overview of state of current foundations of defence and security cooperation. It concludes by offering recommendations for Australian and Korean policymakers to consider as the set about updating central guiding documents and considering new or expanded activities for the bilateral defence relationship.

This report seeks to chart a pathway for Australia and South Korea to advance their defence relationship in the wider Indo-Pacific within the realm of the possible.

The essential context: the Moon administration’s New Southern Policy

Before examining the Yoon administration’s ‘K’ Indo-Pacific Strategy (or KIPS), it’s worth considering the efforts of its predecessor, the Moon Jae-in administration to enhance South Korea’s engagement with the region through its own strategic framework, the 2017 New Southern Policy (NSP), for it is against this blueprint that Seoul’s latest regional strategy is already being measured. Importantly, the NSP marked the first time that a South Korean administration of any political persuasion had proposed a dedicated policy framework for engaging with the Indo-Pacific beyond Northeast Asia. For some seasoned South Korean experts, it represented an effort to “break the old mould of South Korean diplomacy” by better matching Korea’s growing economic power and cultural profile with a more active and reliable diplomatic presence,17 and improving the range and quality of South Korea’s regional partnerships amid intensifying US-China competition.18 Although Korean Peninsula issues remained a top priority for Moon,19 the NSP was nonetheless notable for its elevation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India to be “economic, political and strategic partners on par with the four major powers” – China, Japan, Russia, and the United States – which have traditionally dominated South Korea’s strategic outlook,20 going as far as to create a whole new section with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responsible for managing Southeast Asia alone.21 Importantly, however, the NSP did not include Australia (more below).

The NSP stood on three broad ‘pillars’ for cooperation — Peace (security), People (social-cultural) and Prosperity (economic) — with 16 separate ‘tasks’ initially identified across these categories, and a further seven initiatives added with the advent of the NSP ‘Plus’ in 2020.22 Under the Peace Pillar, the Moon administration pledged to enhance leadership engagements, expand defence industry cooperation with regional partners, explore collective responses to non-traditional security challenges including natural disasters, piracy, and terrorism.23 These commitments signaled the Moon administration’s interest in playing a larger regional strategic role, but the NSP offered little in the way of description of how, where, or in pursuit of what specific outcomes South Korea would engage in these activities, let alone an articulation of the type of regional order that Seoul sought to shape in the process. This means that while senior level Korean defense engagements and arms sales to the region increased markedly during this period,24 Seoul’s decision not to connect these with regional political and security objectives without an articulation of those ends meant that these engagements have often appeared driven by business interests rather than strategic imperatives.25 While by no means unproductive for South Korea’s regional profile, the Moon administration’s preference for cultural and economic engagement appeared to sidestep sensitive strategic issues.26

Source: Getty

It is for this reason that South Korea’s approach to the Indo-Pacific order came to be widely described as strategically ambiguous. Indeed, the Moon administration deliberately steered clear of addressing wider regional strategic issues in favour of focusing on non-traditional security challenges, a decision interpreted as an effort to balance delicate relationships with China and the United States while reaping the benefits of both relationships, and to attract the interest of states in Southeast Asia interested in doing the same.27 Yet its decision to present inter-Korean peace diplomacy as the sole shared strategic objective for ASEAN-South Korea ‘traditional’ security engagement during this period, and its decision to deliberately ignore other pressing security challenges even as many of these regional countries began to stake out clearer positions of their own, reflected fundamental differences between Korea’s narrow strategic priorities compared with those of the wider region.28 The resultant underdevelopment of the Peace Pillar of the NSP meant that South Korea came to seen as somewhat of a strategic “bystander” even as it has sought to expand its engagement with countries outside of Northeast Asia.29 Unsurprisingly, a growing number of regional voices towards the end of the Moon administration’s term argued that South Korea’s engagement with Southeast Asia should not continue to be “filtered through the lens of Northeast Asian geopolitics,” and that it should engage with the region on its own strategic terms.30

The Yoon administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Setting expectations, scoping cooperation

After taking office in May 2022, in late December 2022 the Yoon administration released its Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region (KIPS), offering a comprehensive insight into its intended approach to more ambitious, enduring and rigorous engagement with the wider region. The objectives and perspectives set forth by the KIPS have since been complemented by the release of the administration’s first Defense White Paper (DWP) in February 2023 and its National Security Strategy (NSS) in June 2023. Taken together, these documents herald a South Korea that seeks to become a ‘Global Pivotal State’, including an approach to regional foreign policy that is “much more ambitious in scope and vision” than recent years.31 These ambitions hark back to those of the Lee Myung-bak administration (2008-2013), which called for a ‘Global Korea’ to assume a more prominent regional and international leadership role in key issue areas.32

To be sure, this is not the first time that we have seen a South Korean government pledge to assume a larger regional and global role. Leading experts have noted that even with dedicated regional engagement frameworks, South Korea’s regional stature has never quite matched its ever growing “cache of hard and soft power” and “global ambitions,” leading many analysts and policymakers in key regional capitals to regard Seoul as “missing in action in the Indo-Pacific,” including in the defence space.33 Indeed, the Moon administration pledged to “widen the horizon of the country’s diplomacy” through the NSP,34 but failed to live up to the expectations of regional stakeholders as Seoul zeroed in on engagement with Pyongyang as its top (and seemingly only) priority.

There are enough encouraging signs in the Yoon administration’s strategic framework to suggest that there are opportunities for Australia and South Korea to advance more meaningful regional cooperation, including in the defence space, in the near- to mid-term.

However, there are enough encouraging signs in the Yoon administration’s strategic framework to suggest that there are opportunities for Australia and South Korea to advance more meaningful regional cooperation, including in the defence space, in the near- to mid-term. When it comes to the KIPS, there are five key elements of particular significance to Australia and with relevance to advancing the bilateral defence relationship more broadly. On the positive side of the ledger, these include: a wider regional aperture and a commitment to instil greater predictability of Korean foreign policy; greater - though not absolute – ‘strategic clarity’ than previous Korean regional strategic blueprints; a clear emphasis on the need for collective solutions to shared regional challenges; and Australia’s return as an actor of consequence and value in Korean strategic thinking for the first time since the late 2000s. However, ambiguity regarding the role of South Korean military power in the its regional strategy stands out as one evident hurdle to implementing a regionally relevant defence cooperation agenda.

Expanded aperture and greater predictability

The most notable element of the KIPS is evident in its title: the expansion of South Korea’s foreign policy aperture through its adoption of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic framing concept. One of the strategy’s avowed and overarching goals is to “enhance the consistency and predictability of ROK’s foreign policy” in an effort to give Korea’s wider regional partnerships greater stability and certainty even as governments change in Seoul.35 This reflects an awareness in Seoul that many regional partners have regarded South Korean foreign policy aperture as too myopic, mercantilist and – when it has occasionally expanded beyond Northeast Asia – too responsive to inter-Korean prerogatives to lend sufficient consistency to productive strategic partnerships with countries other than Seoul’s traditional partners and neighbours. In fact, in an essay penned prior to his election, then-candidate Yoon observed that a too-narrow focus on North Korea had “allowed Seoul’s role in the global community to shrink” and that it had “failed to adapt” to inexorable changes in the regional strategic landscape driven by deteriorating US-China ties, leading many to question South Korea’s traditional alignment preferences vis-à-vis the two superpowers.36

Unsurprisingly, then, the KIPS pledges that South Korea will step-up its contributions to “addressing various issues in the region and building a positive regional order” in line with the expectations of powers from across the broader Indo-Pacific, not just those in Northeast Asia.37 It attempts to clearly articulate South Korea’s perceptions of, and positions on, key challenges confronting the regional strategic order beyond the confines of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. Though it highlights the importance of multiple subregions including the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Islands, and the east coast of Africa, Southeast Asia stands out as the clear priority for South Korean strategic engagement,38 in a notable point of continuity with the NSP. In addition, these documents go beyond simply noting the consequences of US-China strategic competition for South Korea’s immediate security equities to acknowledge its impact on the character of the wider regional order, including the alignment predicaments confronting other countries to South Korea’s own national and regional interests in a contested strategic space. This reflects an appreciation in Seoul of the need to strike a balance between the imperatives of deterrence and peaceful unification on the Korean Peninsula with emerging strategic challenges and opportunities across the wider region.

Republic of Korea Marine Corps Korean Amphibious Assault Vehicles insert onto the beach from ROKS Marado during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023.Source: Australian Department of Defence

In that respect, one of the KIPS’s avowed objectives is to promote greater confidence in South Korea as a consistent and reliable long-term partner for key regional states. It states that “Korea’s comprehensive regional strategy… will enhance the predictability of its foreign policy and expand room for strategic action”, constituting a “blueprint for future-oriented partnerships” in line with the Yoon administration’s ambitions for South Korea to become a ‘Global Pivotal State’,39 reflecting its “intent to align South Korea’s foreign policy with its rising economic, military and soft power.”40 However well-intended, there are good historical reasons to temper expectations that the Yoon administration will be able to guarantee that these undoubtedly sincere commitments will produce a more consistent and reliable brand of South Korean foreign policy and regional strategy once its own term in office is over. The often-unforgiving nature of South Korean domestic politics, the polarisation trends in South Korea’s political landscape (including recent actions and decisions taken by the Yoon government on a range of hot-button issues),41 and the fact that the prerogatives of incumbent Korean presidents have an outsized impact on the direction of Korean foreign policy mean that it is unlikely that Seoul’s approach to regional strategy will somehow come to emulate the relative consistency of Australia’s own approach to the Indo-Pacific.42 Yet the continuity evidenced by Yoon’s persistence with his predecessors’ identification of Southeast Asia as being of increased strategic importance to South Korea – albeit rebadged under a new and expanded strategic framework – offers a reassuring signal that Seoul’s interest in the wider region will not necessarily evaporate with a change of administration in 2027 even if the priorities and interests of those at the top of South Korea’s foreign policymaking apparatuses could well look a little different.

A shift away from ambiguity

The Yoon administration has also decided to recalibrate its public positions on pressing regional security issues, moving away from deliberate strategic ambiguity to embrace greater – though not absolute – clarity. Senior foreign policy advisors to the president made clear upon taking office that the Yoon administration would adopt clearer positions on strategic issues relating to China and North Korea than those of its predecessor in order to make Korean foreign policy “less ambiguous and more predictable.”43 Though they characterise US-China competition in the Indo-Pacific as primarily economic, the administration’s NSS nevertheless identifies growing tension in the maritime security domain as a primary driver of regional instability, noting shifts in Chinese military posture away from “defending against and deterring US involvement in the region to adopting a more offensive approach”.44 The KIPS, meanwhile, identifies sudden shifts in the regional balance of power as a chief concern, noting that regional stability is being “eroded by rising uncertainties in the security environment,” particularly a “deepening arms race… coupled with a lack of action to build transparency and trust in the military and security domains”.45 To show that South Korea has serious interests at stake beyond vague notions of ‘regional order’, the KIPS also emphasises South Korea’s export dependencies and reliance of seaborne trade – including with Australia – and the risks posed to its sea lines of communication by regional instability or tension as central to its rationale for deepening regional engagement.46

The Yoon administration has also decided to recalibrate its public positions on pressing regional security issues, moving away from deliberate strategic ambiguity to embrace greater – though not absolute – clarity.

Yet the KIPS goes a step further to offer brief assessments of specific regional flashpoints. Though the document does not attribute instability or tension to the actions of any specific country, it nevertheless articulates Korea’s intent to “actively promote and strengthen a regional order… shaped not by force or coercion” and its opposition to “unilateral change of status quo by force.”47 It stresses the importance of “peace, stability, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea,”48 and casts “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” as crucial to “the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and for the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific” more broadly.49 In linking these strategic dynamics to South Korea’s own immediate defence priorities, Seoul appears to be conveying a new sense of ‘strategic reciprocity’ with key regional audiences, the sort missing from the Moon administration’s NSP and other previous efforts to engage the wider region on prevailing security challenges.

On China specifically, the Yoon administration has made clear that while South Korea will pursue frank and productive relationship with China, the trajectory of this relationship “entirely depends on China’s own actions.”50 For instance, while the KIPS pledges to “nurture a sounder and more mature relationship as we pursue shared interests based on mutual respect and reciprocity,”51 the NSS makes clear that Seoul will not compromise on core issues relating to “sovereignty, rights, and interests”, especially with regards to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system.52 This principled position echoes those taken by Australia, Japan and the United States in their own strategic documents which, broadly summarised, convey a message that the countries will work with China where they can, and disagree where they must. It also suggests that Seoul may be willing to bear a higher cost from Beijing for more closely aligning with these same states on issues where it sees core interests on the line. For instance, Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo is reported to have said early in the administration’s tenure that as South Korea’s “priorities in values and national interests are changing… I am not convinced that we are going to be affected much by China’s complaints.”53

In fact, the Yoon administration has been willing to weather public and diplomatic backlash from China in making clear its positions on the aforementioned flashpoints in official statements, policy documents and public comments. For instance, in an interview with Reuters in April 2023, President Yoon publicly stated his opposition to changes to the status quo by force, laying the blame for tensions at China’s door and framing the issue of stability in the Taiwan Strait as one of “global” significance on par with the North Korea nuclear issue.54 These remarks led to a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic exchanges between Seoul and Beijing over the right of the other to “meddle” in each other’s affairs.55 China’s opposition, however, has not deterred the Yoon administration, which has continued to message these views through joint leaders’ and foreign and defence ministers’ statements with the United States, Japan and other partners.56

President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol during a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House. 26 April 2023.Source: Getty

Collaboration and collective action

Equally encouraging is the Yoon administration’s effort to articulate the sorts of approaches that South Korea will pursue in response to wider regional challenges. KIPS’ emphasis on collective action and Korea’s capacity to contribute to these efforts is especially noteworthy for Australia. Though not explicitly in relation to defence, the KIPS nevertheless underscores the need for “collective efforts to find common solutions to a range of complex challenges”.57 This reflects a view that while US-China competition looms as the primary source of regional instability, countries like South Korea have the agency to contribute to shaping and upholding the regional order.58 Crucially, the DWP, KIPS and NSS all proclaim that South Korea will invest greater time and effort in cultivating “a network of strategic partnerships” beyond the confines of Northeast Asia, specifically tailored to the priorities and requirements of unique subregions including Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands,59 two of Australia’s three ‘near-region’ priorities.

Beyond strengthening priority bilateral relationships, the KIPS says that this approach will include “issue-specific minilateral cooperation” in the pursuit of mutual objectives, including the preservation of key facets of the regional strategic order.60 Indeed, though President Yoon has stated previously that “[a] deeper alliance with Washington should be the central axis of Seoul’s foreign policy,”61 his administration’s cornerstone policy documents underscore the importance of pursuing collective approaches to pressing regional challenges, with a particular focus on ‘spoke-to-spoke’ relationships with fellow US allies like Australia and Japan.62 The 2023 establishment of an annual Trilateral Indo-Pacific Dialogue with Japan and the United States is a clear signal of the Yoon administration’s intent to better coordinate its responses to regional challenges with partners of mutual significance to Seoul and Washington,63 an encouraging sign for Australia given the existence of its own Indo-Pacific Dialogue mechanisms with South Korea and quiet efforts to explore prospects for trilateral cooperation on a range of issues.

The Yoon administration’s cornerstone policy documents underscore the importance of pursuing collective approaches to pressing regional challenges, with a particular focus on ‘spoke-to-spoke’ relationships with fellow US allies like Australia and Japan.

Australia returns to Korean strategy

Crucially, the Yoon administration has reembraced Australia as a regional actor of significance to Korean strategic interests. This owes much to the fact that Yoon’s team of foreign policy advisers to date has included several figures with strong links to and interest in Australia, including current National Security Advisor Cho Tae-yong (also a former ambassador to Australia) and current Foreign Minister Park Jin, as well as former ambassador to Australia Kim Woo-sang and former Ambassador for National Security Affairs (2013-2016) and Ambassador for International Security Affairs (2010) Lee Chung-min. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the administration’s strategic documents highlight opportunities for advancing a comprehensive security cooperation agenda with Canberra, including in areas of “national defense, defense industry, security, critical minerals, climate change response, and supply chains.”64 On defence specifically, the 2022 DWP frames Australia as a “traditional [ally],” one with which Seoul seeks to expand bilateral defence cooperation “into new and more diverse fields” through combined exercises and policy dialogues,65 including through Korean participation in high-end multilateral exercises in Australia including Talisman Sabre and Pitch Black,66 and through sustaining existing engagements on ammunition support, logistics innovation, and military digitalisation.67 The mere inclusion of Australia in the KIPS marks a distinct shift from the approach of the Moon administration, which omitted Australia from its NSP altogether despite a declared interest in reinvigorating the bilateral relationship,68 and seemed generally disinterested in meaningful engagement with Canberra until the very end of its sole term in office, when concerns about secure access to critical minerals and a new defence industry deal propelled a last-minute visit to Australia by President Moon.69

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, the Hon Richard Marles MP and the Republic of Korea’s, Minister for National Defense, Lee Jong-Sup during their bilateral meeting at Parliament House in Canberra. 4 August 2022.Source: Australian Department of Defence

Notably, the KIPS highlights the “ample potential for trilateral cooperation with the United States and Australia” on a range of defence-adjacent issues like supply chains, emerging technologies, and cybersecurity.70 The DWP notes Australia’s active efforts to expand its military capabilities, modernise its own alliance relationship with the United States “to create an advantageous strategic environment,” and to build-out more impactful strategic partnerships with other partners like Japan, including through trilateral efforts with the United States.71 In a noted step forward on previous positions, South Korea’s Ambassador to Australia has gone as far as to highlight the importance of both countries doing their part, individually and together, to support a long-term US military commitment to the region through increasing collective readiness, enhancing joint training and exercises, and engaging in more frequent portcalls and airflight visits to enhance military interoperability.72 These are welcome signs that South Korea recognises that meeting contemporary regional strategic challenges will require more than refurbishing the US-ROK alliance as “a global comprehensive strategic alliance”, even if this relationship remains one of Seoul’s primary avenues for advancing its regional strategy.73

An uncertain role for Korean military power

As South Korea’s conventional military capabilities have become increasingly sophisticated, so too have calls from key partners to articulate how these might be applied across the wider region grown louder. Of special attention here is the role and capabilities of the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN). Since national democratisation in the 1990s, Korean presidents have generally regarded the ROKN as a symbol of the country’s growing national power and its capacity to play a greater regional and global role.74 Though crises on the Korean Peninsula, individual leaders’ prerogatives, and the outsized influence of the ROK Army within the Korean Ministry of National Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff have all somewhat limited the scale and pace of the ROKN’s modernisation, the country has nevertheless made steady investments in the development of blue-water surface and sub-surface naval vessels capable of conducting operations far from the Korean Peninsula.75 Such has been the impressive scale of South Korean military capability development and research and development expenditure that the country’s naval, strike and other cutting edge defence capabilities are increasingly held up as valuable reference points for other regional powers like Australia and Japan seeking to refashion their own defence forces.76 This has also been recognised by senior US military officials, who have argued that the growing capabilities and operational reach of the Korean military should create opportunities for defence cooperation beyond the Korean Peninsula.77

However, South Korean governments have rarely linked their investments in naval power to discrete regional strategic objectives beyond the Korean Peninsula. It was for this reason that following the publication of Australia’s Defence Strategic Update in June 2020, leading experts on the bilateral relationship implored the Moon administration to “clarify what its broader Asia-Pacific strategic interests are, how its defence spending will help it achieve those interests and which regional partners it wants to work with to shape the region.”78 Indeed, capability programs for advanced destroyers, ballistic missile-capable submarines, and even a prospective aircraft carrier – all hallmarks of the Moon administration’s naval modernisation program – have primarily been justified based on military requirements vis-à-vis North Korean weapons programs,79 even when many of these capabilities clearly have significant applications beyond South Korea’s immediate neighbourhood, consistent with presidential and senior officers’ wider regional objectives for the ROKN.80 Seasoned observers of South Korean foreign policy have noted the effects of this mismatch between capability and regional strategy, observing that Seoul’s “current contributions and strategic influence in the region do not adequately reflect its overall [military] capabilities,”81 and that the country “needs a blue water naval mission that is better aligned with its regional priorities.”82

It is against this backdrop that Australia and other regional countries are formulating their own assessments of Korea’s evolving defence policies. At first glance, there are encouraging signs that Seoul will continue to invest in capabilities with regional applicability at the same time as it seeks to clarify its position on pressing regional strategic challenges. For instance, Yoon appears set to persist with the relatively high annual increases to national defence spending sustained under the Moon government. Despite its apparent dovishness towards North Korea, the Moon administration made significant investments in South Korea’s national defence capabilities, repeatedly increasing annual defence spending by an average of 7 per cent throughout its time in office,83 seeing the country’s defence spending reach 2.7 per cent of GDP in 2022.84 This included significant investments in naval power projection capabilities like strike weapons, qualitative improvements to submarine forces, long-range surveillance and MDA aircraft, and the consideration of a light aircraft carrier project.85 The Yoon administration’s 2023-2027 Mid-Term Defense Plan announced in December 2022 preserves many of these trends, projecting annual increases in defence spending of 6.8 per cent over the next five years.86 These investments will be made despite the administration capping increases to South Korea’s overall national budget at 2.5 per cent, the lowest level in nearly two decades.87

HMAS Brisbane, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Makinami, Republic of Korea Navy destroyer ROKS Wang Geon, and United States Navy destroyer USS Rafael Peralta sail through the East Australian Exercise Area during Exercise PACIFIC VANGUARD.Source: Australian Department of Defence

Seoul has also attempted to more explicitly link its military power with its regional strategic objectives. For instance, the KIPS identifies maritime security as a first-order priority for defence and security cooperation in Southeast Asia, spotlighting opportunities for the ROKN and Republic of Korea Coast Guard to engage with regional counterparts in the pursuit of some of the country’s more modest regional objectives.88 It pledges to support the improvement of regional partners’ maritime law enforcement capacity through dispatching the ROKN Cheonghae counter-piracy unit – long deployed to the Arabian Gulf and African East Coast to contribute to Combined Task Force 151, occasionally leading this grouping – to the region for capacity-building and joint exercise engagements.89 It also commits to step-up naval ship transfers, military logistics support, and maritime domain awareness (MDA) activities with regional navies and coast guards.90 Indeed, the 2022 DWP notes a near-doubling of the number of the ROKN’s off-Peninsula multilateral defence exercises over 2021 levels.91

At the higher end, South Korea has already made good on the emphasis placed on trilateral US-Korea-Japan military cooperation in its strategic documents. It has engaged in several sophisticated anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and ballistic missile defence (BMD) drills,92 and committed to a multi-year trilateral roadmap to regularise and intensify these engagements, including expanding information-sharing.93 These activities are a marked improvement on the Moon administration’s regional strategy, which could not connect record investments in Korean military power with a broader set of regional strategic objectives,94 and was content to leave trilateral defence cooperation with Tokyo and Washington at the mercy of the deteriorating Japan-South Korea political relationship.95

Notwithstanding these encouraging signals, the Yoon administration’s strategic documents stop short of articulating a wider role for Korean defence capabilities in conventional military contexts away from the Korean Peninsula beyond exercise formats, or with partners other than the United States or those countries attached to the United Nations Command. To be sure, the NSS and DWP both outline Seoul’s intention to develop a “Powerful and Technologically Advanced Military” through renewed investments in advanced unmanned, space, cyber and electromagnetic capabilities, and through expanding the depth and scope of defence cooperation with the United States.96 Yet they do not clearly situate these investments in a wider regional security context beyond deterrence on the Korean Peninsula. This appears to be inconsistent with the expanded aperture of South Korean foreign policy presented by the KIPS. Likewise, though the KIPS and the DWP reaffirm the importance of Korean participation in multinational combined exercises like RIMPAC and Pacific Dragon “to enhance our ability for combined operations and improve interoperability… [and] to bolster our combined warfighting capability,”97 they do not go a step further to connect these drills or their outcomes with Seoul’s operational needs or regional strategic objectives.98

Australia’s strategic outlook: A role for military power, but what of South Korea?

It is in that respect that, from an Australian perspective, it is still unclear exactly how or whether South Korea sees itself as a contributor to collective military activities in the context of the broader Indo-Pacific beyond the Korean Peninsula. By comparison, Canberra has made its own position quite clear. Like the Yoon administration’s trio of strategic documents, Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) and the government’s official response to the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) clearly connect intensifying US-China competition with a rapidly deteriorating regional military balance, judging that the risks of “high-intensity conflict” between the two major powers are growing.99 But these documents also clearly communicate Australia’s intent to apply military tools in response to these evolving dynamics. The DSU, for instance, stated clearly that it was Canberra’s position “to ensure Australia is able – and is understood as willing – to deploy military power to shape our environment, deter actions against our interests and, when required, respond with military force.”100 Compared with South Korea’s strategic documents, the DSU and DSR present a more proactive approach to shaping the regional strategic environment through the application of defence resources, with the objective of maintaining “a regional balance of power in the Indo-Pacific that is favourable to our interests.”101

Generating collective deterrent effects with willing and capable partners is what drives much of Canberra’s approach to defence engagement with third parties in the region. Importantly, both the DSU and the DSR emphasise that advancing and protecting Australia’s regional interests requires a willingness and capacity to “contribute with our partners to the collective security of the Indo-Pacific.”102 Australia’s position here is that even if close cooperation with the United States remains central to Australia’s balancing objectives,103 strengthening defence relationships with other capable partners is essential to maintaining regional stability in an era where America no longer enjoys uncontested military dominance.104 As Foreign Minister Penny Wong noted in a major address in April 2023, even as American military presence remains “central to balancing a multipolar region” in the Indo-Pacific, capable countries like Australia must exercise a greater degree of agency and must work with a wider range of partners to contribute to a favourable strategic balance.105Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles has similarly underscored the need to contribute to collective security arrangements in Australia’s immediate region, particularly in Southeast Asia, in order to preserve Australian regional strategic interests.106

Yet based on available evidence, Australia does not consider South Korea to be among the most viable partners in these efforts. Strikingly, South Korea is omitted from a list of key powers identified by both the DSR and DSU “whose active roles in the region will be vital to regional security and stability,”107 including the likes of Japan, India, and Indonesia.108 Both documents also reduce the priority afforded to the Korean Peninsula in Australia’s hierarchy of regional strategic interests, with a solitary reference to the strategic ‘spoiling’ potential of North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities found between the two.109 This is despite Australia’s enduring commitments to United Nations Command – Rear in Japan, including at the most senior of leadership levels,110 contributions which are regarded as being of high value by the United States.111 Though the DSU and DSR do not rule out “contributions outside of [Australia’s] immediate region… including in North Asia,”112 these concerns ultimately come second to Australia’s “primary area[s] of military interest” in the Pacific Islands region, maritime Southeast Asia, and the Eastern Indian Ocean.113

Compared with South Korea's strategic documents, the DSU and DSR present a more proactive approach to shaping the regional strategic environment through the application of defence resources.

These documents are reflective of the general decline of the importance of the Korean Peninsula relative to more proximate strategic challenges in Australian strategic planning, and of views of South Korea as a relevant and reliable partner in meeting those challenges. Key Australian strategic documents of the 2010s – including the 2016 Defence White Paper and 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper – included the ROK as a partner of “first-order importance” along with extended discussions about the importance of Korean Peninsula issues to Australia.114 This has resulted in a paradoxical equation where, today, Australia’s strategic aperture appears to be narrowing to a smaller subset of regional strategic priorities at the very moment that South Korea’s own aperture and appetite for regional cooperation is expanding. This places an added premium on ensuring that the two countries clearly and candidly communicate their strategic priorities, especially if they are to fashion a functional and realistic forward-looking defence cooperation agenda.

A solid foundation: The state of Australia-Korea defence cooperation

Evidently, while the new (re)convergence of strategic outlooks creates a window of opportunity for realising latent potential in the Australia-Korea defence relationship, much work remains to close lingering perception gaps and to overcome historical inaction to realise the partnership’s potential. The bilateral defence relationship has no shortage of agenda items: Successive strategic guiding documents – including the 2009 Joint Statement on Enhanced Global & Security Cooperation and 2015 Blueprint for Defence and Security Cooperation – have added new activities for the two countries to work towards.115 Priorities across these dialogues and documents have included: increasing the number and complexity of joint military exercises; improving logistics cooperation and information-sharing; exploring opportunities for trilateral defence cooperation with the United States; deepening collaboration on defence research and development, as well as defence industry, procurement and supply chains; maritime security; counter proliferation; and cyber and space cooperation.116

But the stop-start nature of the defence and security relationship since the issuing of the 2009 Joint Statement on Enhanced Global & Security Cooperation, and the inconsistent prioritisation of the relationship by both sides over the last fifteen years, suggests that without sustained attention, this newfound momentum is unlikely to be self-sustaining. While analysts generally agree that the bilateral relationship has long been rich in potential, its operationalisation has been rather “shallow” in terms of imagination and tangible progress, including in the defence space.117 This is despite the existence of much of the necessary architecture – including foundational agreements and official dialogues, joint exercises and other regional activities, and a growing defence industrial relationship – required to progress a more purposeful agenda. That stasis suggests that the real challenge is not necessarily to renovate the relationship’s key architecture, but to decide on what can done through existing frameworks, and to identify activities and initiatives that are likely to produce results given lingering political and technical constraints on both sides.

Agreements and dialogues

Encouragingly, the Australia-South Korea relationship already possesses much of the architecture required to advance a more purposeful defence agenda. Biennial Defence and Foreign Ministers’ ‘2+2’ meetings (South Korea’s only such arrangement with a country other than the United States) held since 2013, as well as an array of senior official level dialogues including Strategic Dialogue Talks, Defence Policy Talks, and a Senior Officials’ Policy Dialogue on, in and with Southeast Asia have incrementally advanced small numbers of these agenda items,118 though at a modest pace and with limited scope.119 To support these activities, the two countries have progressively added or updated foundational agreements on information-sharing, defence technology and industry cooperation, and most recently on maritime logistics and sustainment. Together, these agreements theoretically enable a considerable degree of practical cooperation on defence exercises, personnel exchanges, defence industrial collaboration and defence science and technology engagements, with the absence of a Visiting Forces Agreement the only discernible – but important – piece missing from this cross-bracing framework.120

However, the extent to which these various arrangements have been utilised remains unclear. For instance, Australia and Korea have identified but a single niche defence research and development (R&D) project under the authorities of a 2019 Memorandum of Understanding on Defence research, development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E) with no public update on its progress since its announcement,121 while various defence industry dialogues have been created, discontinued and rebooted over a period of many years,122 suggesting only fitful interest in maximising these mechanisms. For those information-sharing and logistics agreements in more regular use, it is unclear as to the degree to which the possibilities and limitations of existing agreements have been tested, particularly how recent updates to the 2010 maritime logistics servicing agreement (MLSA) might enable greater cooperation between Australian and Korean forces outside of United Nations Command arrangements through which the bulk of defence engagements between the two countries have historically taken place.123 This phenomenon is not limited to the Australia-South Korea relationship,124 the relatively underdeveloped state of bilateral defence cooperation increases the chances that these boundaries have not been tested to the extent required to refresh this agenda in an effective manner.

Australia-Republic of Korea Foundational Defence Agreements

Exercises and operations

Generally speaking, Australian and Korean forces share a significant degree of interoperability thanks to sharing a common great power ally, operating a range of common military platforms, and having engaged in an expanding array of multilateral defence engagements away from the Korean Peninsula. Encouragingly, the general trend in these engagements is towards a higher degree of sophistication, especially in the maritime domain, though these advances have been made in collective exercise formats with the United States, Japan, and other partners, rather than through dedicated efforts at the bilateral level. For instance, Australia and South Korea have engaged in the biennial Haedoli Wallaby naval exercises focussed on anti-submarine warfare since 2012,130 an exercise stood-up in the wake of the 2010 sinking of the ROKN Cheonan corvette by a North Korean submarine in the Yellow Sea. However, these engagements have not discernibly grown in scope or sophistication, and have occurred almost exclusively in Korean waters. These drills remain the sole bilateral exercise format for Australian and Korean forces despite suggestions from Australian defence leaders in 2021 that a new bilateral land exercise would be inaugurated before the end of 2023.131

HMAS Melbourne leads the way during the exit from the port of Busan in the Republic of Korea to participate in Exercise Haedoli Wallaby 17.Source: Australian Department of Defence

In minilateral settings, however, the story is quite different. Both countries are regular participants in the annual Pacific Dragon (2016), Pacific Vanguard (2019), and Sea Dragon (2019)multilateral naval exercises along with a combination of Canadian, Japanese, Indian, and US counterparts. These engagements have figured as “more advanced” versions of Australia-Korea bilateral ASW engagements,132 focussing on more advanced-level integrated ASW operations, air warfare operations, live-fire missile events, advanced manoeuvring scenarios, and integrated air and missile defence drills.133 Beyond building familiarity and improving interoperability between the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and ROKN, these engagements have also provided opportunities for Australian and South Korean militaries to practice executing priority naval warfare tasks against qualitatively superior platforms to those available in bilateral contexts, such as US nuclear-powered submarines,134 while simulating the sorts of collective conditions under which the countries are most likely to find themselves operating in a real world crisis. Importantly, South Korean naval vessels have occasionally led combined task groups during these activities.135 These engagements have been supported by meetings between senior Australian and Korean Fleet commanders with their Japanese and US counterparts to discuss multilateral exercises, freedom of navigation operations, maritime law, and rules and norms, and increasing interoperability between the four navies, with the most recent edition in April 2023 hosted aboard the ROKN maritime helicopter training ship ROKS Hansando.136

Of special note, South Korean forces have also joined several major US-Australia defence exercises in Australia in recent years, a significant development considering that almost all major Australia-South Korea defence engagements have hereto taken place on or around the Korean Peninsula In 2021, South Korean forces made their debut at Exercise Talisman Sabre in Australia’s north on the back of Pacific Vanguard drills in proximate waters,137 sending a destroyer and a small number of personnel to participate in the maritime components of the drills.138 Seoul made up for this curtailed engagement by dispatching a sizable force to Talisman Sabre 2023, sending the amphibious landing ship ROKS Marado, destroyer ROKS Munmu the Great, Marineon helicopters, K9 self-propelled howitzers, Chunmoo multiple rocket launchers, and Korean Assault Amphibious Vehicles, as well as some 720 personnel from the Navy and Marine Corps.139 Notably, these drills included a combined multi-domain joint live-fire exercise focusing on integrated artillery, attack aviation, ground assault force, and command and control, featuring Korean multiple rocket launch systems and field artillery alongside Australian, Japanese and US strike and artillery platforms.140

KF-16U Fighting Falcon aircraft of the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) conducting air-to-air refuelling from a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) during Exercise Vigilant Storm 23-1.Source: Australian Department of Defence

The Korean Air Force (ROKAF) has also stepped up its engagement in US-Australia exercises, sending an air-to-air refuelling aircraft and six KF-16U fighter jets to participate in Exercise Pitch Black for the first time in September 2022, including informal bilateral flight and refuelling training before the larger exercises commenced.141 These engagements produced a formal agreement on air-to-air refuelling between the Australian and Korean air forces,142 quickly operationalised during the US-Korea Vigilant Storm exercises on the Korean Peninsula in November 2022, where Australian refuelling aircraft serviced Korean and US fighters during the same mission.143 The Royal Australian Air Force and ROKAF have also cooperated on the deployment of common variants of Aerial Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) and maritime surveillance aircraft in support of counter-proliferation activities in the seas around the Korean Peninsula (including the Proliferation Security Initiative and Operation Argos),144 while ROKAF aircraft deployed to Australia to assist in the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 in 2014.145

Defence industry, science and technology

During a visit to Australia in May 2005, South Korea’s then-National Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung observed that defence industry cooperation was one of three primary areas of mutual interest for Australia and South Korea.146 Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, defence industry cooperation has driven much of the momentum in the bilateral relationship, both historically and contemporaneously.

The impetus for such cooperation, however, is a source of some debate between Australia-Korea watchers. Such cooperation has been framed in high level government statements as a key mechanism for supporting “improved coordination during joint and combined exercises, both bilaterally and multilaterally,”147 enhancing both countries’ sovereign defence industrial capabilities, and more recently as a means of meeting mutual challenges to shared defence supply chains.148 These latter factors have been of particular interest to Australia, given the country’s comparative lack of defence manufacturing capacity, and a local business environment dominated by large foreign defence industry companies (or ‘primes’) and a preponderance of national small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) with niche expertise, searching for opportunities to ‘plug in’ to global defence ecosystems in order to scale up.

On the other hand, analytical explanations for why South Korean leaders have emphasised defence industrial cooperation generally argue that commercial, rather than strategic, incentives have traditionally driven this agenda (and the relationship more broadly)149 These perspectives are consistent with South Korean leaders’ own views of exports and business development as the primary benefits of wider regional engagement.150 However, these same analysts differ in their assessments of the ultimate value that these deals hold for Seoul. While some posit these as simple business transactions, others have noted that “Korean leaders have tended to view high-profile defence exports as anchors to cement partnerships and build national prestige” in ways that other commercial exports are not.151 Even in cases where the political value of such engagement is deemed to be lower, defence industrial cooperation still generates strategic effects through the use of defence capabilities by the end-user regardless of the strategic intent of the seller,152 and creates a latent basis from which to explore more genuine strategic cooperation in the future in moments of greater consensus. This, arguably, is the case with Australia and South Korea.

Efforts to facilitate defence industrial cooperation significantly predated most official action to advance dedicated military-to-military forms of cooperation.

In fact, efforts to facilitate defence industrial cooperation significantly predated most official action to advance dedicated military-to-military forms of cooperation. For instance, this imperative drove early efforts to formalise foundational agreements in defence industrial cooperation (2001) “to “work within each other's defence procurement framework[s]” and intelligence and information-sharing (2010) “to share information on procurement practices.”153 Dedicated dialogues were also established to marshal cooperation, including the Joint Defence Industry Cooperation Committee set up in 2001 (rebooted in 2019 and rebranded as the Joint Defence Industry and Material Committee in 2021) intended to “address issues of mutual materiel benefit and identify opportunities to promote defence industry cooperation.”154 Unsurprisingly, defence industry cooperation has occupied a central place in key guiding documents for the bilateral relationship, including the Defence and Security sections of the 2009 Joint Statement on Enhanced Global & Security Cooperation, the 2015 Blueprint for Defence and Security Cooperation, and the 2021 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.155

The prospect of defence industrial deals has also figured as a key motivator for top Korean leaders to travel to Australia. President Moon belatedly visited Australia in December 2021 to formalise the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership only weeks after Hanwha Defence Australia had secured a A$1 billion contract to supply the Australian army with field artillery – Australia’s first major defence acquisition from an Asian country, and South Korea’s first major arms sale into a ‘Five Eyes’ defence market.156 Seasoned analysts have noted an uptick in high-level visits by senior Yoon government officials to Australia in the last 12 months, mostly outside of the ordinary pattern of ministerial engagement and within the release window for Australia’s Defence Strategic Review, suggesting Seoul’s interest in further promoting defence exports as part of a broader effort to deepen overall defence ties.157

Yet despite this level of attention, and some limited success in the provision of a small number Australian AEW&C aircraft to South Korea, significant examples of successful defence industrial cooperation have been hard to come by. In fact, Korean companies have been left disappointed on several occasions over the last decade by failed bids or cancelled contracts for Australian Defence Force land and naval capabilities. This led to other Korean companies withdrawing from other tender processes for less glamorous yet highly important products like ammunition,158 compelling Australian leaders to reassure their Korean counterparts that Canberra was a reliable business and strategic partner.159 In some instances, contract cancellations were the product of changes to Australian force structure requirements prompted by updates to strategic documents, such as the decision to entirely scrap a A$1 billion order for howitzers from Samsung Techwin (now Hanwha Defense) in 2010 in line with the government’s reorientation of Australian force posture to focus on maritime requirements in Asia,160 a decision which damaged the confidence of Korean defence industry in Australia as a reliable business partner for a considerable period.161 Some feared history repeating itself in in 2023 when, in line with recommendations of the DSR to reorient Australian force posture toward the littoral and maritime domains the Australian Government moved to cut large land capability programs.162 This included abandoning a second and third order of K9 self-propelled howitzers beyond the contract for 30 guns and support vehicles awarded to Hanwha Defence Australia in December 2021 (a contract revived in 2019 in contentious circumstances),163 and a decision to slash projected orders for a new fleet of infantry fighting vehicles, for which Hanwha Defence was chosen as the preferred bidder, from 450 to 129.164

A K9A1 Self-Propelled Howitzer from the 11th Field Artillery Unit of the Korean Marine Corps fires during a multi-national live firepower demonstration at Shoalwater Bay Training Area during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023.Source: Australian Department of Defence

Collaboration on defence science and technology has progressed similarly fitfully, with little publicly available evidence of successful collaborative projects to point to. Since 2013, Australian and Korean representatives have held biannual meetings of the Korea-Australia Joint Committee on Science and Technology to “support collaboration in areas of mutual strategic interest,”165 though these discussions have focussed largely on non-military strategic goods like critical minerals. More specifically, the 2015 Blueprint flagged the establishment of a regular Joint Steering Committee meeting chaired by the Australian Chief Defense Scientist and Director-General of South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Planning Bureau to identify “activities of mutual interest, where resources allow” for collaboration on defence science projects.166 These various agreements have seen the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DST) and South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development (ADD) forge a working relationship in “niche” capability areas including maritime autonomy (including in MCM, persistent surveillance, and concepts for uninhabited autonomous undersea operations) and electronic warfare operations.167 However, public details about specific projects remained minimal until the 2019 announcement of “an initial joint project involving maritime robotics” under the auspices of a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Fields of Defence Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation (an agreement initially proposed in 2015),168 an agreement since complemented by a similar trilateral framework between Australia, the ROK and the United States.169 Yet despite all of this foundational infrastructure, there remain few public programs of record to suggest that collaboration on defence science and technology has produced any major breakthroughs of promising operationalisable projects.

This lack of progress notwithstanding, Korean officials and business leaders have remained upbeat about future prospects for bilateral defence industrial, science and technology collaboration, including the incorporation of Australian firms with niche expertise into Korean global defence supply chains or collaboration on niche programs including unmanned underwater systems. But rather than focussing on the commercial benefits of these specific contracts alone, senior Korean officials have recently sought to articulate defence industrial cooperation with Australia as underpinned by a logic as strategic as it is commercial. This has included efforts to convey that Seoul’s reliability as a defence industrial partner hinges on more than the outcomes of any single commercial contract. For example, in June 2022, then-Korean ambassador to Australia Kang Jeong-sik and several other senior defence officials reportedly framed a suite of new capability offerings to Australia ­– including conventionally-powered submarines and multiple rocket launch systems – as less important to the South Korean Government individually than in their utility in building a more meaningful defence relationship with Australia.170 These sentiments have been echoed by the Ambassador Kang’s successor, Kim Wan-joong, who explained in an interview with Australia’s national broadcaster in July 2023 that:

“A company like Hanwha is not here to sell a single weapons system. They are here to be incorporated into the Australian government defence industry acquisition chains, working together with local partners. It’s not just about self-propelled howitzers and armoured vehicles. Nowadays, Korea is a global player in propelling the global defence demand given the strategic environment… we are playing a critical role with likeminded countries in building our military resilience and providing the high-end military kit to our partners. It’s not just about armoured vehicle, but K2 tanks, intermediate range missiles, guided missile destroyer, light attack planes.”171

In addition, others have sought to highlight Australia’s value to South Korea as a source of strategic-industrial depth; namely, as a potential supplier of compatible military equipment to the ROK Armed Forces in a crisis. In a visit to Australia in mid-2023, the Deputy Minister of South Korea’s Defence Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) Cho Hyun-ki, responsible for the acquisition of South Korean Army’s land defence systems, underscored opportunities for Australia to export Hanwha’s local derivatives of its infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers back to South Korea in order to meet potential “urgent capability acquisition programs” in the future – no doubt having in mind production pressures and opportunities arising from the war in Ukraine.172 Cho’s delegation also included representatives from several Korean aerospace companies, an indicator of interest in widening the aperture for collaboration beyond the closing window of land systems cooperation following the release of Australia’s DSR.173 Leading Korean business executives have similarly underscored these mutual interests, noting the “strategic alignment between what Korea needs to do to enhance their security and what Australia wants to do in the development of a resilient and sovereign defence capability.”174 Though many will point to such remarks as an example of good salesmanship with commercial rather than strategic designs, these remarks nevertheless underscore Australia’s real value to South Korea as an alternative, off-shore source for critical defence industry inputs in a military contingency, considering the latter’s shallow geographic depth and the likelihood that South Korean defence industrial capabilities would be high on North Korean targeting lists in the event of an all-out conflict.

Despite the relative lack of tangible progress, there is a solid basis for advancing a more productive defence and security agenda between Australia and South Korea ­– if the two countries are willing to make sustained investments of time and effort.

Guiding defence and security cooperation in a new era

Evidently, despite the relative lack of tangible progress, there is a solid basis for advancing a more productive defence and security agenda between Australia and South Korea ­– if the two countries are willing to make sustained investments of time and effort. Yet advancing this agenda with greater purpose and consistency, especially across future administrations in both countries, will require candid and frank assessments about the true art of the possible. A clear and common case needs to be made in Canberra and Seoul for why bilateral Australia-South Korea defence cooperation is, in its own right, necessary to meet the two countries’ shared strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific writ large. In that sense, the two countries will also need to consider whether adding additional tasks to the defence cooperation agenda is necessary when a fairly robust agenda already exists on paper, or whether a more ruthless prioritisation and implementation of those already-existing forms of defence cooperation is the order of the day. Stated differently, pursuing institutional or infrastructural upgrades to the bilateral defence relationship – whether new dialogue formats or foundational agreements – as a means to generate momentum behind practical cooperation, rather than allowing practical forms of cooperation to dictate the pace of revisions to overarching frameworks and principles, is an approach that has not produced substantial results to date.175 For example, as former senior Australian officials have noted, the 2+2 arrangement “has underdelivered, producing anodyne statements and only a modest ‘blueprint’ for action” despite the proliferation of dialogues and agenda items.176 Ensuring that the recent upgrade of the relationship to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership does not fall afoul of similar results will require a new approach.

To identify areas that are worthy of the investment of time and resources, the two sides would benefit from revisiting underlying assumptions about where Australian and Korean strategic interests genuinely intersect. Frankly speaking, a roadmap for future Australia-Korea bilateral defence cooperation would benefit from a healthy dose of modesty and realism over heady idealism and boundless optimism. As two countries with capable yet ultimately finite resources, honest discussions will need to be had about where there are genuine overlaps in Australian and South Korean foundational national interests, the sorts of bilateral cooperation that would mutually benefit those interests, and ­– perhaps most importantly – where the outer limits of these prospects currently lie. This means avoiding an approach that interprets “statements of fact” about common features between Australian and South Korean societies – both liberal democracies, market-driven economies, and US allies with shared history of sacrifice on the Korean Peninsula – as self-evidencing the necessity for Australia and Korea to collaborate on defence and strategic issues in the first place.177

This will also require avoiding the temptation to conflate the prospects and rationale for Australia-Korea cooperation with the rapid strides in the Australia-Japan strategic partnership. Pursuing upgrades in the Australia-Korea relationship because of parallel developments in the Australia-Japan relationship will only lead to inflated expectations and future disappointments without the underpinning strategic consensus or practical-mindedness that currently drives the convergence between Canberra and Tokyo.178 Contrary to anxieties in some corners of the South Korean strategic community, it is a shared willingness to operationalise this consensus, rather than an innate favouritism for Tokyo over Seoul on Canberra’s part, which drives Australia-Japan defence cooperation.179 There is no reason why Australia and Korea could not reach a similarly – albeit likely different – consensus if they are willing to do the diplomatic and political legwork to get there, and if they are willing to expend the resources required to put it into practice.

With that as preamble, updating key guiding documents for bilateral defence cooperation to reflect new realities and new priorities is an important initial step. Encouragingly, Deputy Prime Minister Marles and South Korean Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup in May 2023 already highlighted their governments’ intent to finalise an update the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation “to strengthen the defence partnership to better respond to the security challenges in the region.”180 Such an update is necessary to consolidate the quiet and modest gains made in the relationship over the past couple of years in the interests of shifting cooperation up a gear, as well as to articulate the two countries’ shared strategic outlooks on key regional issues and to identify priority lines of effort of greatest mutual interest.


Make it personal: invest in deeper relationships

As a basic principle, the history of the bilateral defence relationship has shown that building strong and durable personal relationships with senior figures across the Korean Government, national assembly, military services, and expert community will be crucial for advancing defence cooperation. Though frequent changes to key personnel or leading figures in different arms of government present a rolling challenge, particularly in the military services, prosecuting the gains that can be made in this window of political and strategic opportunity will nevertheless be crucial.

Source: Getty

At the Track One level, the relationship between President Yoon and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will be particularly important as a tone-setter for the bilateral strategic partnership writ large. Indeed, the presence of a Labor prime minister in Australia and a conservative president in South Korea “revives memories of the last time the two countries set ambitious bilateral strategic goals” during the Rudd-Lee era,181 but progress will depend more on whether the two leaders see their countries’ regional roles and strategic interests in a like-enough manner to propel further developments in the bilateral defence relationship.182 Initial engagements between the two have offered encouraging signs, with expanded defence and arms cooperation, critical supply chains, coordination and cooperation in Southeast Asia, and the importance of one another in implementing each countries’ respective Indo-Pacific Strategy all primary topics of discussion in meetings held to date.183 That Defence Minister Richard Marles has already met his South Korean counterpart (presently Lee Jeong-sup, likely to be replaced by Shin Won-sik) four times in the last 18 months, including in the context of reciprocal visits by both ministers to discuss defence industrial cooperation,184suggests that there is growing momentum at the interagency level as well. Ensuring that senior level relationships remain robust and productive will be key to the success of the bilateral defence relationship in the near future.

Ensuring that senior level relationships remain robust and productive will be key to the success of the bilateral defence relationship in the near future.

Beyond the political level, Australian officials and experts should also prioritise building productive relationships with key figures on both sides of the aisle in the Korean National Assembly to amplify Australia’s profile and perspectives amongst key political constituencies which could produce future Korean leaders. Indeed, consistent engagement with figures in the National Assembly by important Australian official and non-official figures was a key feature of Australia’s approach to influence-building during the Rudd-Lee years, and in building support for the passage of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) in 2013.185 Obvious candidates for targeted engagement include the current Chairperson of the National Assembly Defense Committee Han Ki-ho, who is also the chairperson of the Korea-Australia Parliamentary Friendship Association,186 and has attended several bilateral Track 1 and Track 2 engagements on bilateral business and political relations.187 National Assembly elections scheduled for 2024 will inevitably result in a turnover of officeholders, but expanding this network of political relationships on both sides of Korean politics will be important if Australia is not to once again fade from Korea’s strategic consciousness at the next South Korean presidential election. At the military service level, the two countries should consider new forms of officer exchange to build greater familiarity; for instance, the ROKN or ROKAF could consider dispatching a liaison officer to Australia in much the same way that Seoul has historically done for key European countries like the United Kingdom.188

At the Track Two level, supporting the development of a greater mutual knowledge base of each country and of the bilateral strategic partnership across leading research institutions and universities will be essential for informing Track One discussions and cultivating a deeper understanding of each country’s political culture and strategic imperatives.189 The visible uptick in the number of Korean expert study groups and delegations being dispatched to Australia for discussions about the Yoon administration’s strategy and on bilateral cooperation is encouraging.190 Australia should be seeking to do the same to ensure that both countries are developing their ‘talent benches’ of strategic thinkers working on this relationship. This is particularly important considering that at present, “not many Australian and Korean regional experts work on bilateral defence cooperation” beyond defence attaches dispatched to one another’s head missions.191 The recent decision by the Australia-Korea Business Council (AKBC) to establish a defence sub-committee, with Hanwha Defence as an anchoring member and with other Korean aerospace industries engaged in the process, is an encouraging development,192 but would benefit from incorporating expertise from the think tank and policy sectors to better inform both sides of one anothers’ strategic imperatives and to build lasting connections between these communities in Australia and South Korea. All of the above will be essential to ensuring that present favourable trends in strategic consensus have the best chance of outliving their immediate political circumstances.

Expand the aperture: reimagine bilateral exercises

Secondly, Australia and Korea should consider augmenting their bilateral air and naval exercise regime. This should go beyond the recent addition of a new army exercise to their defence engagement roster.193 As a general principle, these engagements should take greater advantage of Australia’s vast geography, regional proximity, and world-class training ranges. The focus of engagements should be on forms of high-end military integration in the maritime domain with distinct relevance to mid-level contingency scenarios in Southeast Asia and high-end conflict in Northeast Asia. This would build on the rapid strides in the two countries’ roster of multilateral naval drills and the Talisman Sabre exercises to hone bilateral cooperation on ASW, MDA, IAMD and strike activities, while leveraging new air-to-air refuelling and maritime logistics agreements to explore more complex exercise options.194

There are several options to consider for such an augmentation. One easy option would be to stage an edition of Exercise Haedoli Wallaby in Australian waters, making use of Australian underwater tracking ranges far from prying North Korean and Chinese eyes to test new anti-submarine warfare capabilities and concepts.195 For Australia to open these ranges to Korean participation will also help to socialise new ROKN maritime capabilities into service, with South Korea’s planned acquisition of the P-8K maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft and MH-60R ASW helicopter, both of which are already operated by Australia, providing an obvious candidate for such engagements.196 Leveraging this platform commonality to expand the scope and sophistication of bilateral naval drills, with scope to include Korea’s ballistic missile-capable KSS-III submarine, would complement exercises focused on coordinating and integrating maritime patrol aircraft like Sea Dragon and Pacific Dragon which both countries participate in. Doing this would also lay groundwork for operationally testing new maritime robotics project currently underway between the two countries’ defence science and technology organisations,197 as well as large unmanned underwater systems being developed independently by both countries.198

Republic of Korea Air Force KF-16U Fighting Falcon and Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft conduct a flight together as part of Exercise Pitch Black 2022Source: Australian Department of Defence

On land, the two militaries should seek to incorporate combined live-fire artillery and strike exercises into future iterations of the newly-announced Army exercise, borrowing from the four-way combined strike drills conducted with Japan and the United States as part of Talisman Sabre in July-August 2023, leveraging Australia’s impending acquisition of Korean howitzers.199 On the back of the participation of six KF-16s at Exercise Pitch Black 2022 and bilateral RAAF-ROKAF engagements on the sidelines of that drill, it is conceivable that South Korean F-35s could eventually visit Australia for joint training and exercises, just as Japanese fighters have already in 2023,200 while platform commonality between the Australian Wedgetail and Korean PeaceEye AEW&C aircraft provides another obvious vector. All of this, however, will naturally require scoping whether or not an Australia-South Korea Status of Forces or Visiting Forces Agreement would be required to facilitate these sorts of visits (see below).

Tear up the script: exercises to operations

Thirdly, Australia and South Korea should also consider opportunities for engaging in greater numbers of operations and less-scripted encounters beyond structured exercises and beyond the Korean Peninsula. Korean military officers have recently suggested that the two countries “should focus on the areas that would immediately benefit from greater collective efforts,” including collaboration on maritime domain awareness and “security at sea”.201 At present, however, Australian and South Korean ships and aircraft rarely engage in operational contexts outside of UN sanctions enforcement operations like Operation Argos or counter-proliferation activities like the Proliferation Security Initiative, both of which are centred on the Northeast Asian maritime environment. Australian assets have also tended to operate from air and naval bases in Japan during these operations, rather than from South Korean facilities, limiting the scope for bilateral encounters.202 However, both countries plan to step up their defence engagements with third parties in one another’s near regions, suggesting that there may be opportunities for Australian and Korean forces to engage, exercise and operate together much more frequently than in recent years. A planned uptick in RAN and RAAF engagements in Japan on the back of the ratification of the two countries’ reciprocal access agreement this year will see more Australian assets ‘in the area’ in the coming years, while the Yoon administration’s interest in MDA and counter-piracy cooperation with key Southeast Asian states will see ROKN and Coast Guard vessels frequenting littoral Southeast Asia.203

Naval ships from the Royal Canadian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Republic of Korea Navy sail in formation alongside HMA ships Sydney and Perth during Exercise Pacific Vanguard during a Regional Presence Deployment.Source: Australian Department of Defence

Similar activities could be explored at the multilateral level. Indeed, Australia and Korea could also explore options for operationalising Pacific Vanguard as a new active maritime security grouping between Canberra, Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. As with other recently-announced regional maritime minilaterals, this group should be focussed on a specific sub-set of naval tasks, beyond a scripted exercise format. Successive iterations of Pacific Vanguard have demonstrated a considerable degree of interoperability and integration in ASW, MDA and ISR, activities which are coincidentally central to other engagements between Vanguard’s constituent trilateral groupings (Japan-Korea-United States and Australia-Japan-United States, respectively).204 Coupled with the four countries’ technical compatibility and apparent political and strategic alignment, exploring options for translating these exercises into regional operations stands as a worthy consideration. This would track with prevailing trends in regional alignment dynamics which have seen various minilateral groupings created between likeminded partners which are centred on specific naval defence and capability development objectives, including the Quad, AUKUS, the Japan-South Korea-United States trilateral defence partnership, the defence component of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, and the so-called ‘new Quad’ between Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States.205

ROK Endeavour: support Korea's regional naval presence

In these contexts, Australia should also continue to encourage greater Korean participation and leadership of multilateral naval exercises and operations in the Indo-Pacific. This would be an important means to accelerate the integration of new air and surface capabilities into collective defence relationship, and to amplify South Korea’s profile as an active contributor to regional maritime defence and security away from the Korean Peninsula. Seoul already has some leadership experience in these settings, having hosted various iterations of the Proliferation Security Initiative,206 occasionally acted as combined taskforce leads in the context of Exercise Pacific Dragon, and having frequently assumed command of Combined Task Force 51 counter-piracy and counter-smuggling operations in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea.207 It stands to reason that Seoul could apply this evident leadership capacity in an operational setting in Southeast Asia, perhaps beginning with leading regional counter-piracy or non-proliferation exercises or operations. Australia should also encourage the ROKN to consider standing-up its own annual regional presence deployment or engagement activity akin to Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour or Japan’s Indo-Pacific Deployment.208 This would be an important means of forging stronger military-to-military relationships with key regional partners and providing greater numbers of opportunities for scripted and unscripted engagements between ROKN and RAN in a regional context much as Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour has done.209

To support a greater South Korean naval presence in the region, Australia should also consider providing logistical support and access locations for Korean forces operating in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has a pivotal role to play in shaping the regional maritime environment to suit South Korean strategic objectives. Leading Korean experts have suggested that while focusing on “naval and coast guard capacity building efforts in Southeast Asia” through strengthening partners’ maritime law enforcement and MDA capabilities and engaging in military public diplomacy are valuable short-term goals.210 Yet establishing a firmer regional presence and raising South Korea’s profile as an active and engaged security actor in the mid- to long-term will require a more proactive approach that includes “organizing joint exercises led by the ROK” and “securing access to ship repair and support facilities” to enhance the operational reach and persistence of the ROKN beyond Northeast Asia.211

Establishing a firmer regional presence and raising South Korea’s profile as an active and engaged security actor in the mid- to long-term will require a more proactive approach

Geographically, Australia is well-placed to support more frequent ROKN engagements in Southeast Asia. For instance, Australia could open access locations at RAAF Bases Darwin and Tindal along with HMAS Coonawarra to Korean maritime patrol aircraft and ROKN and ROKCG vessels providing MDA and counter-piracy assistance to Southeast Asian partners, supporting Seoul’s commitment to provide greater domain awareness and information-sharing assistance to regional countries to complement capacity-building efforts.212 Similar access privileges could also be provided in the event that, as suggested above, the ROKN creates its own named naval engagement initiative similar to Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour, which senior Korean officials have recently expressed an interest in joining, or Japan’s Indo-Pacific Deployment.213 Australia’s growing capacity to conduct deep maintenance and sustainment not only for its own P-8A and MH-60R aircraft, but also those of partners like the United States, would be particularly helpful in these instances.214 This would also dovetail with top-level commitments to increase practical engagements between the two countries’ navies and coast guards,215 while lessening the logistical burden on the ROKN’s force projection and sustainment activities. Eventually, Korea could be officially invited to formalise these engagements within the framework of the newly-announced Australia-US regional maritime domain awareness initiative once this concept has been proven.216

Shake the foundation: stress-test enabling agreement

Expanding the scope of practical Australia-Korea naval cooperation in the region will require stress-testing the possibilities and limitations of defence foundational agreements between the two countries. Operationalising practical and unscripted forms of naval cooperation will generate positive deterrent effects if coordinated and scoped properly, but as with similar initiatives in other minilateral groupings like the Quad, ensuring that these activities are sustainable and resilient will require ironing out chinks in current agreements or identifying gaps that need filling.217 Though most key foundational agreements are based on standards equivalent to Australian agreements with the United States and other key partners,218 the scope of these mechanisms has historically been under-tested as a result of the slow development of an intimate defence relationship more generally. In addition, the absence of certain agreements such as a bilateral Status of Forces or Visiting Forces Agreement – something apparently sought by Australia and rebuffed by South Korea for some time219 – has meant that all Australia-Korea defence engagements on the Korean Peninsula have been “conditioned by UN Command arrangements,”220 preventing Australian forces from engaging more extensively in on-peninsula exercises in bilateral or trilateral settings with South Korea and the United States.221 Based on public evidence, it is difficult to gauge just how far cooperation has progressed as a result of recently concluded or updated agreements, such as the 2021 update to the 2010 Maritime Logistics Support Agreement or 2091 MOU on Defence RDT&E. Exploring the art of the possible and identifying limitations within these existing frameworks, and assessing this against what the two countries would like to be able do together, should be a priority.

From transaction to collaboration: advance mutually beneficial defence industry cooperation

On defence industry collaboration, Australia and Korea should build on Hanwha Defence Australia’s recent successes to expand collaboration on specific mutual supply chain requirements, particularly ammunition. This is especially important in the wake of the DSR, which called for cutting major contracts for howitzers and infantry fighting vehicles to be supplied by Hanwha Defence Australia, leading some to question whether momentum in the bilateral defence relationship was, once again, about to be derailed by Australian capability and acquisition decision-making (however well-reasoned).222 Given that “Korean leaders have tended to view high-profile defence exports as anchors to cement partnerships and build national prestige,” exploring genuine opportunities for further defence industry collaboration ­­– with distinct relevance to Australia’s real strategic circumstances and capability requirements – would help to consolidate political momentum generated by recent capability contracting decisions.223 Beyond political symbolism, “establishing a defense industry partnership built more on collaboration than transaction” will be vital to addressing shared challenges to critical defence supply chains and industrial resilience.224

At face value, Korean companies appear alert to this requirement. Hanwha Defence Australia has made it clear that it sees significant possibilities for the export of armour manufactured in Australia to other markets and partners – including back to South Korea – and has latterly been seeking to create opportunities for Australian SMEs to provide inputs into the company’s global supply chains.225 This is partially a response to pressures on Korea’s own defence manufacturing capacity consequent on new massive orders from other overseas partners deriving from the Ukraine war and, to a much lesser and unofficial extent, an effort to develop a degree of strategic-industrial depth that the country does not enjoy geographically.226 At the same time, Korean industry is no doubt attempting to position itself for future Australian business opportunities, having noted the DSR’s recommendations on building a defence manufacturing capability in Australia, and persistent impediments faced by Australia in its defence industrial collaboration efforts with traditional partners like the United States.227

Republic of Korea Armed Forces firing an K239 Chunmoo during Talisman Sabre 2023 at Shoalwater Bay Training Area.Source: Australian Department of Defence

Deepening defence industrial engagement between the Australian Government and Korean industry that is both commercially viable and serves genuine strategic interests will require a new level of engagement on what exactly the latter can provide the meet the former’s needs. One initial focus area might be localising Korean ammunition production in Australia, with an initial focus on 155mm rounds for artillery pieces. As discussed above, this is something which the two countries have explored cooperating on before, before efforts fell afoul of Australia’s ponderous Defence acquisition system and decisions to scrap certain capability programs. This is also already an agenda item for the US-Australia alliance, driven by American production bottlenecks and stockpile shortages in the wake of the Biden administration’s efforts to supply Ukraine with ample war material.228 These pressures have already led Washington to seek ammunition from Seoul, with the latter approving multiple “loans” within the last 12 months, including 500,000 just this April.229 The recent standardisation of Korean and US 155mm rounds, the export of Korean rounds to Ukraine for use in US standard artillery, and Australia’s acquisition of the Hanwha K9 howitzer suggest that a neat synergy may already exist here.230

Yet as this author argued in recent years, “the true significance of Hanwha’s arrival in Australia arguably lies with the opportunities this may present for bilateral collaboration in areas of mutual strategic interest” rather than in the specific deals themselves.231 This is especially true when it comes to long-range strike weaponry, capabilities increasingly central to Australian and South Korean military doctrine alike. In this respect, Australia should encourage Korean firms to make competitive bids for a stake in the former’s Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordinance (GWEO) enterprise,232 considering recent developments in Korean air and maritime strike weaponry,233 and enduring supply chain and technology sharing issues between Australia and the United States with respect to the local manufacture of guided weapons.234 In fact, the willingness of South Korean companies to more willingly transfer technical information and advanced technology to countries purchasing Korean defence equipment stands as a distinct advantage for both Canberra and Seoul to utilise.235

Aside from supporting Australian capability requirements, the development of a stronger Korean defence industry presence in Australia’s defence industrial and manufacturing base would also provide South Korea with a level of strategic depth that it does not enjoy geographically. This is something that a small number of Korean officials have recognised, but on available evidence has yet to be grasped as a genuine vulnerability by the majority of Korean strategists or government policymakers.236 Aside from supplementing Korean peacetime defence industrial requirements, expanding production for specific platforms or expendables like missiles and artillery in Australia would provide South Korea with an additional alternative source of supply well outside the range of the vast bulk of North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities strike weapons, complementing the development of similar pockets of defence industrial resources in European and Middle Eastern customer countries. Though there may emerge a “countervailing pressure” to produce all of Korea’s requirements on the Peninsula,237 policymakers in Seoul would do well to consider the strategic utility of establishing off-shore defence production bases in Australia – provided, of course, that Australia sees the same value to its national interests in doing so.238


This activity was supported by the Australian Government through a grant by the Australian Department of Defence. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian government or the Australian Department of Defence. Research conclusions are derived independently and authors represent their own view, not those of the United States Studies Centre. This report was anonymously peer-reviewed by both internal and external experts.