South Korean ambassador to Australia resigns amidst scandal and protests

April 4, 2024
protest outside parliament house
Protest by Australian Candlelight Action outside Parliament House, Canberra on March 23. Photo: Paul Oboohov

Less than a month after Lee Jong-sup was appointed South Korea's (RoK's) ambassador to Australia, he was forced to resigned on March 29, amidst protests in South Korea and Australia. Critics saw his appointment as an attempt by right-wing President Yoon Suk-yeol to facilitate his former defence minister's escape from a criminal investigation into his role in covering up the death of a soldier.

Seona Cho, an activist with Melbourne Candlelight Action, explains the background to this scandal and its links to the growing ties between United States, Australian and South Korean arms manufacturing corporations.

* * *

Lee Jong-sup, a former South Korean defense minister under investigation for allegedly tampering with an investigation into the death of a soldier in the Marine Corps, arrived in Canberra on March 12 as Korea's ambassador to Australia. In the process, the South Korean government circumvented a constitutional law banning him from leaving the country. The Korean community in Australia — comprising more than 180,000 people — was furious and protested that this was grossly undemocratic.

Lee has since been forced to resign his post but, unfortunately, the problem does not stop there. South Korean president Yoon Seok-yeol said Lee’s appointment was to boost military cooperation and arms sales between South Korea and Australia and the arms industry publication Asia Pacific Defence Reporter eagerly welcomed his appointment because Lee’s career “has been characterised by a very close working relationship with the US and a spirit of enhanced military cooperation between those two countries”.

“His appointment as Ambassador to Australia comes at a time of a rapidly growing security dynamic between the two countries.  Not only has Korea’s Hanwha won large contracts with the Australian Army for ‘Huntsman’ Self-Propelled Howitzers and ‘Redback’ Infantry Fighting Vehicles but its naval subsidiary has been shortlisted for the future light frigate requirement.

“Other South Korean companies have a number of future commercial opportunities, such as the sale of the FA/50 series trainer/light attack supersonic jets to replace the RAAF’s ageing Hawk fleet.

“Probably of greater consequence is the broader strategic environment and closer cooperation between Australia and South Korea on several fronts. The RoK is neither a member of the QUAD nor the Five Eyes community, but its foreign policy alignment and military punch makes it the perfect adjunct to those existing relationships.”

So the appointment of the former defence minister, who has taken a career path that has nothing to do with diplomacy, reflects the crisis in the Yoon Seok-yeol regime and its role in the dangerous US-led militarisation of the Asia-Pacific.

The South Korean government wishes to sell more weapons to Australia, which is embarking on a $368 billion nuclear-powered submarine project, AUKUS.

A series of meetings between senior military officials of several countries, including Australia and Saudi Arabia, was held in South Korea in March to develop arms industry links. Before his resignation as ambassador, Lee flew from Australia to attend these meetings.

Economic crisis and the arms race

The global economy is in a swamp of inflation and the looming economic recession is so deep that it could be harder to find a way out than ever. In the past, capitalism has overcome its crises through war and destruction. World Wars I and II are examples.

The economic war between the US and China is threatening to explode into war. Some 60% of the world’s trade passes through Asia and one-third through the South China Sea, which means that if this passage is disrupted the consequences will far outweigh the current disruption in the Red Sea, through which only 12% of the world’s maritime trade passes.

Through military cooperation with South Korea, Australia seeks to defend US hegemony through military superiority in the region. Australian capitalism dreams of becoming an imperialist weapons powerhouse in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean and Asia.

Australia already plays a key role in the Israeli genocide in Gaza that has killed more than 32,000 people, by supplying key components of the F-35, described as the “world's most advanced fighter”. In addition, multinational arms manufacturing companies have established branches in Australia that are only getting wealthier from this blood trade.

Meanwhile, over the past decade, South Korea’s export to Israel of weapons such as bombs, grenades and mine missiles have increased three-fold. South Korea has rapidly transitioned from an arms importer to an arms exporter.

In 2023, South Korean defense company Hanwha signed a deal to sell Australian armored vehicles and is also considering Canada's submarine project worth 70 trillion (A$80 billion) this year.

Hyundai's modern excavators are used to destroy Palestinian homes and build illegal Israeli settlements.

The rapid — and increasingly entwined — development of the Australian and South Korean armaments industries is part of a US-led anti-China militarisation of the region. The US has about 80,000 troops stationed at nearly 200 bases in Japan and Korea, less than 1000 kilometres from some of China's largest cities.

Amid the escalating threat of war and economic crisis, Australian capital seeks to buy South Korean weapons components at cheaper prices, while South Korean capital is eager to make dirty money selling them, and the ruling classes of the two countries are maintaining US military dominance in the process.

Capital has no qualms about the genocide it enables in the course of pursuing ever more profit.

Working class pays for the war drive

The working class gains no benefit from imperialist wars and the drive to maintain imperialist hegemony. The capitalist class and the regimes that serve it pass the cost of the economic crisis on to weaker and competitor countries through imperial hegemony strategies and military action. They try to ride through the crisis and continue making profits at the expense of the working class, whether through cutting real wages and tax increases and reducing welfare rights and social services to pay for military expenditure. All this is covered up with “patriotic” propaganda.

South Korea's defence budget for 2024 amounts to 59.42 trillion (A$68 billion). The government will cut budgets for childcare and education (including school meals for children), abolish social service centres for people with severe disabilities and abolish support centres for migrant workers. It will use these “savings” to purchase nuclear weapons and missiles.

Australia is doing the same thing. As the Australian government explained in 2020, A$575 billion in military expenditure would be provided over the course of the next 10 years. Now, another A$368 billion in long-term spending on nuclear-powered submarines has been added to that figure. Workers' wages cannot keep up with the rapidly climbing rates of inflation, tenants are being pushed onto the streets, and homelessness is at an all-time high, especially for older women.

Video: Paul Oboohov



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