Last week, two events took place in Seoul that will affect relations between South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. A group of lawmakers launched the Korea-ASEAN Parliamentary Forum on Tuesday. The following day, experts from Korea and the ASEAN countries held an academic forum to discuss the prospects for relations between the two sides.
The conference, which drew government officials and experts, was timed to mark both the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the dialogue relations between Korea and ASEAN and the fifth anniversary of the Seoul-based ASEAN-Korea Centre.
Participants focused on, among other things, the planned launch of the ASEAN Community next year and its implications for East Asian cooperation, as well as ties between Korea and the regional group of 10 member states.
The head of the parliamentary forum, Rep. Ahn Hong-joon of the Saenuri Party, said the forum will not only help promote Korea-ASEAN ties but also try to lead discussions on such regional issues as climate change, disaster relief, sustainable development and food and energy security.
Both the academic forum and the launch of the parliamentary forum were well-timed since Korea-ASEAN relations are at an important turning point. Korea and ASEAN will hold a summit to commemorate the 25 years of their relations and the launch of the ASEAN Community in 2015.
The Korea-ASEAN Commemorative Summit, scheduled for December this year in Seoul, attests to the two sides’ commitment to upgrading their bilateral strategic partnership, which has been expanding remarkably in the areas of economy, culture and security.
One needs just a few statistics to see the level of the partnership between Korea and ASEAN. ASEAN is the No. 1 destination of Korean foreign investment, and the second-largest trading partner. For ASEAN, Korea is the sixth-largest foreign investor, and the fifth-largest trading partner.
People-to-people and cultural exchanges are flourishing as well. Nearly 16,000 visitors travel between Korea and the ASEAN countries on a daily basis, and over 4 million Koreans visit the region every year. In addition, about 60,000 immigrants from ASEAN have settled in Korea, mainly through marriage. We also know that Southeast Asians are big fans of hallyu.
The two sides are also boosting their political and security cooperation. In 2010, they established a strategic partnership and Korea opened a permanent mission to ASEAN in Jakarta in 2012. South Korea is participating in the ASEAN Regional Forum, the only multilateral security forum that includes North Korea. The Korea-ASEAN security dialogue to be launched this year may well provide further momentum toward expanding security cooperation.
Based on these healthy, thriving bilateral relations, South Korea should now seek closer cooperation with ASEAN on wider-ranging East Asian issues. The launch of the ASEAN Community is certain to enliven discussions on and prospects for East Asian integration.
South Korea should prepare for the establishment of a Korea-China-Japan free trade agreement and the launch of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which will also include Australia, New Zealand and India. These trade agreements will not come about easily, but they could provide the basis for the eventual formation of an East Asian Economic Community.
ASEAN will play a central role in these and other important regional cooperation issues. It is imperative that we make ASEAN a bigger part of our foreign policy.