Australia welcomes South Korean president with confirmation of border reopening

Australia’s international border will open to more travellers on Wednesday, as the prime minister confirmed that his government would end the “pause” triggered by the emergence of the Omicron Covid variant.

Scott Morrison, welcoming the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, to Canberra on Monday, said Australia would open to travellers from South Korea and Japan and also international students and skilled workers more broadly.

While pandemic recovery was on the agenda for the talks at Parliament House, the leaders also heralded closer defence ties as they witnessed the signing of a previously announced $1bn military equipment contract with a South Korean firm.

Moon said he respected the Australian government’s “sovereign” decision to strike the Aukus deal with the US and the UK – an arrangement that China has claimed poses a threat to regional stability, amid worsening tensions between Beijing and Canberra.

But the South Korean leader also voiced a desire to maintain a harmonious relationship with China, which he said was important to securing North Korea’s denuclearisation. He ruled out joining Australia, the US and other countries in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The Australian government announced in late November that it was delaying the plan to reopen Australia to international skilled workers and students, as well as humanitarian, working holidaymaker and provisional family visa holders, from 1 December until 15 December.

The two-week “pause” also applied to reopening to travellers from Japan and South Korea. That meant the only travel was for fully vaccinated Australian citizens, permanent residents and immediate family, as well as fully vaccinated green lane travellers from New Zealand and Singapore.

Although Morrison signalled last week that he wanted to avoid any further delay to reopening, the government was not definitive about the matter, prompting students and other travellers to be worried about a further disruption to their plans.

During a joint media conference with Moon on Monday, Morrison said: “On Wednesday of this week, we will move again forward. The borders will be reopened both to Korea and to Japan and for skilled migration and for students as we conclude the pause that we announced several weeks ago.”

The prime minister also welcomed Queensland’s reopening on Monday, describing it as the borders “tumbling down” and an “encouraging” sign of “Australians coming together as we get to the end of this year”.

“I know the more than 123,000 Australians of Korean ancestry will be looking forward to seeing their friends, their family and them being able to join together and that has been made possible because of the outstanding achievements in Korea in managing Covid,” Morrison said.

Moon said he appreciated the government’s decision to reopen to fully vaccinated people from South Korea, hoping this would “lead to more active exchanges and economic revitalisation”.

Moon, who is due to complete his single term as president in May, is visiting Canberra and Sydney to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and South Korea, and will also meet with the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese.

The Australian government trumpeted the awarding of a $1bn weapons contract to South Korean firm Hanwha Defense Australia, stemming from a commitment first made in May 2019.

The deal includes 30 self-propelled howitzers – a type of artillery, 15 armoured ammunition resupply vehicles, and weapon-locating radars that help find enemy artillery. They will be built in Geelong and supplied to the Australian army.

The then defence minister, Linda Reynolds, announced in September last year that Hanwha Defense Australia had been chosen to build 30 self-propelled howitzers in the Geelong region.

Reynolds’s successor as defence minister, Peter Dutton, who was in attendance at Monday’s signing ceremony, said the project would “mean a significant increase in the level of firepower and security for Australian artillery capability”.

The contract was one of four documents signed on Monday, with the two countries also adding more details to a previous agreement to work together on “low- and zero-emissions technology”.

Moon said Australia and South Korea had also agreed to strengthen cooperation on stable supply chains for critical minerals, saying it was “important not only for the two countries, but also for the global economy”.

“Australia, the world’s richest country in mineral resources, and Korea, a major producer of batteries and electric vehicles, play an important role in the global supply chain,” Moon said.

Asked about a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, Moon said: “We have not received a request from any other country including the United States to participate in the diplomatic boycott. We are not considering a boycott measure.”

Moon said South Korea and Australia were “like-minded” on geopolitical developments, as they were both US allies that had economic relationships with China.

“However, Korea has another factor to take into account and that has to do with the peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and also denuclearisation of DPRK [North Korea],” Moon said.

“We need the constructive efforts of China to enable denuclearisation of DPRK.”

The South Korean president declined to comment directly on Dutton’s recent forthright comments about Australia’s potential involvement in a future war to defend Taiwan, but stressed the importance of dialogue “to enable a peaceful management of the cross-strait issues”.

Morrison said he had assured Moon that Aukus and the Quad – an increasingly prominent grouping among Australia, the US, India and Japan – were “about ensuring that Australia can be a stronger partner for so many others”.

The Australian prime minister strongly welcomed South Korea’s interest in joining the big regional trade deal known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – which the UK, China and Taiwan are also seeking to join.

In a clear swipe at China – which has rolled out a series of trade actions against Australia over the past 18 months – Morrison said the CPTPP “sets a high bar for countries that understand the importance of the rule of law in trade, that deal with partners fairly and consistently”.

He said South Korea had “already achieved those marks”.

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