SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Canada is vying to be the "best of friends" with South Korea, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Tuesday after launching closer talks on economic security with her counterparts in Seoul.
Joly arrived in the South Korean capital with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who's making his first official visit to the country as the two governments try to build closer ties and work together on global security concerns.
Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne joined Joly to begin a "high-level dialogue on economic security," with both countries committing to have recurring meetings and tracking their progress on moving away from dependence on China.
"Ultimately we've been good friends for a long time, but we want to be best of friends," Joly said in a news conference in Tuesday night.
The visit by Trudeau, who is expected to remain in the country until he heads to the G7 leaders' summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on Thursday, follows South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's trip to Ottawa last fall.
Since then, both countries have released their Indo-Pacific strategies, providing a road map for strengthening military and economic relationships in the region to counterbalance the influence of Beijing.
"I don't think there was a time when Korea and Canada were so close as now, and I don't think we've had any period where our two leaders have met so frequently," Lim Woongsoon, South Korea's ambassador to Canada, said last week in an interview in Ottawa.
Tina Park, a lecturer at the University of Toronto and CEO of The Park Group, said the frequency of meetings between the leaders reflects their commitment to building a stronger relationship.
"There is a new momentum as we reflect upon the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relationship between Canada and Korea this year," Park wrote in an email.
South Korea is Canada's seventh-largest trading partner for both imports and exports, amounting to $16.7 billion in merchandise trade in 2021.
Trudeau is expected to address the country's National Assembly on Wednesday. He is also scheduled to visit the Seoul National Cemetery and participate in the opening of a commemorative trail honouring the sacrifices of Canadians soldiers during the Battle of Kapyong.
The clean economy and climate change, as well as establishing a youth mobility program between the two countries, are among the trip's priorities.
Lim said there's ample reason for Canada and South Korea to strengthen their economic and cultural ties. In addition to its sizable diaspora in Canada, he said South Korea has significant business interests in the critical minerals Canada has to offer, and both countries are aligned in their commitments to move away from carbon-emitting fuels.
"We have something more than K-pop and K-drama," he said with a chuckle, referring to genres of music and television shows from the country that have become popular around the world.
Canada and South Korea also appear to be in talks on how to make it easier for young people to work in both countries, with Lim saying they expect to sign a memorandum of understanding on youth mobility.
He did not give details, but the two countries already have a working-holiday program. Canada has agreements with other countries to issue visas for student internships and career development for young professionals.
"We are going to have more Korean young people come to Canada next year," Lim said.
The Liberal government is focused on building a closer relationship with both South Korea and Japan as it looks to expand its alliances beyond traditional Western partners amid a growing threat from Russia and tension with China.
Lim said South Korean companies are concerned about overreliance on Chinese suppliers. The ambassador said that's why Trudeau's visit will focus on supply-chain resilience, with the clean-energy transition at "the top of the agenda."
South Korean companies have shown interest in Canada when it comes to electric vehicles. SK On Co., for example, wants to launch a battery-component factory in Bécancour, Que.
Now, there is a dispute between the federal government and automaker Stellantis, which was constructing an electric-vehicle battery plan in Windsor, Ont., in partnership with South Korean battery-maker, LG Energy Solution.
Stellantis stopped construction on Monday, saying the federal government "has not delivered on what was agreed to."
During the news conference Tuesday night, Champagne said he's "very confident" that the federal government will come to an agreement with Stellantis. He said negotiations are focused on production subsidies to match the incentives offered by the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act.
Champagne also took the opportunity to call out the Ontario government, which the federal government is partnered with on the deal.
"The message to our Ontario colleagues is, 'Pay your fair share, and we will bring this stalemate to a conclusion,'" Champagne said.
He said he hopes to meet with the head of LG Energy Solution Wednesday.
Beyond critical minerals, Lim said South Korea is focused on moving toward cleaner fuel sources.
He said South Korean companies are investing big in hydrogen ammonia plants around the world, and curious about expanding in Canada. The ambassador tallies the current investments into Canadian green technologies at $8 billion.
The Business Council of Canada is calling on Trudeau to make a more vocal case for liquefied natural gas, after an Indo-Pacific strategy that focused highly on renewables. Both Japan and South Korea are trying to wean themselves off coal, and Canadian industry argues LNG is a good transition fuel as countries phase in technologies like hydrogen.
South Korea and Japan have both invested in the LNG Canada project set to launch in 2025, and Lim said Seoul fully expects the second phase of the project to proceed. He said South Korea is committed to going carbon-neutral, but needs an interim solution as it tries to shut down 50 coal power plants.
"Our imports of LNG will be on the increase for the decades to come, because we need to phase down coal power plants ... rather dramatically, and LNG will be the most feasible alternative," Lim said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2023.
— with files from Dylan Robertson in Ottawa.
Nojoud Al Mallees, The Canadian Press