Commentary from Colin Robertson

South Korea is a natural fit for closer trade ties with Canada

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
May 14, 2017

In his congratulatory message to newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to “deepen relations between our two countries.” It’s the customary diplomatic bromide for these occasions, but with South Korea, it should mean more.

Our only free-trade agreement (FTA) in Asia is with South Korea. Negotiated after nearly a decade of discussions, it gives Canada preferential treatment into a market of 50 million consumers. It has opened up new opportunities, especially for beef and lobster sales, but we should be making more out of it. With few natural resources, beyond the resourcefulness of its people, and the gateways of Incheon and Busan, the South Korean economic miracle is based on innovation, adaptation and entrepreneurial spirit. These are all qualities successive Canadian governments are keen to encourage and develop at home.

Mr. Moon plans to visit Washington in the coming weeks. Mr. Trudeau should invite Mr. Moon to include a Canadian stopover to plan the “how and what” of deepening relations. A renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement may be at the top of U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade agenda, but he also wants to renegotiate the “horrible” Korea-U.S. free-trade agreement (KORUS). Mr. Moon would almost certainly welcome any advice from our Prime Minister on the management of Mr. Trump.

The FTA provides a framework and platform, but the meat of these deals comes from deepening our business-to-business ties. The South Koreans are keen to develop partnerships in sectors including medical devices, smart cars and e-commerce as well as in the practical application of artificial intelligence and robotics, all areas in which Canada has interest and growing competence.

The private sector will be key. South Korea’s International Trade Association (KITA) with its 71,000 members, mostly small and medium-sized enterprises, is a natural starting point for Canadian business. KITA has 10 overseas offices. One of our goals should be to have KITA open a Canadian office.

But it’s the North Korean situation that is first on Mr. Moon’s to-do list and the main purpose of planned trips to Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. The North Koreans have played the international community for 20-plus years, promising concessions, all the while building their nuclear arsenal and ballistic-missile capacity. The United States has declared an end to its “strategic patience.” All options are now on the table.

To further complicate things for the South Koreans, Mr. Trump says he wants Seoul to pay for the billion-dollar terminal high altitude area defence system (THAAD), while China regards THAAD as provocative. Diplomacy is needed now more than ever.

Canada has a real interest in containing the North Korean nuclear threat. North Korean missiles aimed at the United States, given their faulty trajectory, could easily land in Canada. It’s a strong argument for Canada to sign onto ballistic missile defence in the forthcoming Defence Program Review.

Canada has frozen relations with North Korea and increased sanctions for their nuclear arms perfidy. But would a Canadian presence in Pyongyang give the international community another set of eyes, ears and voice? Canada has place and standing in Korea.

A Canadian missionary created the first Korean-English dictionary. A Canadian doctor to one of Korea’s last monarchs, founded what is now Yonsei University. During the Korean War (1950-53), Canada fielded the third-largest contingent in the UN Forces. The Gapyeong Canada Memorial commemorates the more than 500 Canadians who gave their lives. Canadians still serve with the United Nations Command overseeing the armistice with North Korea.

The people-to-people ties continue to grow. Last year, the Korean Government opened a Korean Cultural Center in Ottawa with its activities including a lively K-Pop gala. At well over 200,000, the Korean-Canadian diaspora is the fourth largest outside of South Korea, with most living in Toronto and Vancouver. There are 25,000 Canadians in South Korea, many teaching English as a second language.

Chasing the big, shiny markets in Asia – China, India and Japan – is understandable, but they also have their challenges. Like the four-leafed clover in the Tin Pan Alley jingle, South Korea has been overlooked. With the Moon Jae-in administration in place, it is time to give South Korea another look.

Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat, and is vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He recently participated in a Korea Foundation-sponsored program in South Korea.

 


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