Singapore, Asean can boost tourism with South Korea and collaborate in many areas: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-In for bilateral talks in the Blue House on Nov 23, 2019. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

BUSAN - While Singapore and South Korea enjoy regular high-level and cultural exchanges, both countries can ramp up their collaboration in areas such as the environment and fintech, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Within the region, there is also room for Asean and South Korea to strengthen their connectivity and people-to-people links, as well as cooperate on digital technology, he added.

Mr Lee is in Seoul for a bilateral visit till Sunday (Nov 24), and will attend the Asean-Republic of Korea (ROK) Commemorative Summit in Busan from Nov 25 to 26, which marks the 30th anniversary of Asean-ROK dialogue relations.

In an interview with Korean news agency Yonhap published on Saturday, Mr Lee said that South Korea is an important trade and investment partner for Singapore, and noted the progress made since South Korean President Moon Jae-in's state visit to the Republic in July last year.

Six agreements were sealed during that visit, in areas such as small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups, research and development, and the environment.

Earlier in Seoul on Saturday, the two leaders witnessed the signing and exchange of four more pacts in standards and conformance, manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, smart cities and cyber-cooperation.

Noting that more than 800,000 Singaporean and South Korean tourists visited the two countries last year, Mr Lee said of the newly expanded air services agreement: "I'm confident this will boost tourism further, especially now that we have direct flights between Singapore and Busan."

Singapore carrier SilkAir has been flying to Busan four times a week since May. From next Tuesday (Nov 26), Singapore and South Korean carriers can operate any number of passenger and cargo flights between any destinations in both countries.

Mr Lee also said it is timely to review and upgrade the Korea-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (KSFTA) which came into force in 2006, given South Korea's New Southern Policy (NSP) and the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries next year.

Unveiled two years ago, the NSP aims to deepen South Korea's ties with South-east Asian nations and India, in addition to traditional diplomatic partners like the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

A Korean start-up centre will be launched in Singapore, and Singapore start-ups have been working with the Korea Institute of Start-up and Enterpreneurship Development.

Both countries are also exploring collaboration in cybersecurity and fintech, he said.

Citing openness and multiculturalism as key values that have shaped the Republic's development, Mr Lee welcomed Koreans who work and live in Singapore: "They enrich our society and help foster stronger bonds between our peoples."

Asean and South Korea too, he said, can deepen their cooperation by bolstering multilateralism and strengthening connectivity.

On this front, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has made good progress and is on track to be signed next year. The Asean-ROK Free Trade Area (AKFTA) should also be strengthened, he said.

The RCEP, which has 15 member countries including the 10 Asean nations, accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the world's gross domestic product.

India announced earlier this month that it would stay out of the mega pact, amid concerns that it would hurt domestic producers.

Asean-ROK trade is expected to reach US$200 billion (S$273 billion) by next year, up from US$160.5 billion in 2018.

With tourist numbers hitting an all-time high of 11 million last year, Mr Lee said concluding an air services agreement between both sides would spur economic growth and people-to-people ties.

They should also continue to collaborate on digital technology, such as through the Asean Smart Cities network, he added.

When asked about prospects for the peace process on the Korean peninsula, Mr Lee said it is an "extremely difficult" problem that will take great effort and patience to resolve, and he welcomed efforts in constructive engagement and dialogue by all parties involved.

Using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), he said: "Even though Singapore was not involved in the negotiations, we were happy to have played a small part in the Korean peace process by providing the venue for the inaugural meeting between US President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un.

"Singapore, together with our Asean colleagues, look forward to working with the ROK and the wider international community to achieve lasting peace and prosperity on a denuclearised Korean Peninsula."

Singapore hosted the Trump-Kim meeting in June last year.

On Monday, President Moon said in a contribution to the Asia News Network, a coalition of news organisations including The Straits Times, that "there still remain critical junctures for peace on the Korean Peninsula".

He expressed hope for "in-depth discussions" on the Korea peace process with the Asean leaders during the summit in Busan, calling them "reliable friends and advisers".

The summit has been billed the biggest diplomatic event hosted by the South Korean government so far under the Moon administration.

Mr Lee is accompanied on his visit by Mrs Lee, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry Tan Wu Meng, as well as officials from several government agencies. He leaves Korea next Wednesday.

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