The South Korean Government is treating New Zealand unfairly, Prime Minister John Key has told Kiwi Korean War veterans as he ramps up pressure for a free trade deal.
For the first time he explicitly linked New Zealand's contribution to South Korea's effort to repel the communist North, being celebrated this week, with frustration that Seoul has signed free trade agreements (FTAs) with our competitors, but not us.
Key is in the South Korean capital where he joined a delegation of 30 veterans of the Korean War, where New Zealand provided more than 6000 troops in between 1950 and 1953.
The veterans are marking 60 years since the ceasefire, with official commemorations taking place on Saturday.
In the period since the war South Korea has made fantastic economic gains, and is now New Zealand's fifth-largest trading partner buying more than $1.5 billion in goods and services in 2012.
However, talks around an FTA, which began in 2009, have stalled, with Key hoping his meeting with President Park Geun Hye will lead to fresh talks.
This morning, at a morning tea at the New Zealand Residence in Seoul, Key said that New Zealand companies paid $200 million a year in tariffs on its exports to the South Korean Government, while New Zealand charged Korean companies only about $5m on the about $1.8b they export to New Zealand.
Worse, Key said, Korea has already signed trade deals with the United States, the European Union and Chile.
"It's not exactly a pretty level playing field," Key told the veterans.
"A lot of the companies who our guys compete with have got a real disadvantage here, and so we're asking them to compete with one arm tied behind their back.
"I don't think that's right or fair, not given everything we've done and the contribution that we've made."
Key linked the efforts of the veterans to South Korea's recovery several times in his speech, noting that the average income of the more than 50 million citizens was now similar to that of New Zealand.
"In 60 years, through the contribution of your efforts, they have made an incredible leap forward in terms of what they can provide for their people."
Ahead of the trip Key insisted that talks about an FTA were separate from commemorating the war efforts. The veterans would not be used as any kind of "Trojan Horse" to help restart talks, Key said.
Earlier today Key said he did not know whether Park would be willing to agree to fresh talks. It was a "very real exercise" to push for an indication that she would.
"They'll be under no illusions this is a very important issue from our perspective."
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