[Herald Interview] ‘Korea wise to embrace ASEAN’s unity-in-diversity mentality’

By Joel Lee

“If we constantly hustle in hurly-burly, we lose sight of the big picture. In contrast, what took me by surprise during my Southeast Asia tenure is that people there often live harmoniously and beautifully together, while respecting group differences.”

  • Published : Apr 23, 2018 - 17:14
  • Updated : Apr 25, 2018 - 10:31

Korea should develop a holistic relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and move beyond its mercantilist instincts toward a long-term, trust-based partnership, according to the new chief of the ASEAN-Korea Center.

Lee Hyuk, formerly the South Korean ambassador to Vietnam and the Philippines, took helm of the intergovernmental organization entrusted with invigorating bilateral commerce, tourism and cultural exchanges in April.

In an exclusive interview with The Korea Herald, the career diplomat said the future of the ASEAN-Korea relationship is bound to move from strength to strength, as the current administration of Korean President Moon Jae-in has motioned to bolster ties with Southeast Asia through the New Southern Policy.

Lee stressed that instead of viewing Southeast Asia largely through the prism of commerce and tourism, Koreans can invest in myriad relationships with its neighbors based on genuine curiosity and trust. 

Lee Hyuk, the new secretary-general of the ASEAN-Korea Center, was the former South Korean ambassador to Vietnam and the Philippines. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

“There’s plenty we can learn from ASEAN. First and foremost, we can learn from their relaxed attitudes toward life and not hasten ourselves constantly. It doesn’t mean we can afford to lose sense of our priorities,” he said last week at the center in Seoul.

“If we constantly hustle in hurly-burly, we lose sight of the big picture. In contrast, what took me by surprise during my Southeast Asia tenures is that people there often live harmoniously and beautifully together, while respecting differences between groups.”

Pointing to ASEAN’s motto “unity in diversity,” the secretary-general said ASEAN nationals have strong faith in the power of diversity as a necessary ingredient for their mutual prosperity.

“There’s a strong thinking that despite their disparate cultures, religions, ethnicities, customs and practices, these varieties are an asset rather than a liability,” he highlighted. “In this respect, they know how to live happily and wisely in peace and harmony. As our own society develops and matures as a democracy and we increasingly search for happiness, I believe ASEAN’s values will be of paramount importance to us.”

ASEAN was established in 1967, and last year it celebrated its 50th anniversary with Korea by promoting two-way tourism and cultural exchanges. The regional organization comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

The ASEAN-Korea Center, established in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of the bilateral sectoral dialogue partnership of 1989, runs some 50-60 programs annually, ranging from trade and investment forums and missions to meetings and conferences on tourism, education, food and scholarly lectures and publications.

“There is a tendency among ASEAN people to look at South Korea largely as a mercantilist state,” noted the diplomat. He added that while Southeast Asian nations admire Korea’s rapid economic development, it was still vital to win their trust for co-development and co-prosperity.

In line with the Korean government’s approach toward ASEAN based on people-centered relations and community building, Lee said he will devote his three-year tenure to people-to-people exchanges, sustainable development of industries and co-prosperity in the age of automation and digitalization.

“I cannot think of a better person to lead the ASEAN-Korea Center than Secretary-General Lee Hyuk. The remarkable achievements of our bilateral strategic partnership and our growing mutual confidence over the past three decades point to a future of shared prosperity and peace for our peoples and countries,” said South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha at the inaugural reception for Lee on Monday.

On the commercial front, Lee said ASEAN’s strategic value for Korea is increasing, as the region boasts the world’s sixth-largest economy with a combined gross domestic product of $2.6 trillion and a growing population at 670 million people currently.

“The New Southern Policy is not merely about trade and investment,” he underscored. “It can only bring about its full potential when approached holistically by combining people-to-people exchanges, education, culture and economic cooperation.”

Pointing to Australia and Japan, which have long invested in Southeast Asia substantially through diplomatic, economic and cultural channels, Lee said that although Korea’s resources cannot match theirs, the country can play to its strengths through “smart approaches,” combining technology, education, food, fashion, music, cosmetics, film and other elements of pop culture.

With increasingly more countries joining the bandwagon of protectionism spearheaded by the United States, Lee said that Seoul can embrace free trade by utilizing its bilateral free trade agreement with ASEAN as well as the prospective two giant multilateral free trade deals: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

“With growing middle classes, young populations and stable growth rates averaging 5 percent or above, ASEAN is a viable alternative to the China market,” he stressed. “Furthermore, there are remarkable potentials in ASEAN’s electronic commerce markets, as many of its economies are making rapid advances in e-commerce and digital communications.”

Some countries among ASEAN, such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, have invested heavily in information and communication technologies, advanced manufacturing and the internet of things for their “industry 4.0” economic development strategies.

ASEAN’s transition toward a digital economy will be a springboard for further regional integration and inclusive economic development, according to the center.

Pointing to the $150 billion bilateral trade last year, with the trade balance heavily in favor of Korea at $41 billion, Lee also said it was imperative for both sides to tackle their imbalance in trade. To this end, the center has organized various trade fairs and trade facilitation workshops, showcasing ASEAN’s foods, products and services, as well as inviting its micro, small and medium-sized enterprises to Korea for networking and information on the local market.

The center will organize the ASEAN Youth Startup Development Workshop on May 26, the ASEAN Digital Commerce Forum on July 3-6 and Investment Facilitation Seminar on ICT Startups in September.

Throughout the year, the institution also hosts the ASEAN Youth Career Mentorship Program; ASEAN School Tour Program for Korean middle and high school students; Youth Network Workshop, Youth Forum and Academic Essay Contest for university students; and ASEAN Lecture Series for the general public, providing insights from experts on the region’s cultures, religions and business environments.

By Joel Lee (