NATIONAL

‘Mekong-Korea cooperation spearheads sustainable development’

By Joel Lee
  • Published : Dec 24, 2018 - 21:56
  • Updated : Dec 24, 2018 - 21:57

Diplomats and government officials from the Mekong region and Korea pose at the sixth Mekong-ROK Business Forum on Dec. 13 in Seoul. (ASEAN-Korea Center)

The Greater Mekong Subregion is a transnational area along the Mekong River basin in Southeast Asia, spanning some 5,000 kilometers through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Despite being a latecomer in the regional development of Southeast Asia, the countries have swiftly advanced their economic and social standings in recent years, with an average growth rate exceeding 6.8 percent last year.

As member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations push forward their political security, economic and social cooperation and integration, the Mekong zone has been a major driver of larger regional growth with its abundant natural resources, young and dynamic labor force and consumer market of 250 million people.

Mekong is also home to irreplaceable natural and cultural riches, and considered among the world’s most significant biodiversity habitats and food providers. Lately, the area has accommodated many large-scale construction projects with significant social and economic implications.

Ahead of the inaugural Mekong-Republic of Korea Summit and ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit next year, the two sides can benefit together by tackling the development challenges of the future, according to a group of experts at the sixth Mekong-ROK Business Forum on Dec. 13 in Seoul.

“Korea attaches great significance to its partnership with the Mekong region,” said Second Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-ho in a speech. “Considering its abundant natural resources and young labor force, it has great potential. The Mekong region has a special place under Korean President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy, under which Seoul seeks stronger cooperation with Southeast Asia through the three pillars of people, prosperity and peace.”

Diplomats and government officials from the Mekong region and Korea pose at the sixth Mekong-ROK Business Forum on Dec. 13 in Seoul. (ASEAN-Korea Center)

The event, “Promoting Co-prosperity Through Ecofriendly Innovation Among SMEs in Mekong Countries and Republic of Korea,” was jointly organized by the ASEAN-Korea Center, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises and Startups and governmental certification agency Innobiz.

“Korea’s own experience provides useful insights to Mekong countries as they encounter challenges to development,” he said, adding the two sides can collaborate in infrastructure, information and communication technology, green growth and water resources, human capital, agricultural and rural development. “The Korean government stands ready and willing to work with your region in these areas for our shared prosperity.”

According to Korean government statistics, the country’s imports from the region increased from $7.7 billion to $22 billion from 2010 through 2017, while exports to the region went up from $17 billion to $56 billion during the same period. In terms of investment, Korea plowed $2.9 billion of capital into the region, a significant rise from $1.3 billion, while the Mekong countries’ investments went from $4 million to $11 million.

Small and medium-sized enterprises serve as an engine for economic growth and employment, Lee said, adding they can respond flexibly and dynamically to changing economic environments. In Mekong especially, SMEs make up the bulk of companies and provide the majority of jobs.

Noting that they face challenges in enhancing their capabilities and pushing new market frontiers, the forum, including its one-on-one business meetings, would provide a platform for public and private sectors to jointly explore new opportunities, the diplomat said.

“During the eighth Mekong-ROK Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Singapore in August this year, our ministers recognized the importance of the private sector in economic growth and development in our region,” said Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry Director General U Chan Aye. 

ASEAN-Korea Center Secretary-General Lee Hyuk (ASEAN-Korea Center)

The ministers also agreed to make greater efforts to bolster SMEs’ competitiveness for the region’s inclusive and sustainable development, he highlighted, noting that ecofriendly technologies and products should be made available to people at affordable prices. Green technologies and innovation can also help the Mekong countries narrow gaps between development and environmental preservation, he added.

“To achieve balanced growth throughout the region, it is just as important to pursue environmental protection and sustainable consumption and production from the early development stages as it is to advance economic growth and bridge development gaps,” said Director General of the Ministry of SMEs and Startups Kim Mun-hwan. “This is to prevent the destruction of the region’s beautiful natural environment from excessive development and to seek harmonious coexistence between mankind and nature.”

Pointing to the United Nations-led 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, Kim said that SMEs, by adopting eco-friendly technologies and associated best practices, should change and adapt their ways of using resources, energy and waste for higher efficiency.

ASEAN-Korea Center Secretary-General Lee Hyuk, formerly Korean ambassador to Vietnam and the Philippines, said the region and Korea can strengthen their trade and investments through the revision of the ASEAN-Korea Free Trade Agreement as well as bilateral agreements for Korea with Vietnam and Singapore.

“Infrastructure could be a major area for deeper cooperation, as a number of ASEAN states lack sufficient expertise in the sector,” he said, referring to several ongoing and proposed connectivity projects. “Cooperating on ecological and environmental protection will be an important part of building an ASEAN-Korea community of a shared future.”

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)