President Moon Jae-in initiated the New Southern Policy (NSP) in order to upgrade relations between the Republic of Korea (Korea) and ASEAN. Since the NSP has come about primarily due to President Moon’s personal interest in and commitment to engaging ASEAN, it is therefore unclear if the NSP will continue beyond his single term in office which will end in May 2022.
The plans to accelerate ASEAN-Korea cooperation this year have been largely put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even when a vaccine becomes available, the issue is whether there will be sufficient amounts of the vaccine to reach people around the world. The production and distribution of billions of vaccines worldwide will not be something that can realistically be done within a few months. We must therefore be prepared to live with some form of COVID-19 related restrictions until at least 2022.
When it comes to ASEAN-Korea relations in the context of the COVID-19 world that we currently live in, the pertinent question therefore is: Will Korea’s New Southern Policy outlast COVID-19?
From an ASEAN perspective, the hope is certainly that the NSP will outlast COVID-19. ASEAN would wish for the NSP to continue regardless of who becomes the next Korean President and regardless of how long COVID-19 lasts.
This is because ASEAN always welcomes greater interest from its Dialogue Partners and other countries that wish to upgrade relations with ASEAN to a higher level. This is in line with the concept of ASEAN centrality in which ASEAN seeks to remain as the regional grouping that has the convening power to bring in various extra-regional countries to participate in ASEAN-led multilateralism. In order for ASEAN to continue succeeding in this endeavor, extra-regional countries must see value in their relations with ASEAN which also means that ASEAN must always strive to remain relevant.
The NSP beyond the Moon Presidency
As for how long the NSP will actually last and continue to be of interest to ASEAN member states, this is an entirely different matter. Even before COVID-19 hit, there were already questions raised by some experts about the sustainability of the NSP beyond the Moon presidency.
If one were to ask a Korean official whether Korea’s policy of engagement with ASEAN is in place for the long term, the official answer would be “yes, it is”. However, anything can happen in politics and each president will bring along new priorities and directions which the civil service will have to follow. Government institutions that have been set up to focus on the NSP could even be dismantled when there is a change in the political leadership even if the new leader is to come from the same political party. Even if these institutions remain, there is no guarantee that they will be as active as they currently are or receive the same level of funding that they require to run their existing initiatives.
In the best case scenario where the next Korean president expresses an interest in engaging ASEAN, it is still hard to ascertain if the level of attention given to ASEAN can match that of President Moon’s which has been unprecedented. At this juncture, it is important to point out that President Moon is the first sitting President of Korea to have visited all 10 ASEAN member states. Moreover, he accomplished this in the relatively short space of just over two years since he became president.
To visit all 10 ASEAN member states during any Korean presidency would have been a huge achievement in itself. To have done so amidst the immense and unprecedented focus given to several inter-Korean summits and US-DPRK summits taking place during that period was an even more remarkable achievement. This clearly shows that President Moon is very serious about pushing ASEAN-Korea relations up to a much higher level. This strong interest in ASEAN might be something hard for any other Korean President to emulate though I would be very glad to be proven wrong.
Will the NSP continue to be relevant to ASEAN?
Another factor at play regarding the NSP’s shelf life is whether a preoccupation with COVID-19 will cause ASEAN member states to lose interest in the NSP. In a month’s time, we will arrive at the first anniversary of the 3rd ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit held on Nov. 26 in Busan, Korea. Any major plans that came about from that summit to push ahead with greater ASEAN-Korea cooperation this year have been understandably held back due to the emergence of COVID-19.
The Korean government is expected to soon announce an upgrade of the NSP in the near future after completing its internal review. Dealing with COVID-19 is clearly going to be the foremost priority for all governments for the foreseeable future. Governments will think twice (or even thrice) before initiating or agreeing to any projects that may not be feasible in light of the overwhelming focus dedicated to the fight against COVID-19 and the numerous challenges it poses.
A strong focus and emphasis on regional public health cooperation in the next phase of the NSP would therefore be very critical and timely in order for the NSP to continue to remain relevant to ASEAN member states. The need for such cooperation has already been alluded to in the recently issued ASEAN-South Korea Plan of Action to Implement The Joint Vision Statement for Peace, Prosperity and Partnership (2021-2025) in which both sides have agreed to:
“Cooperate in response to public health emergencies including emerging and re-emerging infectious and communicable diseases as well as in preparedness and responses against pandemic influenza including cooperation to strengthen capacity to address public health emergencies, and support for the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund as well as facilitating post-pandemic recovery, with a view to addressing the adverse impact of the pandemic and enhancing regional resilience”
In my opinion, the only way in the immediate future for the NSP to be relevant to ASEAN member states is for it to be primarily about COVID-19 and regional public health cooperation for the rest of President Moon’s term in office – till May 2022. It is appreciated that Korea has contributed $1 million to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund which will be used by the member states to procure medical supplies and equipment as well as to finance research and development of antiviral drugs and vaccines. Beyond such monetary contributions, the sharing of COVID-19 related best practices, experiences, equipment and technology by Korea with ASEAN member states could also fall under the NSP.
In the context of ASEAN-Korea relations, such a focus on public health cooperation is likely to be of greater interest to ASEAN member states in the short term instead of geo-strategic issues such as how to deal with US-China rivalry. When the COVID-19 pandemic is firmly under control in the Southeast Asian region, it would then be more appropriate to focus more on such geo-strategic or economic issues that may have previously been on the Track 1 agenda prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
While the road ahead is uncertain due to COVID-19, it is my hope that the NSP will continue beyond President Moon’s term of office and even after we have fully transited into the post-COVID-19 era in a few years’ time.
It is in the interests of Korea in the long term to diversify its foreign relations and to enhance its institutional links with countries outside of its immediate neighborhood.
It is also in the interests of ASEAN and its member states to have a Korea that supports ASEAN centrality and which is deeply engaged in Southeast Asia for the long haul.
Such a mutually beneficial long-term relationship should be emphasized and nurtured regardless of any possible future domestic Korean political shifts and regardless of how long this COVID-19 pandemic lasts.
By Shawn Ho
Shawn Ho is an associate research fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. His research focus is on the politics and security of the Korean Peninsula as well as on ASEAN-Korea relations.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ASEAN-Korea Center. --Ed.