Canada: 50 Years Of Korea-Canada Relations: The Future Will Require Fresh Thinking On Both Sides, Starting With A Free Trade Agreement

Last Updated: July 24 2013
Article by Len Edwards

Over the past weeks the Korean Embassy in Ottawa has hosted a number of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Canada-Korea diplomatic relations. Similar events have been occurring this year in Seoul organized by the Canadian Embassy.

These events and others have also commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the Korean War, in which Canadian soldiers fought and died alongside their Korean and UN allies to resist aggression and preserve the Republic of Korea as an independent and free state.

These events should remind Canadians that they have enjoyed a close and beneficial relationship with Korea, from the tough times during and following the Korean War to the happier decades of development and building that followed.  They remind us as well of the many Koreans who have chosen to make Canada their home and have interwoven their personal stories and contributions into the fabric of our bilateral ties.

These events also bring home the fact that the Korea of the 1960's to 1990's was a strikingly different country than the 21st century Korea of today, the product of the most successful development story on the planet.

The Republic of Korea is now among the globe's elite economies. A G20 and OECD member, Korea has the 12th largest GPD in PPP terms according to IMF rankings (Canada's is in13th position). It has 13 companies on the 2012 Fortune 500 list (Canada has 11). It is the first country to have graduated from significant aid recipient to significant aid donor.

If Canada and Korea are to make a go of another 50 years of solid relations it will on the basis of a very different reality and accompanying dynamic. It will be one between developed states, two democracies enjoying high standards of living, with fully mature industrial and business sectors.

Unfortunately, continued success is not assured. New effort, some new ideas, and a new level of commitment are all going to be needed.

There will still be differences in approaches and conditions.  Korea's lingering attachment to a more hands-on role for the state in the Korean economy contrasts to Canada's commitment to the open market system.  Korea's overwhelming preoccupation with its security differs from to our more detached view of security threats further from our shores.  Korea is a homogeneous society where pride of nation is singularly strong, while Canada's history and diversity give us a different source for defining our sense of "nation" and what makes us proud.

But there is a new challenge. Korea and Canada are now more or less equals in power terms.  This has implications for how our countries will need to treat and do business with each other.

Canada's relative position in the world has been in decline for some time.  Other nations like Korea have caught up and even surpassed us in terms of economic size and global influence. Some Canadians might be unwilling to accept this reality, or if they do, become more defensively minded economically, and politically sensitive to moves by others that remind us of our lessened influence.  Some might believe that we still have a special place, and should be hesitant in giving them a place at the table.

In contrast, Korea has been a country on the rise.  Koreans are justifiably proud of this achievement. But some Koreans might give the impression that they should still have special treatment and protections they no longer need, and that they see every negotiation as a choice between winning or losing, rather than win-win opportunities between long term equal partners.  Some Koreans might think they can do without those countries that were once important to them as they rub shoulders with the bigger players.

Unfortunately, some of these dynamics appear at work on both sides as Korea and Canada struggle to complete the negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement that have been underway on and off since 2005.  This agreement is the essential framework for the modernized trade and economic relationship that should exist between two developed and equal partners such as Korea and Canada.

There is a lot at stake here.  For Canadians, the Korean market has a well-earned reputation as a tough environment, but its firms are dynamic players in the Asia Pacific region, where Canadian firms look to be more engaged.   Korea provides not only a market for goods and services, but access to regional and global supply chains through partnerships and business tie-ups.  Canadian agri-food products can provide Korean consumers with greater choice and variety.

While Korea's interest in eventually gaining access to oil and gas from Canada is probably not on the FTA table, the Koreans must know that the Asian market gives Canadians many options. Interest in long-term investments or supplier arrangements are bound to be higher if the economic relationship is stabilized and facilitated by a modern overarching trade and economic framework that creates trust and signifies political commitment.

This sense of trust and political commitment must also be built on the notion that we put each other among our most favoured relationships, on equal status with our other favoured relationships.

Failure by Canada and Korea to complete an FTA, to make the compromises needed to make the agreement work for both sides, would be one sign that, strategically, each country does not believe the other should be among its elite international partnerships in the 21st century, economically and in broader terms as well.

This is especially important as the potential in Canada-Korea relations moves beyond the purely bilateral sphere of the past 50 years to more cooperation on international issues of common concern, such as the health of the global economy, effective global governance in the G20 and elsewhere, and preserving a peaceful and secure Asia Pacific region.

There are many signals from Seoul that Korea wants to play more actively on international issues, a further sign of its "coming-of-age", and is seeking like-minded partners, such as Canada. This makes sense. We have already worked well together in our coordinated hosting of the G20 Toronto and Seoul Summits in 2010.

All this speaks promisingly of another successful 50 years of cooperation and mutual benefit. But it has to start with a successful conclusion to our FTA discussions.

This op ed originally appeared online for iPOLITICS.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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