Leveraging S Korea's Covid-19 success

Leveraging S Korea's Covid-19 success

South Koreans from all walks of lives are experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu as the Covid-19 pandemic has miraculously turned their country into the poster child for how to manage a public health crisis. The so-called "K-quarantine" and "K-testing", which have been duplicated worldwide, have added an extra layer to the existing Hallyu or "Korean Wave" of virtuosity and respectability, as the nation's actions have protected and saved lives even though the government is still fighting against new clusters of infections.

For the first time, the Moon Jae-in government has started to discuss how this newly found admiration for its anti-virus efforts can be transformed into smart power. Since the end of the Korean War nearly 70 years ago, South Korea has often been perceived as a victim of aggression by the North. In addition, it has to live under the shadow of a US security umbrella and is outshone by two bigger Asian economic giants, China and Japan.

As President Moon Jae-in enters his third year in office, it is crystal clear that South Korea today has overcome the post-war stigma and is ready to set future pathways not only for itself but also for the international community. After all, after Hollywood and Bollywood, the Korean Wave in the cultural realm has popularity parity. The so-called "K-element" has proliferated like the virus globally, giving birth to K-pop, K-drama, K-movie, K-food, K-cosmetics and the K-manicure, among others.

It is not hyperbole to say that the initial "K" these days can only mean one thing -- Korea -- especially among millennials.

Importantly, global youth today have come to know Korea as a savvy, dynamic, innovative and delightful country, with transparency and democratic governance. Also, thanks to the Oscar-winning film Parasite, the Korean entertainment and pop culture industries have made Korea the envy of developed countries trying to promote their cultural brands among young people.

However, there is a lingering issue as to whether in the post Covid-19 world, this newly found soft power can be utilised as a public diplomatic tool to increase Seoul's mettle and raise its regional and internal profile, secure peace in the volatile Korean Peninsula and most importantly, fulfill the noble objectives set out by the much-heralded New Southern Policy (NSP) back in December 2017.

For now, the jury is still out.

Since taking office, Mr Moon has made it clear that Korea wants to raise Asean's profile and level the playing field to the same level as the US, China, Japan and Russia. Halfway through his tenure, Mr Moon visited all 10-member countries and last November spent nearly a week with Asean leaders during their special Asean-Korea Summit in Busan.

He coupled this with bilateral meetings in Seoul -- something no other world leader had ever done before. It also showed the consistency of South Korean foreign policy toward Asean. Lest we forgot, he has asked Asean repeatedly to play an active role in securing peace in the Korean Peninsula as well as the denuclearisation of North Korea. None of the previous Korean leaders did that.

Subsequently, after years of recalcitrance, Asean has also recognised the growing dynamic of its partnership with south Korea across all dimensions including strategic matters. The Busan Summit in November was a barometer of the surge in mutual interest.

Meanwhile, with its K-quarantine fame, South Korea has ramped up measures amid a new cluster of infections. Seoul continues to give back to the rest of the world through its anti-coronavirus efforts, delivering test kits to some 100 nations. Mr Moon is now more confident than ever about raising Korea to the next level by accelerating the implementation of NSP goals to build an interconnected 3P community representing people, prosperity and peace.

Admittedly, all of this sounds a little utopian when compared to other major powers' approach to Asean. Central to the NSP doctrine is the combined economic potential of India and Asean as an engine of economic growth in the region, in particular South Korea. At this juncture, it is clear New Delhi will not be able to join the world's biggest free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, in November due to strong domestic opposition. Furthermore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not willing to risk his political future despite pledging to Asean leaders back in January 2018 that his government fully supported the RCEP.

Like South Korea, Asean has also accorded great value to the world's largest democracy and its economic potential. The grouping's leaders went to New Delhi in January 2018 to show solidarity on Independence Day and hold a summit focusing on their future relations under the Act East Policy and the new Indo-Pacific framework. To date, their endeavours have yet to bear fruit.

Without India in the RCEP mix, in the immediate future the NSP has to be recalibrated with an added emphasis on Asean's economic progress, which will become more open and integrated. The speed of the post Covid-19 economic recovery in East Asia will depend on a freer trade and investment regime among RCEP members.

The Modi government is facing greater domestic challenges in pumping up its economy. New Delhi is asking Asean for a renegotiation of the Asean-Indian Free Trade Agreement, which has caused some uneasiness among the group's members. Following the currently extended lockdown, India's business activities will be unable to resume for the next several weeks. Korea urgently needs to help India increase its industrial and SMEs competitiveness -- preparing it for future RCEP membership.

As Asean is gradually easing lockdowns, Seoul should refocus on Asean. In the coming months, South Korea must accelerate its economic integration with Asean, which needs economic pushes from South Korea in terms of investment in infrastructure and innovative business, along with a further strengthening and diversification of regional supply chains that have been disrupted.

When it comes to current Asean-Korea relations, Vietnam has the largest share of trade (40%), investment (47%) and people-to-people exchanges (35%). Last year, South Korea invested US$ 4.5 billion and bilateral trade reached US$62 billion.

More than 6,000 South Korean companies are represented in Vietnam. Apart from Vietnam, South Korea also has to diversify its investment to other Asean members. Otherwise, it will lose a good opportunity to further compete with Japan and China, which have a better spread throughout the region.

In the post Covid-19 world, South Korea will gain a special place within Asean as a leading dialogue partner, on par with China and Japan, as part of the Asean Plus Three group. Seoul must be quick to seize this opportunity and come up with NSP 2.0 that prioritises the Asean community's 650 million people and its emerging economic power.

With the so-called "new normal" setting in, Asean and Korea must work together to harness the industrial revolution 4.0. Their leaders agreed at the Busan Summit to build a standardised centre for digital services, including mobile internet, big data and artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

Now is the perfect time for Asean to provide infrastructure, with operation centres based in Asean member countries. For its part, South Korea can provide technology and finance.


Kavi Chongkittvorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.


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