Diplomatic relations between Cambodia and South Korea were re-established in 1997 and have seen substantial growth and collaboration across multiple fields, such as trade, investment, culture, and education.

South Korea is ranked among Cambodia’s significant official development assistance (ODA) providers, focusing on socio-economic and physical infrastructure development.

Cambodia receives a considerable amount of South Korean ODA. South Korea’s valuable support has helped Cambodia’s development efforts, primarily in the areas of infrastructure, education, healthcare, and agriculture. In the first ten months of 2022, bilateral trade between the two countries reached $920 million, showing an increase of 16.3% year-on-year.

The Cambodia-Korea Free Trade Agreement (CKFTA) became law on January 29, 2022, and is expected to boost bilateral trade and investment further.

To promote deeper connections and mutual understanding between the two countries, cultural exchange programmes and centres, such as the Cambodia-Korea Cooperation Center (CKCC) and the Cambodian-Korean Cultural Exchange, were established. In the defense sector, Cambodia and South Korea signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to reinforce and enhance regional security cooperation and mutual protection.

Despite these growing ties, several challenges still need to be addressed by the new government of Cambodia, led by Hun Manet. One of the most critical challenges is the need for Cambodia to create a favorable business environment for Korean investors. This includes effective implementation of business regulations and ensuring the protection of foreign investors’ interests.

Political stability and mechanisms to address foreign investor conflicts are crucial for attracting and retaining investments. The new government’s commitment to establishing a transparent and accountable governance system will be essential in gaining the confidence of international investors, mainly South Koreans.

Furthermore, Seoul has concerns about the relationship between Cambodia and North Korea. To address this, the new government of Cambodia needs to clearly define its relationship with North Korea and continue to implement international and UN sanction measures firmly.

Regarding China’s rising influence, Cambodia should review its foreign policy to ensure it does not entirely rely on China but balances regional and global support to build trust and gain more economic benefits with other development partners, particularly South Korea. Meanwhile, because of China’s troubled economy, it would be wise for the government of Hun Manet to reevaluate its expectations regarding the amount of assistance from China that it may expect.

As new Prime Minister, Hun Manet should substantially deepen the Cambodia-South Korea bilateral relationship by undertaking trade, investment, security cooperation, cultural and people-to-people ties initiatives. Regarding trade and investment, South Korea is one of Cambodia’s most significant partners, mainly importing clothing and footwear while exporting electronics, vehicles, and machinery.

The establishment of the Cambodia-Korea Free Trade Agreement (CKFTA), has would further enhanced bilateral trade and investment between the two countries.

In terms of social, cultural, and people-to-people aspects, Cambodia and South Korea have established cultural exchange programs and centers, such as the Cambodia-Korea Cooperation Center (CKCC) and the Cambodian-Korean Cultural Exchange event, to foster deeper connections and mutual understanding between the two countries.

Enhancing technical training, education, cultural exchanges, and tourism can also strengthen societal bonds. Additionally, security cooperation has emerged as an important new facet of Cambodia-South Korea relations. It would be better to maintain high-level defense dialogues and regular joint military exercises across land, sea, and air domains and seek military aid and training programmes for Cambodian forces focused on peacekeeping, counterterrorism, border security, and maritime security.

In short, while there will be some pressure from the West, deepening bilateral relations in a particular area with South Korea is the strategic choice for Cambodia’s new government. To take the relationship forward, Hun Manet should address existing issues and focus on deepening economic and development cooperation, security partnerships, and people-to-people exchanges.

Boosting trade and investment in high-tech manufacturing, agriculture, and services could diversify the economic relationship beyond the garment sector. Moreover, expanding military and cyber-security cooperation will increase bilateral relationships, benefiting both sides.

So Channtha is a Politics and International Relations Lecturer at the University of Cambodia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.