Seoul's three key directions for upgrading Asean ties

South Korea has mapped out three key policy directions with the aim of upgrading ties with South-east Asia, said Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha.

These are to expand economic cooperation, deepen people exchanges and widen the scope of security cooperation.

A "tangible guideline" for cooperation will be officially announced at the Asean-Korea Summit in November, she said at a recent Asean-Korea conference.

Some plans to strengthen ties with Asean are already in place. This includes the appointment of the country's first Asean envoy, Seoul mayor Park Won Soon, who has embarked on a visit to the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency also opened a free trade support centre in Jakarta earlier this month to help Korean businesses operating in Indonesia and Asean.

Mr Shawn Ho, associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, suggested that South Korea, instead of vying with China and Japan for major infrastructure projects, could focus instead on areas where it has a competitive edge, such as information and communications technology, smart technologies and e-commerce.

On security, South Korean academics and analysts have been urging the country to leverage on Asean's friendly ties with North Korea to break the nuclear impasse on the Korean Peninsula.

Tensions are at an all-time high after the North launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth nuclear test.

Professor Shin Jae Hyeok from Korea University told The Straits Times that Asean can "play a bridging role" between the two Koreas, and between North Korea and the United States.

"For example, Asean could persuade North Korea to have a meeting with South Korea in Singapore, or any Asean state," he said.

But Mr Ho warned against too much optimism as Asean maintains a non-partisan stance in issues beyond its shores, and countries with close ties with North Korea may be reluctant to get involved.

"If Asean chooses to take a greater leadership role on the Korean peninsula issue, Asean can certainly make a positive contribution. However... Asean's primary focus will still be on issues within South-east Asia and on non-traditional security issues," he said.

The future for cultural exchange, however, looks bright.

Ms Moe Thuzar, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said ongoing initiatives in human resource development, youth and student exchanges, and academic networking "can catalyse more activities in future".

The newly-opened Asean Culture House, which is now hosting an exhibition on marriage traditions in different Asean countries and a virtual tour of Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple, will also help to "bring Asean closer to the Korean people", she added.

Chang May Choon

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2017, with the headline Seoul's three key directions for upgrading Asean ties. Subscribe