New leadership in Seoul brings fresh ideas
Special interview: South Korean ambassador talks about strengthening Thailand, Southeast Asian ties
South Korea has a new administration under President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office early last month. Many have speculated that the conservative leader would stray from his predecessor's approach to foreign policy, especially on North Korea.
The Bangkok Post spoke with South Korean ambassador Moon Seoung-hyun to ask about Mr Yoon's foreign policy towards Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, and beyond.
What is the Yoon administration's foreign policy towards countries in the Southeast Asia region?
Korea is the world's 10th largest economy and is becoming a soft power country. The new administration will pursue a kind of global pivotal state that promotes freedom, democracy and prosperity. Based on this philosophy, we will do pass our own laws and be responsible.
When it comes to the Indo-Pacific region, Korea joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (Ipef), which Thailand also participates in.
Korea is more active in regional architectures, such as Ipef and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement of Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Korea intends to join.
[Mr Yoon] assumed his position on May 10 after there was an election in March. Since then, he has been involved in a couple of diplomatic activities, including the United States-South Korea Summit in Seoul on May 21.
As for our new foreign policy towards Asean countries, particularly Thailand, Korea has been promoting its very close relations with this part of the world for several decades, and that foreign policy will be strengthened. It is because Asean is Korea's second-largest trading partner.
Thailand will host the Apec Summit in November. I think it will be a good opportunity for the new Korean administration to promote bilateral ties with Thailand as well as other Apec countries because [the summit] is a form for many [members who are] recovering after the spread of Covid-19.
How will South Korea play its constructive role at the sub-regional level, including under existing initiatives such as the Mekong-South Korea framework?
Korea has been developing a good partner relationship with Asean. Every year, aside from the Asean Summit, we [take part in] Asean Plus One (Korea) and Asean Plus Three (Korea, Japan and China).
We have been using these platforms to promote our cooperation with our Asean member countries.
In addition, Korea has been trying to promote sub-regional cooperation with Asean. It is called the Mekong Cooperation and Thailand is the leading country in the Mekong Cooperation. We have been very much focusing on how we can [boost] promotion with Mekong countries. We provided US$1 million (34 million baht) for a ACMECS [and] we are discussing with Mekong countries how to use that money.
In 2019, South Korea and Mekong countries held their first summit in Busan. During the upcoming Asean Summit in November in Cambodia, another South Korea-Mekong countries summit will hopefully be held.
Can you give us information on the five-year Joint Action Plan (2022-2027) that Thailand and South Korea are drafting? Can you elaborate?
South Korea and Thailand have had a strategic partnership since 2012. This year will be the 10-year anniversary of that partnership.
Our Korean embassy in Thailand, Korea's foreign affairs ministry and Thailand's foreign affairs ministry have been working to come up with a joint action plan to cover a five-year period between 2022 and 2027.
We identified several issues like politics, security, economy, trade, environment and people-to-people exchange and others.
We have tried to specify some special projects with target dates so we can accomplish them as much as possible within five years. This will [serve] as a guideline for us in promoting our bilateral relations in the coming five years.
Can you give us an example of special projects the two countries will conduct together in the next five years?
In terms of the trade last year, Korea and Thailand hit a high trade volume of $15.5 billion. We can set up a target like this after five years, let's say $20 billion.
Both countries are promoting the so-called green economic growth. We can identify specific areas where we can promote each other and how to promote each other in terms of post-Covid-19 public health.
So, there are still many different areas, including people-to-people exchange and expanding trade between the two countries.
We can come up with some draft actions by the end of this month so we can have seminars based on the draft. Hopefully, during my president's visit to attend Apec this November, we can adapt a working plan for the next five years.
After that, we will periodically check the development and progress of this action plan.
What do you think about Thailand's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) in Chon Buri, Rayong and Chachoengsao provinces? Does South Korea plan to expand EEC investment?
As you know, there are about 400 Korean companies working in Thailand. We are now talking to different companies, including Amata Group, to set up a Korea Smart City [in the EEC].
So hopefully, if we can get a certain agreement with the Thai side, we can invite many Korean companies to operate the Korean smart city.
To promote Korean investment in Thailand, I had the chance to meet with the prime minister. I emphasised to him that there were two issues we would like to see [addressed]. First, the setting up of a Korean financial institution not available today. By setting up the institution, Korean companies can borrow money from it, meaning they can have more possibilities to invest in Thailand.
Second, investment incentives. I asked the prime minister to consider giving tailored incentives to investors who invest in specific areas like electric vehicles as many people in Thailand are talking about this type of industry.
Mr Yoon's predecessor Moon Jae-in pursued a policy of engagement with North Korea. Mr Moon even met leader Kim Jong-un in 2018. As president, he brokered two summits between Mr Kim and former United States president Donald Trump before relations broke down in 2019. Denuclearisation talks have stalled ever since. Will there be a chance to renew such talks?
After 2019, since the failure of the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, [all sides] have not had any chance to meet each other.
You mentioned that this new administration's policy towards North Korea is totally different from the previous one. I would like to say that it is not true in this sense. Actually, there are some similarities. The North Korea and South Korea issue should be handled through diplomacy and peaceful means.
If North Korea continues to provoke by launching missiles, we will address the issue under international norms, including UN Security Council regulations to sanction North Korea.
But if North Korea decides to completely denuclearise, we are ready to provide aid, including humanitarian assistance to North Korea.
At the same time, one difference from the previous administration is that this administration will take a firmer position in terms of the human rights issue in North Korea.
So, we need more time to re-engage North Korea.
To do so, we need international cooperation and support including Thailand's.
I think this is one topic South Korea and Thailand can discuss with each other to find the optimal solution to re-engage with North Korea in the near future.
Is it possible for Bangkok to host a US-North Korea summit?
We are open [to the idea]. If it happens in Bangkok, it will be very welcome.
The Thai government is very active in providing any type of support for such dialogue. South Korea has no objections to it.
- Moon Seoung-hyun