President Moon Jae-in returned home Wednesday after an overseas trip that wrapped up his busiest weeks as the chief diplomat since he took office in May.
Moon’s tour of three Southeast Asian countries -- Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines -- was preceded by receiving at home Donald Trump, who was on his maiden trip to Asia as the US president.
Moon focused his talks with Trump in Seoul on North Korea. In Vietnam, Moon met China President Xi Jinping to discuss North Korea and the restoration of Seoul-Beijing ties that had been strained by the deployment of a US missile shield system in South Korea.
Generally, those talks went well, although there were some glitches, like Moon’s acquiescent attitude toward China. Most of all, major players in the North Korean crisis left little doubt about their commitment to cope with the grave challenge to security in the region.
Then Moon joined Trump, Xi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other leaders to attend group meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. What’s especially noteworthy is that Moon unveiled a strong initiative to forge closer relations with the 10-member ASEAN.
Moon’s pledge to upgrade the level of relations with the regional bloc to that with the four powers -- the US, Japan, China and Russia -- in five years may sounds a little too ambitious and confident, but his emphasis on the importance of Korea-ASEAN ties deserves commendation.
Moon’s vision calls for Korea and ASEAN to build a “people-oriented community of peace and prosperity,” which will ensure the free exchange of people and goods. That strikes a perfect chord with the ASEAN Community’s pursuit of people-oriented and people-centered integration. Moon specifically emphasized the importance of increasing exchanges between people of all levels, including businesspeople and students, and development of partnership in transportation, energy, water management and the information and communications technologies.
There are many reasons Moon’s “New Look South” policy should be supported. Since South Korea became an ASEAN dialogue partner in 1989, their bilateral relations have improved by leaps and bounds, as evidenced in the economy.
Bilateral trade volume, which stood at $8.2 billion in 1989, surged 15 times to $119 billion last year. Moon said his administration would try to increase annual trade to $200 billion in 2020.
Now ASEAN is Korea’s second-largest trading partner and destination for investments, while Korea is ASEAN’s fifth-largest trading and investment partner.
In view of the complementary nature of their economies, the two sides have greater potential for development. Korean government officials and business executives may well take a note of the dynamics and robustness of the regional bloc’s economy: ASEAN has been posting an annual growth rate of about 5 percent, has a population of 640 million, of which about 60 percent are 35 years old or younger, and a gross domestic product of $2.6 trillion, the fifth- or sixth-largest in the world.
Besides such potential, the geopolitical situation in the region necessitates Korea to develop closer ties with ASEAN. Unlike Japan and China, which compete for regional hegemony and are often at odds against each other, Korea can become a reliable friend of the ASEAN member states and share common foreign policy interests.
During his swing through the region, Moon said he would visit all of the 10 ASEAN member states during his five-year tenure. Upon his election in May, he sent a special envoy to ASEAN, the first Korean leader to do so. There is no doubt he is the most proactive Korean leader about developing relations with ASEAN.
Moon’s commitment should be backed up by prompt, effective government action plans, including those on the president’s promise to simplify the visa issuance process for ASEAN citizens and upgrade the Korea-ASEAN free trade agreement that has been in place for 10 years.
Moon’s call for expansion of people-to-people exchanges should also encourage Korean citizens to increase their correct understanding of ASEAN as their valuable partners and friends. They no longer should see the region only as a group of developing economies, tourist destinations and sources of cheap labor, migrant workers and spouses.
Korea, which established the ASEAN-Korea Center in Seoul in 2009, opened an ASEAN cultural center in Busan this year. Support at the government and private levels for such efforts will bear fruit in the not-too-distant future.