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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in Seoul on Tuesday for his first official visit to South Korea as both countries try to build closer economic and cultural ties and work together on global security concerns.
"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.
The visit by Trudeau, who is expected to remain in the country until Thursday before he heads to the G7 leaders' summit in Hiroshima, Japan, follows South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's trip to Ottawa last fall.
Since then, both countries have released their Indo-Pacific strategies. They provide a road map for strengthening military and economic relationships in the region to counterbalance the influence of China.
Tina Park, a lecturer at the University of Toronto and CEO of The Park Group, says 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.
@JustinTrudeau in #SouthKorea to talk global and energy security, youth mobility program. #CDNPoli #G7
Lim said there's ample reason for Canada and South Korea to strengthen their economic and people-to-people 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.
Both countries have been longtime allies and trading partners and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has said the relationship with each is so natural that Ottawa has at times taken it for granted. But global instability is a time to shore up these bonds, she said.
"We want to be as close to Korea, to Japan as (we are) to Germany, France and Great Britain; that's our goal," Joly said last December.
Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Joly are expected to be in Seoul on Tuesday to launch a "high-level dialogue on economic security," which means a commitment to have recurring meetings and track their progress on moving away from their dependence on 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." The federal government says negotiations are ongoing.
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.