A two-day special summit between South Korea and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations ended Tuesday with the adoption of a statement on a vision for future partnership.
The summit, hosted by South Korea in the southeastern port city of Busan, was meant to mark the 30th anniversary of establishing a bilateral dialogue relationship and set the direction for deeper cooperation between both sides in the future.
The ASEAN-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit also served as an occasion to give fresh momentum to Seoul’s New Southern Policy. In November 2017, President Moon Jae-in announced the diplomatic initiative aimed at strengthening South Korea’s ties with the ASEAN nations to the same level as those it maintains with four major regional powers -- the US, China, Japan and Russia.
The declaration by Moon and his Southeast Asian counterparts set out the framework for building a comprehensive strategic partnership and forming an economic community based on the accomplishments over the past three decades.
South Korea and the Southeast Asian regional bloc -- which comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam -- may well look back with pride and satisfaction on what they have achieved since establishing a dialogue relationship in 1989.
Bilateral trade has soared 20 times over the cited period to $160.5 billion -- South Korea’s exports to the ASEAN region amounted to $100 billion last year, while its imports from the region reached $60.5 billion. The country’s overall exports have increased sevenfold in the same period. ASEAN is now South Korea’s second-largest trading partner, while the country is the fifth-largest trading partner for the bloc.
The ASEAN region is also the third-largest destination for South Korea’s overseas investments.
The number of visitors from both sides hit an all-time high of 11 million in 2018, which represents an increase of 40 times over the past 30 years. The figure is expected to reach 15 million by 2020.
South Korea and the ASEAN region still share the increasing need to further advance a multilateral mechanism that could help them cope with the fallout from the mounting conflict between the US and China, and adapt to a new wave of industrial renovations.
With its experience of rapid economic development and strengths in the information technology, construction, energy and transportation sectors, South Korea is well postured to help the Southeast Asian nations fully realize their huge growth potential.
The ASEAN region boasts the world’s third-largest population -- 650 million people, whose median age is just 29 -- as well as abundant natural resources and a high annual growth rate, hovering above 5 percent in recent years amid a global slowdown.
Expanding partnership with South Korea causes little concern for Southeast Asian nations, which share the memory of being invaded by imperial Japan during World War II and worry about China’s unreasonable territorial claims in the South China Sea. The growing popularity of K-pop in the region may also help South Korean companies do business there.
South Korea can contribute to building infrastructure particularly in the ASEAN member states through which the Mekong River flows -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Moon and leaders from the “Mekong Five” nations are expected to discuss promoting development projects during the inaugural Korea-Mekong Summit to be held Wednesday.
One thing South Korea needs to heed going forward is the call to ensure more balance and diversity in economic and trade ties with the ASEAN nations, which have been biased toward Vietnam.
Reflecting Moon’s will, the summit in Busan included a separate session on the Korean Peninsula as part of Seoul’s efforts to enhance ASEAN nations’ understanding of and support for the Korean peace process.
Moon had hoped North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would join him in sitting down with ASEAN leaders to discuss efforts to build peace on the peninsula. But Kim rejected Moon’s earlier invitation to attend the summit. Disclosing the rejection last week, the North said it would be pointless for its leader to join the summit amid the lack of progress in implementing the agreements reached between Moon and Kim in their previous meetings.
Pyongyang’s official news agency said Monday that Kim inspected a front-line military unit on an island just north of the western sea border with the South and ordered firing drills, giving no further details, including the date of inspection.
The ASEAN region may help us to achieve peace and prosperity on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, settling nuclear threats from the North by consolidating South Korea’s alliance with the US and strengthening its collaboration with Japan and other regional powers would help facilitate and expand its partnership with the Southeast Asian bloc.