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Revisiting ASEAN-Korea relations on the 54th ASEAN Day

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in claps as his trade minister Yoo Myung-hee holds up the signed agreement, as seen on a TV monitor, during the signing ceremony for the RCEP trade pact at the ASEAN summit that is being held online in Hanoi on November 15 last year. AFP

Revisiting ASEAN-Korea relations on the 54th ASEAN Day

August 8 marked the 54th ASEAN Day. For more than half a century, ASEAN member states have promoted multilateral dialogue and cooperation. Embracing globalisation, many countries in the region have enjoyed explosive economic growth to collectively emerge as the fifth largest economy in the world.

Unfortunately, since the global financial crisis of 2008, globalisation has slowly lost traction. The onset of Covid-19 has further amplified this trend by providing new rationale for protectionism. Moreover, the recent new waves of Covid-19 and the slow vaccine rollout have delayed much-anticipated economic recovery in Southeast Asia.

Against this backdrop, ASEAN-Korea relations have become all the more important in upholding free and open trade and creating interconnectedness at multiple levels, which are crucial to the region’s sustained development and prosperity. Thankfully, despite the many uncertainties and challenges, the prospects for stronger cooperation and deeper ties between ASEAN and Korea are bright.

First, strong commitment to cooperation continues to serve as a key driver in strengthening the ASEAN-Korea partnership. Over the past three decades, ASEAN and Korea have evolved into mutually indispensable economic partners. Today, ASEAN is Korea’s second-largest trading partner and investment destination. As a matter of fact, strong trade relations led to a mere five per cent drop in trade volume to record $144 billion in 2020, even at the height of the pandemic.

Second, ASEAN and Korea are like-minded in their outward-looking policies, which provides a solid foundation for sustained cooperation. Korea and many Southeast Asian countries experienced rapid economic growth based on export-oriented policies supported by economic reform. Open-minded and willing to learn from others, the two regions are well poised to work together, not only in building back better but also in advancing innovation and future technologies towards the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) economy.

Third, ASEAN and Korea share a common philosophy that values people. Both the ASEAN Community and the New Southern Policy prioritise the region’s peoples in their community-building efforts. This emphasis on the people has allowed greater interaction and communication among the two regions’ grassroots – from academics, businessmen and journalists to students, artists and the general public – which will enable deeper mutual understanding and more inclusive and multifaceted dialogue.

Despite the many positive aspects of ASEAN-Korea relations, however, challenges remain.

The foremost challenge is the existing asymmetries between ASEAN and Korea. Over the years, many ASEAN member states have expressed concern about the increasing trade imbalance with Korea. Increased efforts should be made to promote more balanced expansion of trade.

Asymmetry is also observed in social and cultural exchanges. The long-held popularity of Korean pop culture in ASEAN has contributed greatly to promoting a positive image of Korea among young Southeast Asians. In a way, the Korean Wave has inspired many ASEAN youths to explore their future in Korea, and there are over 64,000 Southeast Asian students currently studying in Korean universities.

However, the number of Korean students coming to Southeast Asia for the sole purpose of pursuing their studies remains quite small. While ASEAN is the most preferred tourist destination for Koreans, more efforts need to be made to set off an “ASEAN wave” – that is, to promote greater interest and broader understanding of ASEAN and Southeast Asian culture in Korea.

Finally, Korea needs to substantially strengthen its strategic partnership with ASEAN in dealing with regional and global affairs. While ASEAN and Korea today enjoy a very close relationship, recent survey results published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore show that Korea falls short of being an influential partner to ASEAN. Increased cooperation on matters of global concern, such as the pandemic and climate change, and greater convergence on the strategic front will provide the ASEAN-Korea partnership with a stronger foundation and relevance in regional affairs.

Back in 2009, the ASEAN-Korea Centre was established to reinforce economic and sociocultural cooperation between the 10 ASEAN member countries and Korea. Over the years, the center has made various efforts to address and improve the asymmetries in ASEAN-Korea relations.

And as ASEAN and Korea shake off the effects of the pandemic and advance together towards a more prosperous future, the ASEAN-Korea Centre will make added efforts to strengthen this partnership so it is more balanced and mutually beneficial, based on shared perceptions and understanding.

Kim Hae-yong is secretary-general of the ASEAN-Korea Centre

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