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South Korea & ASEAN: To the

Next Phase
South Korea realizes the benefits of good relations with ASEAN but must do more to engage
with Southeast Asia.
The Republic of Koreas (ROK) major strategic focus has always been to retain and improve
its diplomatic and military ties with the United States against potential threats from North
Korea. In recent years, however, the Republic of Korea has shown greater interest in
improving ties with the countries of Southeast Asia. The desire to revamp South Koreas
relationships with the countries of Southeast Asia had been one of President Lee Myungbaks top diplomatic priorities. In 2010, however, this initiative had to be postponed because
of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents. Since then, however, the improved security
environment in Northeast Asia has allowed South Korea to resume its Southeast Asia
initiative.

ROKs Geo-strategic & Economic Interests on Southeast Asia


South Korea has been heavily dependent on the importation of natural resources, particularly
petroleum and natural gas. According to the US CIA World Factbook, in 2009 South Korea
was the fifth and seventh largest importer of petroleum and natural gas respectively.
Moreover, South Koreas economy is also heavily dependent on its export-import activities.
For instance, the export-import ratio to South Koreas Gross Domestic Product reached
92.3% in 2009.
Given its economic handicaps, it is in South Koreas national interest to be concerned about
the safety of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs). For South Korea, Southeast Asias
strategic straits (the Straits of Malacca and Singapore) are the center of their strategic focus
on the SLOC safety issue. This is why South Korea has actively participated in the Regional
Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia
(ReCAAP), since its foundation. Although this organization is to resolve issues of piracy in
the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, the involvement of South Korea in ReCAAP clearly
explains its geo-strategic interest in the region.
Furthermore, Southeast Asia is becoming increasingly important to South Koreas economy:
After China, the region is South Koreas second largest trading partner. According to the
ASEAN-Korea Centers 2010 ASEAN & Korea in Figures, after the European Union,
ASEAN is the second largest investment destination for South Koreas Foreign Direct
Investment outflow. More importantly, after the conclusion of the FTA in 2007, trade between

ASEAN and South Korea has grown over 10% per annum. Considering all these economic
factors, South Koreas attempts to enhance ties with Southeast Asia are unsurprising. It was
just a matter of time before South Korea realized the economic potency of Southeast Asia.

ROKs Approaches toward Southeast Asia


In the recent ROK-ASEAN summit in Bali, Indonesia, the South Korean President
announced that South Korea would establish a new diplomatic mission in Jakarta to deal
exclusively with ASEAN affairs. Since Jakarta is home to the ASEAN Secretariat, this
diplomatic move will enhance cooperation between the ASEAN states and South Korea. In
doing so, the economic and diplomatic relationship between South Korea and ASEAN will be
further strengthened.
Simultaneously, South Korea is trying to improve its bilateral relationships with the
individual ASEAN countries. For instance, South Korea has maintained a close working
relationship with Indonesia in the defense industry area. In fact, Indonesia has agreed to
cooperate in the development and production of South Koreas KF-X fighter aircraft.
Moreover, South Korea is one of the two leading contenders to supply the Indonesian Navy
with submarines. If the South Korean firm is selected for Indonesias submarine procurement
program, the military and defense ties between the two nations will be further reinforced.
Last but not least, South Koreas official development assistance (ODA) will be a major and
useful instrument for fostering a new constructive relationship with other ASEAN states.
South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the aftermath of the Korean
War. However, it is now in a position to assist other countries around the world. In fact,
ASEAN was the largest recipient of South Koreas ODA (US$1.13bn) in 1987-2006. As an
emerging donor, South Korea is interested in assisting with capacity-building and human
resource development areas, through education and vocational training. Due to South Koreas
own socio-economic development experiences, it can be an invaluable asset and source of
assistance for some ASEAN nations socio-economic development.
Further implication of ROK-ASEAN relations
In 2009, the South Korea and ASEAN marked the 20th anniversary of the ROK-ASEAN
relationship. For more than two decades, South Korea and the ASEAN states have witnessed
a vast improvement of their relationship in many areas. One particular example of this
improvement was the establishment of an ASEAN-Korea Center in Seoul, which was made to
foster economic and socio-cultural ties with ASEAN and its member states.
However, South Korea can do more. Considering the geo-strategic importance and economic
potentiality of Southeast Asia and the ASEAN states, it is in South Koreas strategic,
diplomatic and economic interests to reinforce its relationships with the region and the
ASEAN states. As much as South Korea enjoys benefits from ROK-ASEAN relations, it

must reciprocate by ensuring equal benefits for Southeast Asia and the ASEAN states.
Furthermore, South Korea must show its intention to be a trustful friend that is willing to
ensure the betterment of ASEAN states that are in need. South Korea should understand the
long-term benefits of having a constructive partnership with ASEAN in various strategic,
diplomatic and economic spheres.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair
Observers editorial policy.