By Truston Yu (Picture: The Republic of Korea Cheong Wa Dae)
On 9 November 2017, President Moon Jae-in announced the New Southern Policy (NSP), a new “core diplomatic initiative” aimed at building closer ties between the Republic of Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states as well as India. Three years after the formulation of this policy, there remain certain obstacles for Korea’s agenda. On the flip side, Korea has great potential in deepening its ties with Southeast Asia.
There is a long history of interactions between Korea and the Southeast Asian region. The 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-ROK Dialogue Relations was celebrated in 2019 with a Commemorative Summit in Busan. Korea has participated in the ASEAN+3 grouping since 1997, and the ASEAN-Korea Centre was subsequently inaugurated in 2009. Despite such a track record, Korea’s role in Southeast Asia is often overshadowed by its two larger neighbors.
Southeast Asia is an emerging market with a combined population greater than the European Union and a gross domestic product (GDP) of around US$3 trillion in 2018. ASEAN is the fifth-largest economy in the world and will continue to grow. For these reasons, many countries have been eager to foster relations with the region. Japan is one of the earliest to do so, playing a significant role in the modernization of Southeast Asian countries; China has its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative; even Taiwan has a New Southbound Policy since 2016.
The traditional focus of Korea’s foreign policy has been the participants of the Six-Party Talks: China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Since his election, Moon Jae-in has shown great interest in Korea’s neighbors to the south: “For the first time as a sitting president of the Republic of Korea, I visited all 10 ASEAN member states in just over two years.” The NSP was announced within months after Moon’s inauguration, and its current brochure states that they intend to elevate Korea-ASEAN relations to the “same level Korea maintains with the four major powers”.
However, Korea is rather “late in the game”; and unlike Belt and Road or the Asian Development Bank, Korea’s NSP still has not become a household name yet. Japan has established a long presence in the region, assisting with railroads and other infrastructure; the influential and wealthy Chinese diaspora network has acted as a bridge between their countries and Chinese corporations. The policy sector in Korea lacks people who are rooted in Southeast Asian expertise.
As one of the four Asian Tigers, Korea’s rapid economic growth is a role model that Southeast Asian countries are eager to emulate. The Mekong-Han River Declaration for Establishing Partnership for People, Prosperity and Peace was signed at the 1st Mekong-ROK Summit, featuring the Mainland Southeast Asian states: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – a region which Korea has a bigger presence in as compared to Maritime Southeast Asia. It is as if the title of this Declaration alludes to Korea’s “Miracle on the Han”, hinting that collaboration with Korea could facilitate a “Miracle on the Mekong”.
The Korean Wave, also known as Hallyu, has taken root in the Southeast Asian region. In Thailand and Vietnam, the influences of Hallyu are evident in the styles of actors and singers. Southeast Asian e-commerce giant Shopee featured Korean girl group BLACKPINK in its birthday advertisement in Indonesia, which became controversial following complaints about the “failure to adhere to decency norms”. Immediately, this resulted in a huge backlash from Indonesian K-pop fans, again reflecting the popularity of Korean pop culture. As such, Korea could be said to have the highest cultural capital in Asia. This soft power leads to greater awareness of Korea among Southeast Asians, which is advantageous for its New Southern Policy.
On the other hand, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is also a unique opportunity for Korea to distinguish itself as a reliable partner. Korea is one of the most successful Asian countries in the fight against the virus. They once had the highest number of confirmed cases outside China, with the Southeastern city of Daegu referred to by some as “the Second Wuhan”. Through high transparency and aggressive testing, Korea has been able to squash the curve effectively. Seoul, the capital city, was never in a lockdown; Korea even managed to hold the National Assembly elections on 15 April as originally scheduled. Korea’s success has won international applause, and they are sharing technical expertise and resources to Southeast Asian countries. A webinar co-organized by the Korea Foundation and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, for example, featured the Korean Ambassador to Indonesia and a health expert from the Seoul National University College of Medicine. The private sector has also been lending a hand – the LG group donated some 50,000 PCR COVID-19 test kits to Indonesia. Though some may claim that there is a political factor, support from Korea for this pandemic could only be beneficial to Southeast Asia.
Korea expects to start its New Southern Policy 2.0 in 2021; the successful continuation and enhancement of the policy would require more connections built between Korea and Southeast Asia. It is imperative that both sides work together to nurture a new generation that is well-versed in both regions. Fortunately, the wave of Hallyu has already drawn many Southeast Asian youngsters to Korea, a proportion of which are scholarship recipients. As this generation enters the workforce, the NSP could be perpetuated by a new class of transnational leaders.
Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. His primary research interest is Southeast Asian Studies, including the concept of regional identity. He could be reached at their e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org