Asean-S Korea ties surging forward

Asean-S Korea ties surging forward

South Korea is catching up with China and Japan in developing all-around relations with Asean. Last week's announcement of the third Asean-Korea Summit to be held in Busan from Nov 25-27 together with the first Mekong-Korea Summit is a speed indicator of South Korea's approach to Asean. Under current President Moon Jae-in, South Korean officials have described bilateral relations as going gosog, or high-speed.

It took months of dialogue last year before Asean agreed to hold a summit outside the grouping's capitals. After all, the second summit was held just five years ago in Busan in 2014. Thanks to Cambodia, the previous coordinating country, the push was successful for the third summit, which will mark an important milestone in the 30-year relationship. Brunei, the new coordinator, has pledged to bring the group's second-largest trading and investment partner to a new level.

During the Cold War, Asean tried to stay away from the unsettled Korean Peninsula, fearing it would be dragged into the conflict. Furthermore, Thailand and the Philippines joined the UN-backed international force that fought in the Korean War in 1950. As South Korea's economic development and international profile kept rising, Asean quickly eyed the world's No.11 economy as its major economic partner. In 1989, the Land of the Morning Calm was first admitted as a sectoral dialogue partner, and two years later was elevated to a full dialogue partner. In 2010, it was accorded strategic partnership status, ahead of the US and Russia, enabling South Korea to broaden and deepen ties with Asean as never before. Now Asean-South Korea ties are attaining parity with those of the big four -- China, Japan, the US and the EU.

According to South Korea's former envoy to Asean, Suh Jeong-in, Asean-South Korea ties have many facets, comprising economic, security and cultural cooperation. During the past two decades, both sides concentrated on trade and economic fields, while security issues remained on the periphery. Close economic cooperation and increased investment have created jobs and greatly boosted exports among the grouping's members. The most notable case is Samsung's products at its Thai Nguyen plants in northeastern Vietnam, which account for nearly 25% of that country's exports. Now more than 8,000 South Korean companies are operating in all Asean members.

However, Asean-South Korea ties became more strategic with more geopolitical debates as it entered the third decade. As North Korea joined the Asean Regional Forum under Thailand's chairmanship in 2000, it was an interesting time to have senior Pyongyang officials sat amid Asean and dialogue partners, despite some of the frustrations emanating from the prolonged conflict and various protagonists.

Asean's engagement with the two Koreas within Asean-led frameworks has been positive as it has encouraged the grouping's good diplomatic practice of using dialogue and avoiding the use of force to ease tensions. Asean convinced Pyongyang to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2008, which now has 37 signatories from all geographical areas. Last year, Pyongyang officially applied to be a sectoral dialogue partner of Asean. The grouping's senior officials are currently considering the possibility of whether to accord the requested status this year under Thailand's leadership of the group. At the moment, there is no consensus.

Mr Suh reaffirmed that as bilateral ties go from strength to strength, South Korea took the opportunity to approach Asean in more meaningful and innovative ways, with additional cultural and people-to-people contacts. The Hallyu, or Korean Wave, has given South Korea a huge advantage in promoting the country's profile and popularity in the region. More than 10 million tourists from Asean visited South Korea in 2017, the second most popular destination in the region after China. To promote awareness and understanding of Asean in South Korea, the Asean Cultural House was established in Busan in 2017 -- the only entity devoted wholly to Asean's various cultures.

Under his leadership, Mr Moon has displayed a strong determination to forge a new paradigm for Asean-South Korea relations, ushering in Asean as a regional partner for peace and prosperity -- a far cry from the previous government. With the implementation of the "New Southern Policy", South Korea has taken a long-haul approach to consolidating ties with the 645-million-strong Asean Community to ensure consistency, comprehensiveness and concreteness, which were previously absent.

In retrospect, no other bilateral relations with Asean have shifted as visibly as those with South Korea. It was well-known among Asean diplomats that from beginning, policymakers in Seoul were preoccupied with North Korea's growing intransigence over nuclear programmes. Therefore, Seoul's main concern has always been to muster Asean support for its positions on the Korean Peninsula.

Given the long history of Pyongyang's relationship with some Asean members, sometimes Seoul found it hard to obtain the grouping's unified support. However, this attitude has changed since 2006 when it was clear that North Korea was determined to become a nuclear power armed with intercontinental missiles of all ranges. The medium-range intercontinental missiles can hit all Asean capitals. Asean has repeatedly issued strongly worded statements expressing grave concern about the nuclear and missile tests, as well as calling for compliance with UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions.

From a regional perspective, Mr Moon's approach to the Korean Peninsula is fresh as far as Asean is concerned. Mr Moon has highlighted the pivotal role that Asean members can play in maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula, a far cry from the past policy toward Asean. By far, he has been the South Korean leader most enthusiastic to promote ties with Asean. His New Southern Policy is a testimony to his intention to engage Asean in a sustainable and holistic way. Mr Moon also reaches out to Mr Kim and repeatedly calls for the resumption of dialogue between the US and North Korea.

At the Asean Summit in Singapore last November, Indonesian President Joko Widodo suggested Mr Kim should be invited to join the third Asean-South Korea summit. It is highly possible Mr Kim might show up to meet the Asean leaders, who would be friendlier and definitely would not walk away or patronise him. After all, he has already met the leaders from Singapore and Vietnam.

During the Philippines' tenure as chair of Asean in 2017, North Korea asked Asean to help ease tensions on the peninsula and with the US. Last year, North Korea also reached out to Asean-based think tanks for ideas on the Korean Peninsula. Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia have embassies in Pyongyang. More track-two contacts are expected to increase these coming months.

Beyond the headline-grabbing summit, Asean-South Korea ties will still focus on maximising the mutual benefits of their unique relations and cooperation. They have no territorial disputes or mistrust, so they are in a position to help each other without fear, especially in preparation for the industrial revolution 4.0, by building a standardised centre for digital services, including big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. The list is endless if economic cooperation and capacity building activities are included.


Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.


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