Gamble brings South Korea free trade movement

Before heading to Seoul, John Key promised that the 30 veterans of the Korean War he would join there would not be used as any kind of "Trojan Horse" in his push to get free trade talks back on track.

But there is no disputing that the group of mainly octogenarians, here to celebrate 60 years of ceasefire, have given the prime minister's third trip to South Korea a major public-relations boost.

Key has been guest of honour at the usual business events, and the president of Samsung Electronics dropped by at an embassy function.

He has also been centre-stage as the leader of an ally in high profile ceremonies to mark a war the Korean people remember only too well, because officially it is still going.

Whatever the crossover between commemoration and a push for trade talks, both have been successful.

Key emerged from his meeting with the Korean President Park Geun Hye with a firm commitment to resuming talks about a free trade agreement (FTA), and better still, possibly within three months.

It seems highly likely that in the well-scripted world of bilateral talks, the New Zealand delegation was confident going into the meeting that Park - occasionally dubbed South Korea's Iron Lady - would OK a re-start to negotiations.

Key almost admitted as much, when he said shortly after the meeting that what surprised him was the how explicit the promise of talks was.

Look at Key's actions.

Just hours before his meeting with the president, he told the veterans, struggling in the stifling heat and humidity, that South Korea wasn't playing ball by signing FTAs with other major countries, but not with their great mate New Zealand.

"I don't think that's right or fair, not given everything we've done and the contribution that we've made," he said.

Imagine for a moment that Key had emerged from the meeting with the president, coy, relaying that she hoped free trade talks would be considered in the future, but that her country remained committed to retaining food security and that would not change.

That is code for "try again when someone else is looking across the table at you".

What kind of gaffe would Key's comments have been seen as then - telling the South Koreans off and suggesting they were ungrateful, on the eve of a major commemoration of a nation's defining event, in front of an audience that probably didn't much care either way?

Remember this - as significant as New Zealand's contribution was in our terms, the 6000-odd Kiwi troops were a fraction of 1 per cent of those contributed overall.

Instead, Key's comments gave the impression of a leader not willing to shy away from the hard issues, or feel the need to demonstrate fealty to our much larger trading partners.

He must have been confident before talking tough.

But however scripted the comments were, talk is cheap - especially free-trade talk - and the odds, while improved, seem against a deal being consummated with Korea any time soon.

South Korea is acutely concerned for its security, and even if the warnings of the country's agricultural lobby about the risk of free trade with New Zealand are exaggerated, the farmers carry political clout.

The United States to this day provides a massive armed force to help maintain peace for South Korea, and yet it took years for it to get its FTA across the line.

New Zealand meanwhile does not have a lot to offer South Korea. Our tariffs are largely gone, our domestic market is small, and the threat our farming sector poses looks real, even if in reality it is marginal.

Will the president really be willing to spend political capital on such a deal if controversy gathers when Samsung and Hyundai have little to gain? Even the Iron Lady has to win elections.

Worst of all, neither Key nor his successors, will ever have the same public relations opportunity again.

This is already a swap-meet where New Zealand is turning up with much less to offer than the counter-party.

When the 70th anniversary of the ceasefire comes around, should the prime minister of 2023 decide to give South Korea a lecture in fair play, he or she won't have a large delegation of brave veterans to push the cause.