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South Korea is wooing Asean and India - Kavi Chongkittavorn


For the first time since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, South Korea, under the helm of President Moon Jae-in, has effectively been embedded in the regional scheme of things --political/security, economic and social/cultural. The country's previous four presidents -- Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye -- tried to do the same but sadly they repeatedly failed. Every time these leaders wanted to focus on Southeast Asia and South Asia, something happened in the Northeast, the Korean Peninsula in particular, that immediately distracted them. They became mesmerised and forgot the region. There was no consistency whatsoever.

This time around, Mr Moon is trying something different. Instead of reheating the soup again, he is positioning South Korea in the ongoing region-building efforts in the Indo-Pacific, trying to shape it as never before. He has been travelling widely in the region and beyond -- already pledging to visit all Asean countries during his first two years in office.

At the moment, Seoul's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working hard on the substance of its new Southern Policy, which was earlier announced in November during Mr Moon's visit to Indonesia. Seoul has raised the level of the playing field in Asean to put it on par with major powers. The Blue House, the official presidential residence, hopes to announce next year a full-blown policy to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Asean-South Korean relations.

Mr Moon will host a special summit meeting with Asean leaders to celebrate the occasion in South Korea. Asean has recently agreed to Seoul's request in recognition of Mr Moon's extraordinary contribution to peace and prosperity across the region. Normally, a special summit between Asean and a dialogue partner is convened every 10 years. In this case, South Korea is an exception. In 2014, former president Park held a summit with Asean in the southern port city of Busan to mark the 25th anniversary.

With Mr Moon's leadership style, the perceived policy would be a peace- and people-oriented approach. There are two contributing factors. First of all, due to the nature of the South's historical experience after the Korean War, Seoul's main objective is to see peace and prosperity prevail on the Peninsula, together with family reunions. Reunification remains a top goal but other priorities must be attended to.

Secondly, the South with its high-power economic progress and technological prowess, is becoming a mature middle power. Within the region, Seoul is now being seen as a new catalyst in shaping the regional order.

United with other Asian powers challenging for broader influence, South Korea is a benign power without any hegemonic intentions. It is still too early to tell, of course, as the South is still betting on the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit and the denuclearisation of the North. Seoul has been an effective facilitator of the peace dialogue between the US and North Korea.

To further consolidate the Asean-South Korea partnership, their leaders need to do more together. For decades, Seoul pursued a North Korea-only policy regarding Asean. Seoul's other focus was on trade and investment. Now, with the rapid diversification of their cooperation involving three Asean communities, economic, political/security, social/culture, Asean-South Korean ties have reached an unprecedented level. Last August, the Asean Cultural House was open in Busan as a showcase of these new commitments

Given the fast-moving diplomatic efforts involving the Korean Peninsula and North Korea's moves in the direction of denuclearisation in recent months, more South Korean-Asean cooperation and consultations are necessary to persuade Pyongyang to faithfully implement denuclearisation. During his visit to Singapore last week, Mr Moon reiterated that if Pyongyang sticks to the plan faithfully both South Korea and Asean would help the North to integrate with the regional community. He also lauded the Lion City's role in reducing tensions on the peninsula vis-a-vis Asean. South Korea can ensure that all dialogue partners are able to engage with one another constructively, allowing all members to compete and at the same time coexist peacefully. The South can serve as a bridge builder for the competitive coexistence of the major powers. This prospect will be greater when there is peace on the peninsula.

In the coming days, South Korea must also have its own vision of the Indo-Pacific strategy. While he was in New Delhi ahead of his visit to Singapore, Mr Moon discussed how both countries could work together to ensure the health of the liberal international order. In fact, Seoul can further expand the New Southern Policy, which also encompasses similar elements governing rules of law, security, free and open trade and people-to-people exchanges as outlined in Japan's and India's Indo-Pacific visions. At the moment, Seoul is still reluctant to come up with its own vision because it does not want to raise eyebrows in Beijing.

Within the Indo-Pacific region, Korean culture is an exceptional entity that has been expanding continuously and been well received by local people. What is needed now is for Seoul to translate this cultural influence into much-needed soft power. A new region-wide people-centred approach, especially involving youth, would be a good start as it would inject new energy into South Korea's external relations.

Furthermore, Seoul's enhanced security cooperation with Asean should also be a priority following the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. The current situation on the Korean Peninsula requires the South to have closer security ties with Asean and beyond. In the future, it must seek bilateral meetings with Asean defence ministers under the ADMM Plus One framework. As such, South Korea can begin to build institutional links and share its knowledge and experience with Asean.

As Thailand will succeed Singapore as the Asean chair next year, its role will be crucial to ensuring the success of the planned special Asean-South Korea summit and further strengthen overall ties. Lest we forget, Thailand-South Korea relations are special as Thai soldiers fought alongside UN forces in the Korean War. A miniature Thai flag is still on display inside the Peace Hall at Panmunjom on the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

South Korea is an active member of Cobra Gold, the region's premier multinational military exercise, which Thailand has co-hosted with the US annually since 1981.

As US treaty allies, their soldiers have been training together for over three decades to increase their interoperability in technical and nontechnical areas. They also share common values -- some rooted in Buddhism -- and doctrines that have promoted their mutual trust. Each year, Thailand helps hundreds of North Korean asylum seekers on its northern border seek safe transit to Seoul. Thailand has never turned one down due to the high level of mutual trust with South Korea.

As Thailand gets ready to return to full democracy, with a poll due in February and the Asean chairmanship next year, its relations with South Korea will move to a higher plateau of enhanced strategic cooperation. With its unique geo-strategic assets in Southeast Asia. Thailand and Korea also share a balanced approach to foreign policy, which is and always has been Thailand's diplomatic characteristic and has protected its independence and freedom from foreign domination.