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[Contribution] Korea-ASEAN, Strategic Partners for a New Era

Yeo Seung-bae, deputy minister for political affairs at the Foreign Ministry
Yeo Seung-bae, deputy minister for political affairs at the Foreign Ministry

This year marks another historic milestone in Korea’s diplomacy. In June, President Moon Jae-in was invited to the Group of Seven (G-7) Summit. In July, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reclassified Korea as a developed country, the first time for the UN agency to upgrade its member state’s status since it was founded in 1964. These are testaments that the world not only acknowledges Korea’s success but also expects Korea to play a more proactive role in addressing regional and international affairs. Korea’s willingness to take on that bigger role is well represented in the New Southern Policy (NSP), one of Korea’s signature foreign policies. 

ASEAN has welcomed the NSP and continues to extend its utmost support. “What has made the NSP so attractive to NSP partners, and how did it become a buttress of ASEAN-ROK cooperation in a relatively short period of time?” I found the answers to these questions during my recent visit to Vietnam, the country coordinator for ASEAN-ROK Dialogue Relations for the next three years. 

The first reason lies in the practical approach of the NSP. I had a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister, Nguyen Quoc Dzung, during my visit. He expressed his satisfaction at the way Korea and ASEAN have consolidated a pragmatic relationship. Indeed, NSP partners are eager to benchmark Korea’s know-how in achieving development and listen to our unique story of how one of the poorest countries could emerge as the world’s 10th-largest economy. To help ASEAN countries reach that goal too, the NSP focuses on education, human resources development, and quality infrastructure. I also spoke with Deputy Minister Dzung about the future direction of ASEAN-ROK cooperation, listening carefully as he mentioned Korea’s strengths in fighting against COVID-19, ICT, digital transformation, and climate change response, something that ASEAN could emulate and benefit from.

Second, the NSP is an action-oriented policy. Given the dynamics of the strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific, many countries have come up with their own strategy for the region. Among these strategies, the NSP has proven that it is not just a statement but a policy backed up by concrete actions. For instance, the Korean government has simplified its visa system for the people of NSP partner countries. The outcome was more than 10 percent annual growth in people-to-people exchanges until the outbreak of the pandemic. To further deepen trade and investment relations with ASEAN, the Korean government negotiated and concluded Free Trade Agreements with Indonesia, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Furthermore, during this unprecedented pandemic, Korea chose ASEAN countries - Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines - as the first recipients of coronavirus vaccines sent overseas. 

Third, the sustainability of the NSP comes from its inclusive approach. The NSP is becoming more relevant and efficient through collaborations with other partners of ASEAN. Based on the principles of openness, transparency, and inclusivity, Korea is actively communicating with the United States, Australia and France, to name a few, to seek coordination and cooperation. In Vietnam, I gave a keynote speech in a forum where representatives from the US and Japan also attended to discuss ways to enhance trilateral cooperation for supporting ASEAN’s connectivity. Such types of cooperation will create synergy and multiply our outcomes.

The most memorable compliment from Deputy Minister Dzung is his recognition of Korea as “one of the most trusted partners.” To maintain such trust, Korea will continue practical cooperation and simultaneously further develop the strategic aspect of the NSP. Meeting with scholars in Vietnam, we agreed that amid the shifting power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, middle powers like Korea and Vietnam need to cooperate bilaterally and through ASEAN to safeguard regional peace and prosperity. For instance, Vietnam’s help to resolve the recent urea shortage in Korea shows how the two countries can deepen economic cooperation to promote regional value chains and enhance economic security.

At the ASEAN-ROK Summit held in October, both sides made a commitment to further deepen ASEAN-ROK relations through the NSP. Based on that commitment, Deputy Minister Dzung and I agreed to take the ASEAN-ROK relationship one step further in the near future. 

The visit of Mr. Vuong Dinh Hue, chairman of the National Assembly of Vietnam, from Dec. 12 to 15, comes as another valuable opportunity to strengthen Korea’s relations not only with Vietnam but also with ASEAN. Korea welcomes his visit and looks forward to continuously engaging our ASEAN partners to draw closer to a people-centered community of peace and prosperity for a new era. 

By Yeo Seung-bae

The writer is deputy minister for political affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. - Ed.

By Korea Herald (