Exit Interview with H.E. William Paterson, Ambassador of Australia to the Republic of Korea

The diplomatic community in Seoul plays a huge role in the successes of Asia Society Korea Center and no one contributes more than Mr. Bill Paterson PSM, Ambassador of Australia to the Republic of Korea.

Since his arrival on the Peninsular in March 2013, Ambassador Paterson has been an active member at the Center volunteering his time and energy to attend and moderate events, host dinner parties at his residence and give regular interviews on Australia-Korea relations. Unfortunately, Ambassador Paterson’s time in Korea is coming to an end; Asia Society caught up with the 2015 “Asia Society Korea Center Ambassador of the Year” to talk about his experiences over the past 3 ½ years.

1. Upon arriving in South Korea, what prompted you to get involved with the Asia Society Korea Center?

I had attended Asia Society events in Australia and had delivered briefings to it in Sydney and Melbourne, so it seemed a natural extension of this to participate in Korea. The Asia Society’s mandate fits neatly with our own objectives – to increase knowledge about Asia, its growth, opportunities, history and culture – and, for us, to build awareness in Korea of Australia as an Asia-Pacific country whose interests intersect closely with those of Korea. It was also a means of me meeting significant players in Korea and learning from attendance at the talks and briefings. A key part of the Asia Society’s role is to build knowledge about Asia amongst influential people outside Asia – indeed this is how it began in the United States.

2. You have been involved in many programs at the Korea Center over the past 3 years. What event stands out for you personally?

A difficult question, for I think I gained from every event I attended. But I was privileged to join the Asia Society’s seminar on “Asia Rising: Our Shared Future”, chaired by Asia Society’s Research Director (and former Australian Prime Minister) Kevin Rudd, in Seoul in March this year. With strategic dynamics moving fast in this region, it was particularly interesting to hear from senior Chinese, Korean, Japanese and American participants on their views of the challenges in the region, and to draw on Kevin Rudd’s research on US-China relations. There was naturally a strong focus on North Korea, which engages the interests of all major powers, and useful discussion of North Korea’s objectives and how it might be brought around to more responsible behaviour. This exposed considerable differences of view on the level of urgency in resolving the North Korean impasse. Discussion on regional architecture discussed fault lines developing in the region, and that optimism about a benign ‘Asian Century’ fuelled by high economic growth had failed to account for strategic discontinuities, the limits to growth and increasing nationalism and protectionism. This sort of intelligent discussion is a hallmark of the Asia Society’s programs – and hopefully plays into the development of sensible government policies.

3. As we know, Korea is a rapidly changing country. What significant changes have you witnessed since taking up your position in 2013?

Korea is, as we all know, a hugely impressive story in economic and social development in a remarkably short period of time. I first came here in 1987, and again in 2003 and 2012, so have witnessed some of the stages in the maturation of the Korean economy, Korean democracy and civil society. But over the last few years I’ve seen a Korea with some big looming challenges: the slowdown in global growth impacting on Korea’s export-oriented economy, the ageing of the population, the search for new drivers of growth, new competitors, the need to build a bigger services economy to meet the needs of a wealthier, older and better-educated population and the need to address regulatory and labour inflexibilities and to develop safety and other civic cultures. It’s a sobering list, but Korea is a highly capable country as well-equipped as any to respond to these challenges.

4. Seoul has been your home in recent years. What things about Korea will you miss the most after you leave?

Korea’s fast internet speeds and wi-fi coverage, arguably the best in the world. Its transport systems – the subways, the KTX. The stimulation of being in a dynamic and fast-moving environment. The satisfaction of being a key part of one of Australia’s most important relationships, and being able to be involved in everything from trade negotiations and promotions to defence exercises, engaging with Korea’s most important political, official and business leaders. Personally, I love Korea’s mountainous landscapes, playing on its outstanding golf courses, hiking around the Seongbuk-dong area, visiting galleries, and going to concerts with Korea’s superb musicians.

5. What are your hopes for Australia-Korea relations moving forward?

The conclusion of a free trade agreement with Korea (KAFTA), late in 2014, was a seminal event, and one that is producing good results in traded goods for both countries. But there’s a lot more to do on services and investment. Both countries need to ensure they provide attractive conditions for investment and give effect to the liberalisation of professional services which KAFTA provides for. We need to build our bilateral defence relationship further, making it easier for our forces to operate seamlessly in each others’ countries. We need to develop our ‘2+2’ (Foreign and Defence) ministers forum into a strategic partnership with ambitious outcomes. But there are some really good things happening now: 260,000 Koreans visited Australia in the last year, and 27,000 young Koreans are undertaking full-time study in Australia – while more Australians are now studying in Korea. That lays the base on which almost everything else can be built.

6. Following a successful period in Korea, what does the next chapter hold for Ambassador Paterson?

I expect to leave the foreign service later this year, but not to end my engagement with strategic, security and business issues, particularly in Asia. I hope this will provide opportunities to continue to use my experience, and to maintain the many friendships we’ve made across the region. But it’s also an opportunity to spend more time with our family, to lower the golf handicap and to explore our own country more - and its superb wines and foods.