More to South Korea than K-pop and kimchi: The Nation

The Seoul city skyline on Sept 7, 2015.
The Seoul city skyline on Sept 7, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

For over half a century, South Korea has struggled to move beyond the confines of the Korean Peninsula quagmire. But now it is moving forward to broaden its diplomatic horizon.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

The Nation

South Korea is no longer shy talking about its role in promoting democracy and human rights in Asia and beyond. This new sense of confidence comes mainly from its full blossoming democratisation since the economic crisis in 1997.

Its civil society groups are also very active within Asia and they serve as feisty watchdogs to ensure the transparency and accountability of government policies.

For over half a century, South Korea has struggled to move beyond the confines of the Korean Peninsula quagmire.

Only in recent years has this country had the courage to undertake such public diplomacy due to its high-performance economic and political development. At present, Seoul is moving forward to a broadening diplomatic horizon.

With several of its citizens heading key positions in international organisations, South Korea is very proud and tries to live up to the growing expectation of an international community.

This is a far cry from the South Korea of yesteryear which was very conservative, inward looking and homogeneous.

These days, one in every 10 new babies born in South Korea comes from a mixed-marriage family.

Each year thousands of foreign women, mainly from Southeast Asia, are married to local people.

These days, beyond the proliferation of K-pop and other Korean phenomena, South Korea is portraying itself as a multicultural nation. Foreigners, whether residents or refugees, are better treated than before.

The government under President Park Guen Hye has been more expedient in accepting new refugees.

Since 1994, 13,000 refugees from more than a dozen countries have applied for refugee status - but truth be told, only 700 cases have been granted so far.

These statistics were considered high among the Northeast Asia region, but still unsatisfactory given the country's economic capacity.

In recent months, around 700 Syrians managed to arrive in South Korea and have applied for refugee status.

The government here tried to resettle the group as soon as possible to show its solidarity with the international community on the Syrian refugee crisis. But the number of approvals remained low.

In 2013, South Korea enacted a refugee law which provided protection to asylum seekers.

It is interesting to note that Seoul is now experimenting with a pilot project to resettle stranded Myanmar refugees in Thailand.

A group of 30 refugees from Thai-Myanmar will be repatriated to South Korea in the near future.

This effort shows a new commitment in line with the country's growing international status.

As the only country in the world that remains divided and heavily fortified, South Korea understands full well the tyranny of history and war.

Therefore, the Park administration has tried very hard to reduce tension in the Korean peninsula and reconcile with and integrate North Korea with the international community.

At the same time, South Korea is forging stronger ties with Asean countries and beyond.

The Eurasia Initiative is a good case study, designing to link the Korean Peninsula with Europe through a rail connection across North Korea and Russia.

To do so, there must be peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula along with efficient conflict resolution mechanisms.

Of late, South Korea has become more receptive to a longstanding proposal from Asean to take part in six-party talks.

Since all the concerned parties are members of the Asean Regional Forum, the region-wide security platform, the grouping wants to contribute to dialogue that would secure peace and stability in this part of the world.

North Korea has been a member of the ARF since 2000 and a signatory to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2008.

As a middle power, South Korea has been quite outspoken about democracy and human rights.

Its record backing UN resolutions related to rights issues is the barometer.

Indeed, it was also the only country in Asia that had been able to utilise Confucian thinking in a modern context.

The author recalls an interview in 1999 with President Kim Dae-jung, who proudly declared that Asia had the oldest form of democracy and respect for human rights enshrined in Confucianism.

He said that democratic values were not a Western concept - they were as Asian as kimchi; with hundreds of variations, of course.

With its liberal interpretations, this Chinese sage's philosophy and teachings have been given a face-lift, as they could fit snugly into the current societal conditions with emphasis on collective betterment of society - a common feature of Asian society at large.

In China, South Korea's approach to Confucianism has been a subject of intense study. President Xi Jinping has personally promoted the teachings of Confucius - although with a different emphasis - as part of core Chinese values since he took power in 2012.

This collective rights-based approach has helped South Korea build firmer democratic values with broader appeals in the region.

In more ways than one, it has come of age in terms of democratic institutionalisation and economic development. So, as a result, it wants a new image as a multicultural nation with a vibrant democracy which can contribute to the global public good.