When South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for “independent” and “balanced” diplomacy, it was an acknowledgement that the country has been swayed by major powers pursuing their own strategic interests on the divided peninsula.
Since Moon took office in May 2017, he has sought to expand Seoul’s diplomacy beyond the four regional powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula -- the US, China, Japan and Russia -- while maintaining close ties with them.
At the center of his vision is the New Southern Policy aimed at deepening ties with Southeast Asia, as part of Seoul’s drive to widen its diplomatic horizons and curb reliance on the neighboring countries in terms of trade and security.
The policy aims to elevate its relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India to the level Seoul enjoys with its four major partners. The vision stands on the guiding principles of “3P” -- building a community of people, prosperity and peace.
Leaders of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations pose for a photo at the 20th ASEAN-Republic of Korea Summit held in Singapore on Nov. 14. (Yonhap)
Why New Southern Policy matters for South Korea
Seoul’s need to shift its focus toward increasing ties with its Asian neighbors has been highlighted more significantly in recent years.
The diplomatic row between Seoul and Beijing over the deployment of a US anti-missile system led China to crack down on South Korean businesses in apparent retaliation. This year’s trade war between the US and China also took a toll on South Korea’s export-driven economy.
South Korea’s two major trading partners -- the US and China -- accounted for 39 percent of its exports in 2018.
Against this backdrop, the New Southern Policy could be a diplomatic tool to expand Seoul’s space for diplomatic maneuvering, experts say.
Southeast Asia is South Korea’s key partner in promoting peace and stability in the region as the world’s two superpowers are increasingly competing to gain influence in the region. The US pursues the Indo-Pacific strategy, and China pushes for its own One Belt One Road Initiative, with Asian countries feeling increasingly pressured to pick sides.
“Amid the intensifying US-China conflicts, South Korea could use the New Southern Policy as a diplomatic tool to expand its space for diplomatic maneuvering and mitigate the impact of such a competition,” said Choe Won-gi, head of the Center for ASEAN-India Studies at Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
So far, the economic and people-to-people elements of the New Southern Policy have received relatively more attention, but the initiative is not just about making inroads into new markets and pursuing wider economic cooperation.
In the category of “peace,” the policy outlines five tasks, which include seeking to hold more meetings between leaders of South Korea and the Asian countries, strengthening cooperation for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and broadening military and defense cooperation.
South Korea and ASEAN countries held vice-ministerial talks to discuss defense cooperation on the sidelines of this year’s Seoul Defense Dialogue in September.
Experts also say the New Southern Policy could help the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.
“As seen in the US-North Korea summit in Singapore, ASEAN and India can play vital roles in South Korea’s diplomatic efforts to secure international support for denuclearization of North Korea,” Choe said.
North Korea has traditionally had good relations with ASEAN countries. North Korea has embassies in eight member countries of the ASEAN, except for Brunei and the Philippines. The ASEAN Regional Forum, the only security forum North Korea has attended since 2000, has been one of the few multilateral channels for the communist state’s engagement with the outside world.
“There is a need to link the New Southern Policy to the issues on the Korean Peninsula,” Lee Jae-hyon, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, wrote in a paper published Thursday.
“ASEAN can play an important role in the process of North Korea’s denuclearization, economic opening and internal reforms, as well as becoming a normal state.”
Over the past year, the Moon administration has pushed to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula through a flurry of dialogue with Pyongyang. In the process, Seoul has also strived to secure support from the four major powers, as well as ASEAN and India.
New Southern Policy’s future
The Moon administration has seen some tangible results in its New Southern Policy drive, with bilateral trade volume rising 7.6 percent to $160 billion in the first 10 months of the year from the same period last year. The number of visitors to the other side increased by 10 percent annually, exceeding 10 million this year.
The Moon administration launched a special committee on the New Southern Policy under the presidential office consisting of government officials from 11 ministries. Headed by Kim Hyun-chul, presidential economic adviser, the committee convened its first meeting in November.
To promote its New Southern Policy, Moon has visited Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and India, with plans to visit the remaining ASEAN member states next year.
“Even statistics show that ASEAN and India are important to us to the extent that our future is up to them,” President Moon said at a Cabinet meeting last month. “We can also see the New Southern Policy is very crucial in expanding mutual economic cooperation and diversifying our markets.”
Marking the 30th anniversary of Korea’s relations with ASEAN, South Korea is set to host a Korea-ASEAN special summit next year, inviting leaders of the 10-member bloc. South Korea will be the first among ASEAN’s dialogue partners to host a special summit three times. Japan and China hosted two such summits each, while the US Russia, India and Australia have hosted one each.
South Korea is also set to host an inaugural summit of the Mekong River countries of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand next year, according to the government.
To support such a policy drive, a total of 2.2 billion won was allocated to the Foreign Ministry’s budget for next year to pursue exchanges with ASEAN member nations and India, a 35.9 percent rise from 1.6 billion won this year.
The ASEAN bloc, with a population of 630 million, is South Korea’s second-largest trading partner, with the two-way trade volume totaling $149.1 billion in 2017. With ASEAN, South Korea plans to increase two-way volume to $200 billion and the number of visitors to 15 million by 2020.
India -- home to 1.3 billion people -- is predicted to become the world’s third-largest economic powerhouse by 2024. South Korea seeks to expand their bilateral trade, which is estimated at about $20 billion, to $50 billion by 2030.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)