During Korea’s Thanksgiving holidays in early October, the airports were flooded with people leaving the country in huge waves. Where were they going? In fact, the No. 1 travel destination was, once again, Asean. More than 600,000 people traveled to Asean during the holiday period. To Korea, Asean is a very close partner and neighbor, and they enjoy close cooperation and exchange in various areas.
Asean and Korea became dialogue partners in 1989. Since then, there has been remarkable development in the partnership, with significant milestones achieved. Asean is now Korea’s second largest trading partner and investment destination. Korea is Asean’s fifth largest trading and investment partner. While the trade volume between the two sides in 1989 was US$8.2 billion, in 2016 the record was $119 billion, a 15-fold increase. Also, Korea’s investment in Asean increased from $92 million in 1989 to $5.1 billion in 2016, a 55-fold increase. It’s noteworthy that Korea’s investment in Asean surpassed that in China more than twice this year.
Indeed, Asean-Korea relations serve as a model for a fast-developing and fast-evolving partnership.
Soon after his inauguration, Korean President Moon Jae-in recognized the importance of Korea’s partnership with Asean. Such acknowledgement will serve as a critical foundation for another level of development for Asean-Korea relations. President Moon is now visiting Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines for the Apec and Asean Summits. We thus look forward to having President Moon shed light on Korea’s vision and strategy toward Asean, as well as a more concrete action plan to further enhance Asean-Korea relations.
The partnership over the decades has become one where they not only need each other but also want each other. To continue this path, the two should not seek immediate benefits but develop a genuine partnership that will last for hundreds of years.
It is certain that there will be a brighter future for Asean-Korea relations. The following points outline how the partnership is actually more than what we know or anticipate.
First, middle powers in the region that do not have hegemonic intentions, such as Asean and Korea, should work together to forge a genuine partnership. Together, they will be able to play a stabilizing role and contribute to regional co-prosperity. This is particularly the case in the Asia-Pacific where much of the regional uncertainty is, in one way or another, related to the rivalry among major powers.
Second, it is noteworthy that Asean and Korea have complementary economies. Many Korean companies, both large conglomerates and small and medium-sized enterprises, have entered Asean member-states, contributing to the establishment of mutually beneficial economic relations between Asean and Korea. One example is Samsung in Vietnam, where it contributes more than 20 percent of that country’s GDP and exports. Another example is shipping in the Philippines, where the partnership with Korea has helped the Philippine shipping industry to become No. 4 in the world. A third example is Krakatau-Posco, jointly established by Korea’s Posco and Indonesia’s Krakatau Steel—an exemplary case of cooperation in the steel industry. In these cases, Korean companies working with partners in Asean member-states results in win-win outcomes, including economic development, technological cooperation, job creation and human resource development.
Third, Korea can assist and take part in Asean’s community-building efforts. While the Asean Community was launched at the end of 2015, it continues to be a work in progress. One way to contribute is to strengthen the business links between Asean and Korea, by establishing and fortifying global value chains and global supply chains. This will also help Asean micro, small and medium-sized enterprises to prosper, which are the backbone of the Asean economy. Furthermore, Korea is the optimal partner for the development of Asean’s digital economy, as it can share knowledge and know-how in its technological advancement.
Fourth, Korea can share with Asean its experience of achieving democracy and a market economy. Having successfully become a donor country from an aid-receiving country, Korea is active in sharing its development strategy and experience with its neighbors and the international community. In fact, many Asean member-states are Korea’s priority partners for official development assistance.
Fifth, there are many cultures and values that the peoples of Asean and Korea share. Experts say that values such as filial piety and family-oriented traditions are some of the essential elements that allow Korean dramas to become widely accepted in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, as much as Korean food is becoming well-known in Asean, the cuisines of Asean are also very popular in Korea. The Korean government acknowledges that people-to-people exchange and mutual understanding create a sound foundation for a solid partnership between the two sides. As one saying goes, you must know each other to really love each other. Korea places great importance on enhancing two-way cooperation and exchange, one good example being Korea’s initiative to open the Asean Culture House in Busan last August.
Last but not least, Korean communities in Asean member-states are becoming more and more vibrant, while the Asean community in Korea is also increasingly becoming bigger and more active. People from Asean have become members of Korean society through work, studies, family, etc. Our peoples work together, live together, and work to prosper together. Asean-Korea relations should take another step from just seeking benefits from each other, toward sharing a common destiny. It’s still progress in the making, but this is the future of the partnership.
Asean and Korea need to acknowledge that we have a common destiny. It is time we took another leap in our journey toward shared goals. It is certain that this will not only contribute to the development of Asean and Korea, but also to the stability and prosperity of the whole region.
Kim Young-sun is secretary general of the Asean-Korea Centre.