Foreign Affairs

Moving South Korea’s image of NZ into the modern era

In the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, a gleaming blue Hyundai Pony takes pride of place in an exhibition heralding the manufacturing push which led to South Korea’s miraculous post-war economic growth.

Ecuador had the honour of being Hyundai Motor’s first export market, but the right-hand steering wheel on this particular Pony offers a small hint of where it has galloped home from  - New Zealand.

Our ties with South Korea stretch back over 50 years; diplomatic relations were formally established in 1962, but the relationship dates back to the deployment of Kiwi troops during the Korean War.

With the country established as New Zealand’s sixth-largest trading partner, and NZDF troops still helping to enforce a ceasefire on the Korean peninsula, it’s no surprise Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters this year described the two countries as “natural partners in the Asia-Pacific”.

Yet talking to people on the ground in Seoul, some feel there is more that can be done to tighten the bilateral ties.

Phillip Turner, New Zealand's ambassador to South Korea, says the fascinating developments in the country are what drew him back into diplomacy. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Phillip Turner, New Zealand’s ambassador to South Korea, is a relatively recent arrival: he was lured to the post earlier this year after 18 years working for Fonterra, and before that diplomatic postings in Tokyo and Brussels.

Gesturing out the window to the Seoul cityscape, Turner is clear about why he was drawn back to the public service.

“In 2018, I couldn’t think of a more interesting part of the globe to be.”

South Korea is at an important stage in its economic and social development, he says, shifting from a country playing catch-up to one which now must transition to a mature economy.

Turner believes the similar ideologies of the South Korean and New Zealand governments offer a chance for greater political cooperation; he points to the similarities between South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s “inclusive economic policy” and New Zealand’s push for what Peters has described as “capitalism with a human face”, as well as both countries’ interest in defending the rules-based order.

The ambassador is also keen to update New Zealand’s image in South Korea, which he describes as “very positive but quite traditional”, focused on friendly people, spectacular scenery, and hobbits.

“That’s a great base to work with, but we’re pretty keen to actually modernise that and present an image of New Zealand which also includes creativity, innovation, and presents New Zealand as a future-focused and potentially inspiring peer for Korea in a troubled world.”

Weta Workshop's relationship with Gwangmyeong has included helping to run and judge a fantasy design competition. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

But hobbits and mythical creatures do have their place - including in the dark bowels of the Gwangmyeong Cave park, a major tourist attraction less than an hour’s drive from Seoul.

Speaking through a translator, Cho Gyou-Jin, the head of Gwangmyeong City’’s global tourism division, provides a brief history of the cave.

Mined for precious metals by the Japanese during their colonial rule over South Korea, the gold mine was closed in 1972 then used to store fermented shrimp, before a mayor of Gwangmyeong, a former journalist, came up with the idea of turning it into a tourist attraction.

While it’s hard to quantify the economic value of the cave, the tourist numbers provided by Cho give some hint. In 2010, before the development of the caves, around 3000 people visited Gwangmyeong; in 2016, about 1.5 million made a trip.

Weta Workshop founder Richard Taylor has visited Gwangmyeong several times, and in addition to supplying some items for the cave - underneath the dragon is a crouching Gollum - the company has helped to run an international fantasy festival and judge a design competition.

Among the cave’s many attractions is a sight that may seem familiar to fans of the Hobbit movies: a hulking 41-metre-long dragon stretching back into the darkness, designed and manufactured by Weta Workshop.

Cho says the city has been working with Weta for the last five years, when discussions about potential events like an international film festival led to a movie producer friend of Weta founder Richard Taylor arranging a discussion.

Taylor has visited Gwangmyeong several times, and in addition to supplying some items for the cave - underneath the dragon is a crouching Gollum - Weta has helped to run an international fantasy festival and judge a design competition.

Cho says Weta’s help has been invaluable, with the company providing design advice as the cave exhibits expand; Gwangmyeong is hopeful of doubling the international visitor numbers in coming years.

Rebuilding student numbers

Another traditional area of international appeal for New Zealand has been as an education destination, including for Korean students keen to learn English or broaden their horizons overseas.

South Korea is New Zealand’s fourth-largest source of international students - but that has not been without its ups and downs.

Min Chang, the chief executive of South Korean international education agent KOKOS, says the early 2000s were a buoyant time, before a one-two punch of the global financial crisis and a declining birth rate took their toll on numbers.

Another problem is the notoriously competitive Korean education system and job market, with overseas qualifications no longer holding the esteem they once did.

“If there’s no advantage or no employability after they get a degree from overseas, why go there? If it’s not Harvard or Yale, not even the University of Sydney works here."

“If there’s no advantage or no employability after they get a degree from overseas, why go there? If it’s not Harvard or Yale, not even the University of Sydney works here,” Chang says.

Despite that, New Zealand still appeals to Koreans for a number of reasons, including its safety, relative closeness to home, and provider quality, as well as the New Zealand government's work over the last decade to promote the country in the market.

Chang and KOKOS’ New Zealand director Simon Kim are in two minds about the Government’s recent cutbacks to post-study work rights.

KOKOS chief executive Min Chang (left) says a pathway to permanent residency is an important selling point for international students. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

While Kim says the changes may be positive for New Zealand, he notes there is a potential mismatch in needs, with unskilled young South Koreans more likely to be interested in the sub-degree courses now subject to greater restrictions than higher-level study.

Chang says many potential students are also driven by a pathway to permanent residency - at odds somewhat with the coalition parties’ (as yet unfulfilled) pre-election talk of cutting back immigration.

Where the agent and the Government are on the same page is secondary education: Chang says that is a significant area of interest for South Koreans, while Turner says that is New Zealand’s main focus.

The ambassador is optimistic about the education market, saying the numbers of South Korean students have started to rise after the post-GFC drop - something not the case for every market.

A CPTPP with South Korea?

The bigger picture when it comes to trade is also positive, with Turner describing the implementation of a 2015 free trade agreement as “very smooth”.

Goods trade in the year to August is up 17 percent, while the food and beverage sector’s share has increased 36 percent since the FTA was implemented.

Turner points to booming kiwifruit exports as an example of the deal’s benefits: tariffs for the fruit were 45 percent, but are now less than 20 percent and set to hit zero by 2020.

That’s not to say there aren’t kinks to be ironed out: exports of some produce, like apples and onions, are currently off-limits for sanitary and phytosanitary reasons, while high tariffs are still in place on items like mussels and some dairy products.

There is no review mechanism in the agreement, but Turner says there are some shared opportunities for the two countries on the multilateral front.

Another area where Turner says New Zealand will focus is on investment flows: curiously, South Korea is one of the only countries in the world where we invest more than we receive.

While there have been some noises about reaching a conclusion to RCEP negotiations, New Zealand is realistic about the quality of any deal. Instead, he is more interested in South Korea potentially joining the CPTPP: it is currently weighing up whether or not to sign on, with a decision expected by the end of the year.

Another area where Turner says New Zealand will focus is on investment flows: curiously, South Korea is one of the only countries in the world where we invest more than we receive.

Of course, it’s fair to question whether improving ties with New Zealand is at the top of President Moon’s mind given the progress being made in peace talks with North Korea.

Turner concedes that as the smaller partner, New Zealand will need to be creative in how it makes any progress.

But in what he describes as “turbulent times”, countries that share the same values on human rights and the rule of law are relatively few and far between - and he hopes that could be the spur for a closer relationship.

* The author’s trip to Seoul was arranged by the Korean government.

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