By Professor Tommy Koh: Three ways to improve ASEAN-South Korea ties

July 03, 2018

Many  people in ASEAN have great admiration for South Korea. They remember that the country had been destroyed by the 1950-1953 Korean War. The country was dirt poor. Some American pundits had even described it as a basket case. Undaunted by the challenges, South Korea has performed an economic miracle.

Today, South Korea is a developed country with a high income economy. It is the world’s 11th largest economy by nominal GDP (Gross Domestic Product). It is the world’s fifth largest exporter and the eighth largest importer. It ranks no. 18 in the United Nations Human Development Index. 

ASEAN’s citizens love their Samsung mobile phones, drive Hyundai cars, own Korean television sets and adore Korea’s pop culture.

However, relations between ASEAN and South Korea were slow in developing.

This is largely due to the fact that, until recently, South Korea’s focus was on the threat from North Korea. In its external relations, South Korea gave priority to the United States, China, Japan and Russia. South Korea’s interest in ASEAN and Southeast Asia was driven by its competition with North Korea and by trade and investment opportunities for Korean business.


Paradigm Changes In Korean Policy

Former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye had brought about a paradigm shift in South Korea’s policy towards ASEAN. 

During President Lee Myung-bak’s administration, the ASEAN-Republic of Korea Eminent Persons Group was established. The group recommended, among other things, that the relationship should be elevated to the strategic partnership level.

In 2009, the ASEAN-Korea Centre was established in Seoul, South Korea. In 2010, the two sides agreed to elevate their relationship to a strategic partnership. In 2012, South Korea established a Permanent Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta.


President Moon’s New South Policy

President Moon Jae-in has announced a New Southern Policy. The objective is to elevate South Korea’s engagement with ASEAN, India and Australia, to the same level as South Korea’s relations with the United States, China, Japan and Russia. The new policy has three objectives: to promote mutual sustainable prosperity, to enhance people-to-people exchanges and to build a peaceful and safe East Asia. President Moon’s administration needs to give the new policy more substance.

Already, the economic bridge between ASEAN and South Korea is strong and substantive. There is an ASEAN-Korea Free Trade Agreement which was concluded in 2009. The two-way trade in 2016 was US$118.8 billion, making ASEAN the second largest trading partner of South Korea. South Korea is ASEAN’s fifth largest trading partner. In 2016, South Korea invested US$ 5.1 billion in ASEAN, making ASEAN the second largest investment partner of South Korea.  South Korea is ASEAN’s fifth largest investor. 

Tourism is also booming.  In 2016, 5.99 million Koreans visited ASEAN and 2.2 million ASEAN citizens visited South Korea. 

In 2014, at the commemorative summit, in Seoul, ASEAN and ROK’s leaders posited the target of US$200 billion for bilateral trade in 2020. The target will not be achieved but it should encourage the two sides to do more to harness the opportunities offered by the ASEAN-ROK Free Trade Agreement.


Cultural Bridge

There is scope for strengthening the cultural bridge between ASEAN and South Korea. The fact that nearly 6 million Koreans visited ASEAN in 2016 and over 2 million ASEAN citizens visited South Korea in the same year is a good sign. However, we should attempt to deepen the relationship.

 I would like to see ASEAN’s interest in South Korea go beyond its popular culture. I would like to see ASEAN universities offering courses in the Korean language and Korean studies. At the same time, I hope to see more Korean students studying at ASEAN’s universities, as exchange students, and interning in ASEAN countries. 

At present, ASEAN citizens are better informed about South Korea than vice versa. 

Koreans tend to hold negatives views about ASEAN. They appear to suffer from a time lag in their perception of ASEAN. 

As the ASEAN-Korea Center Secretary General Kim Young-sun noted in an article in The Korea Times in 2016: “Frankly, many Koreans have a distorted image of South East Asians. When they think of South East Asians, Koreans first come up with images of illegal migrant workers. If you want to forge good friendships, you have to know your counterparts properly.”

The opening of the ASEAN Culture House, in Busan, in 2017, is therefore a step in the right direction. Art and culture should be prioritized. The exchange of exhibitions between our museums should be augmented.


Common Challenge

ASEAN and South Korea face some common challenges. They have prospered because of free trade and globalisation. Both are under challenge by the current administration in Washington, D.C. 

Indeed, the whole of the post-World War Two liberal world order is being questioned by its principal architect. It is in the interests of ASEAN and South Korea to defend free trade and oppose protectionism. They should seek to conclude negotiations for the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) regional trade deal this year.

It is encouraging that Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said on Sunday (July 1), that the deal is on track for a substantial agreement by the end of this year. This was announced at a news conference in Tokyo with his Japanese counterpart Hiroshige Seko, after the two co-chaired a meeting attended by trade ministers of the 16 RCEP countries. 


Towards the Future

ASEAN and South Korea enjoy a trouble-free, substantive and mutually beneficial relationship. I would like to suggest a few ways to bring this relationship to a higher peak.

First, President Moon’s New Southern Policy, presents us with an opportunity to expand the scope and depth of the relationship. However, in order for this to happen, there must be a mindset change on the part of South Korea. It should move away from treating the relationship as a transactional one to treating it as a long-term and deep engagement.

Second, nine years have passed since the ASEAN-ROK Free Trade Agreement was concluded. It is time to review and upgrade the agreement. I would also urge the two sides to consider concluding an ASEAN-ROK Air Services Agreement. Such an agreement would enhance connectivity, boost tourism and trade. It is a win-win proposition.

Third, the economies of ASEAN and South Korea are fundamentally, complementary and not competitive. The Korean private sector should be encouraged to look more closely at investment opportunities in ASEAN, taking advantage of the bilateral free trade agreement and the ASEAN Economic Community.

The digital economy and ASEAN’s network of Smart Cities are two potential new areas of cooperation.

Finally, ASEAN and South Korea should continue to work together to build and defend a regional order which is open, transparent and inclusive. They should also cooperate to strengthen the international rule of law in Asia. Their shared vision is to work for an East Asia which is peaceful, stable and prosperous.

The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.