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New Australian envoy looking ahead to FTA deal

Korea Herald

New Australian envoy looking ahead to FTA deal

By Yoav Cerralbo

23 January 2006

The new Australian Ambassador’s third posting in Korea might be the charm that helps bring Australia-Korea trade relations to its zenith.

"Korea is the only country in the region we are not working on a free trade agreement with so I would like to see some progress in my time towards that goal," said Australian Ambassador Peter Rowe during an interview with The Korea Herald.

This is Rowe’s third posting in Korea. He was originally here between 1983-1986 as second secretary and then in 1995-1998 as deputy head of mission. This time around, as ambassador, he’s hoping he can bring what his predecessor regretted not being able to do.

Both countries share a strong, developed and gratifying relationship. Politically and strategically, Korea is one of Australia’s key partners in the region and is crucial for the Land Down Under’s prosperity and security.

With relations being as good as it gets right now, Rowe believes that the next level for both countries is to sit down and work on an FTA, but the main question remains - how to bring a reluctant partner to the negotiating table? "I think we have to demonstrate that Australia is not the threat on agriculture that many, not only Korea, perceive it to be. For Korea, we really would not pose a serious threat to its agriculture sector," he said. "Much of what we do is counter-seasonal so it doesn’t threaten especially in horticulture."

The important factor at this point is taking the first steps to bring Korea to the table. Once there, Rowe plans to highlight all the ways they can deal with the agricultural question.

"We can work for an agreement that Korea is comfortable with," he said. "I think once everything is on the table we will see that the issue is not the major stumbling block that it seems to be at the moment."

On the beef side of the debate, Rowe said that Australian beef supplies a certain niche market which doesn’t threaten local farmers and international accords. Even rice is not an issue because as Rowe added, "Australia is not a big rice producer."

Once the question of agriculture has been resolved, Australia is hoping that the possible future partnership will include lucrative services, investments and partnerships in new industries like new technology.

"Services and investment are key areas for the future; it’s what we look for with the U.S. free trade agreement. We hope that there will be beneficial outcomes for both Korea and Australia," Rowe said.

On the cultural front, Rowe promised to continue its role to bring Australian life and culture to Korea with some new events and to bring back some of the old events that were hugely successful in raising awareness of all things Australian in the minds of Koreans.

"What we have in mind in the future are exhibitions, another film festival. I’d like to see exchanges in performers as well, that’s always an expensive area."

This being Rowe’s third tenure in Korea, he’s witnessed a lot of changes in Korean culture in the past 20 odd years.

The first thing that struck Rowe when he arrived in Seoul was the development on the southern part of the Han River.

"When I was here in the ’80s it was beginning to happen but it had taken off around about the time of the Olympics and afterwards. This is a reflection of the enormous wealth and prosperity generally in the country over that time," he said.

The other noticeable difference he said is in the people’s mentality. Even though it’s the early days in his life in Korea, he noticed that attitudes have changed less between the ’80s and ’90s.

"People were still close to their rural roots and traditions but what was different was people had money and in that traditional way they were very generous in spending it specifically in entertaining."

The main change he’s witnessed so far is how women live their lives nowadays.

"I think even in the ’90s you would never see women in a restaurant at night by themselves. Now you can see women in a restaurant by themselves eating. But I’ve noticed there would be groups of women at night in the restaurant where normally in the past they would be back home before dark."

Rowe believes this is not due to western influence but, instead is a response to affluence.

"I think being independent and affluent shapes the way you behave just as much as the influences from the outside."