A View from Southeast Asia on South Korea

When Moon Jae-in announced the “New Southern Policy” (NSP) during his visit to Indonesia in November 2017, the Korean foreign policy watchers scrambled to find out whether there was a “Southern Policy” before. Though it is obvious that no president ever announced a policy of engagement with Southeast Asian countries as a “southern policy,” almost every president since Park Chung-hee had undertaken high-level visits to the region. During the Cold War, at the height of legitimacy competition, South Korea was challenged by the increased number of diplomatic recognitions North Korea gained among the non-aligned movement’s (NAM) members. Southeast Asian members in the NAM supported the DPRK’s admission into the NAM, while South Korea’s application was rejected due to its alliance with the United States.

The Park Chung-hee government’s “engagement” began with sending troops to Vietnam in 1965. He paid state visits to Malaysia and Thailand in 1966. But it was his saemaul undong (New Village Movement), successfully exported as a development model to the Third World, that gained diplomatic and economic mileage. Southeast Asian leaders and ministers were invited to visit the saemauls in the 1970s. Another incentive for engaging Southeast Asia, especially for Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, was to legitimize their government in the eyes of domestic and international spectators. However, one of Chun’s visits to Southeast Asia turned deadly in 1983, in Burma. But the Rangoon Bombing did not stop subsequent presidents from engaging in the region, which provided South Korea a strong foothold in Burma’s market due to the suspended Burma-DPRK ties.

It was under the Roh Tae-woo government that South Korea began its dialogue partnership with ASEAN, in 1989.1 But due to the primacy of Nordpolitik under Roh, the substance of the dialogue partnership only took off under Kim Young-sam. As ASEAN gained diplomatic weight in the 1990s (with the rise of the so-called “Asian Tigers”), the Kim Yong-sam government regarded ASEAN as the main focus of its Third World investment with potential to replace the EU as Korea’s third largest trading partner.2 The Asian financial crisis, however, awakened Korea’s realization of the weak foundation of its own financial resilience, and thus inspired the subsequent Kim Dae-jung government to solidify regionalism as a cornerstone of South Korea’s foreign policy. By proposing a meeting between ASEAN and Northeast Asian leaders, and setting up the East Asia Vision Group of eminent persons, Kim Dae-jung was the last South Korean leader who had a personal interest in Southeast Asia and faith in ASEAN, until Moon Jae-in. Subsequent South Korean leaders still maintained ties with ASEAN, and relations continued to develop, but the “personal touch” with Southeast Asian leaders was not there.

The challenges of the NSP

So, what is really “new” in the NSP? The NSP aspires to “elevate Korea’s relationship with ASEAN to the level of its relations with the four major powers around the Korean Peninsula” and adopts the “3P” approach of “People, Prosperity, and Peace,” aiming to “dramatically improve [Korea’s] cooperation with ASEAN.”3 It is easy to understand the “prosperity” pillar as China’s economic retaliation over THAAD deployment inevitably pushed ASEAN-Korea economic ties deeper. Meanwhile, the people-to-people exchanges and peace and security agenda are to anchor a deepening and widening of the ASEAN-Korea relations, so that the ties will become more durable and resilient. However, there are doubts and significant challenges to the NSP.

First, South Korea finds it very difficult to move away from the traditional fixation on North Korea. In fact, the implementation of the NSP was delayed due to the unexpected reciprocal engagement by North Korea since early 2018. Along with North Korea, the US will always be the priority in South Korean foreign policy. The attempt by the Park Geun-hye government to align closer to China turned out to be disastrous due to the negative spillover effect from economic over-dependence on China when the relations took a negative turn. There is also doubt on how to establish a link to the peace agenda between South Korea and ASEAN, when the primary security concern is North Korea.

Second, the government bureaucrats who are supposed to execute the policy have difficulties in deepening exchanges due to inadequate understanding on ASEAN and Southeast Asia. Despite decades-long investment and economic relations, there is a tendency to treat all ASEAN member states as a single culture or identity by the Koreans. The oversight of using an Indonesian greeting to the Malaysian leader during Moon’s visit to Malaysia was a case in point.4 Notwithstanding the existence of the Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KISEAS), there is only a small number of experts on ASEAN and Southeast Asia.

Third, amidst the simultaneous launches of several strategic initiatives by other major and middle powers, there is a question of how well the NSP is received in ASEAN countries compared to these initiatives. China’s ever-growing presence and influence in Southeast Asia, through the mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), combined with strategic uncertainties under Trump’s administration, added stress to ASEAN’s ability to cope with geopolitical and geo-economic competition. My interviews and discussions with Korean governmental officials and scholars for the past few years show that there is persisting self-doubt on Korea’s credibility and ability to sustain and push through the policy.

Moon Jae-in’s state visits in 2019

Moon’s first state visit to Southeast Asia was to Indonesia in November 2017, after official visits to the US, Germany (the G20 Hamburg Summit), and Russia (the Eastern Economic Forum), in that order. Two working visits to Vietnam and the Philippines followed the visit to Indonesia, in 2017. In 2018, two state visits were made to Vietnam and Singapore. In 2019, Moon made state visits to Brunei, Malaysia, and Cambodia. Brunei and Cambodia are both small countries, but the visits to them cannot be regarded as “fringe choices.” First, there is actually an active infrastructure agenda in place, especially in South Korea’s engagement with Brunei. Participation in a mega-bridge construction project establishes connectivity between the two parts of Brunei, reminding the region of South Korea’s past achievements in infrastructure development there, including the iconic Penang Bridge in Malaysia. Clearly, it can be an attractive infrastructure development partner for the ASEAN countries.

To underscore this point, one has to look at the strategic landscape in Southeast Asia. Cheng-Chwee Kuik aptly describes the three wandering genies in Southeast Asia: 1) the US credibility lag; 2) the trust deficit on China; and 3) the activism gaps associated with “the other powers.”5 It is under this context that South Korea can play a more active role. At the moment, there are persistent doubts about the financial sustainability of the infrastructure projects underwritten by China’s BRI. South Korea can step up its infrastructure diplomacy as a primary focus of the NSP and offer itself as an alternative. As it has no hegemonic agenda, its actions will not be seen as attempting to conspire with the ASEAN states to “push back” against China, while at the same time it complements the US regional involvement.

Second, on mainland Southeast Asia, while Vietnam seems to receive all of South Korea’s attention (prompting some scholars to brand the NSP as the “New Vietnam Policy”),6
the fact is that there has always been strong engagement with mainland Southeast Asia through Mekong-Korea cooperation. The Mekong region is highlighted as a priority area in Korea’s ODA policy, which is anchored on the “3 I’s”: Institution, Investment, and Infrastructure.7 In addition, the east-west corridor on mainland Southeast Asia presents another opportunity for infrastructure diplomacy. In this sense, the visit to Cambodia reinforces Korea’s status as both a responsible donor and active actor in the Mekong.

Finally, Malaysia is a core maritime Southeast Asian country. Prime Minister Mahathir has always been revered as a strong leader in Korea, especially due to the way he resisted the IMF and handled the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Numerous areas of cooperation were highlighted during the state visit, particular of note were items on future-oriented industries, such as smart manufacturing, smart cities, and future cars, in addition to the defense industry and cybersecurity. Moreover, the 150-strong South Korean business delegation, including both major conglomerates and small and medium enterprises (SMEs), signified positive expansion of the existing Malaysia-Korea economic ties.

While there was great chemistry between Mahathir and Moon (as noted by a Malaysian official that the two leaders talked a lot during a state dinner), what was missing on the agenda was linkage of inter-regionalism to consolidation of the East Asian architecture. Mahathir’s second take at the Look East Policy is no longer confined to Japan, as China is emerging as part of the new government’s core engagement. South Korea also rightfully deserves a place in this foreign policy framework. There is now an opportunity to bring converging interest in greater Northeast-Southeast Asia integration, when both countries have strong leadership. Getting on the right “hook” will help anchor and solidify the existing dialogue partnership and elevate it to a higher level in this commemorative year.

The significance of NSP

The NSP is often regarded as a heavily economic-focused strategy rather than a comprehensive policy,8 notwithstanding the official pillars of “People, Prosperity and Peace.”  Here, I make some observations on how the NSP could be of lasting strategic significance to both ASEAN and South Korea, a key strength of which is its technological prowess, resulting in its status as the most wired nation in the world. However, this strength has yet to be featured as a key component in the NSP. A case in point is Korea’s leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. According to Klaus Schwab, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital, and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.9 This shift and disruption arrives at a time when a geopolitical tectonic shift is also underway. The US-China trade dispute has escalated to the technological field, symbolized by the attempts of the US to impose restrictions on Huawei in participating in the construction of a 5G infrastructure network among its friends and allies.

US allies are now carefully reviewing this issue, and countries are starting to “choose sides”: whether to adopt or ban Huawei’s 5G participation on the rationale of a security risk. However, as the promise of reliable technological reach outweighs US pressure, Huawei’s 5G network could be widely adopted, even among American allies in Southeast Asia.10 South Korea has launched the world’s first fully-fledged 5G mobile networks on April 5, 2019. As both Singapore and Malaysia have a strong foundation to embark on this technological wave, the smart city initiative by Singapore and ASEAN plays to South Korea’s strength and can provide South Korea a heads up in a global 5G race.

In terms of the NSP’s prospects regarding inter-Korean relations, certainly there is a potential role for ASEAN to contribute as a regional stakeholder that can support and sustain what is now termed “the Moon Jae-in process” on the Korean Peninsula.11 The Blue House presidential spokesperson revealed that Moon has appealed to Mahathir to ease sanctions on North Korea to facilitate the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, and Malaysia can help integrate North Korea into the international community.12 Moon’s effort to get sanctions relief for North Korea may seem to fly in the face of the US and Japanese maximum pressure policy, but this was done with the understanding that all 10 ASEAN member states have diplomatic relations with the two Koreas, and sanctions compliance in this region has always been unsatisfactory to the US Treasury Department and the UNSC resolution committee. This also has played into ASEAN’s strength as the only multilateral institution with which North Korea has a dialogue membership through the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Due to the fluctuations in US-North Korean relations and the other dynamics, South Korea’s foreign policy always risks being snubbed by the greater powers.13 It needs a more reliable partner in the peace process, and perhaps one long-term strategic implication of the NSP will be the full involvement of ASEAN into the process of normalizing and integrating North Korea into the regional community. Recent developments, including the stalled negotiations between the US and North Korea, the Putin-Kim Vladivostok summit, and the release of Japan’s 2019 Diplomatic Bluebook (which dropped the reference to “maximum pressure” on North Korea), underlie the fluidities of the peace process. ASEAN’s involvement has the potential, in the right circumstances, to contribute to a positive outcome once there is movement to overcome a future potential diplomatic impasse with North Korea.

Conclusion and a note of caution

The above discussion illustrates the historical background, challenges, current developments, and more speculatively, perhaps the strategic long-term significance of the NSP, especially in terms of drawing ASEAN into the Korean peace process. However, the lesson of the Sunshine Policy also shows that North Korea is acutely aware that inter-Korean engagement would entail changing the fundamentals of its society. Opening up North Korea may seem, to some, attractive, but overly eager engagement would raise North Korean suspicions. As cited in a Rodong Sinmun report, the New Southern Policy is deemed to have a “sinister” intention.14 Despite this suspicious response, ASEAN could have a useful role to play in reassuring North Korea that its ties to South Korea are not at the expense of potential expansion to include the North, in this way testing North Korea’s intentions.15

1. It was known as sectorial dialogue relations; the full dialogue partnership status was accorded in July 1991.

2. David I. Steinberg, “South Korea in Southeast Asia: Enhancing Returns and Reassurances,” Southeast Asian Affairs, No. 77, 1995.

3. See Moon Jae-in’s keynote speech at the Korea-Indonesia Business Forum in Jakarta on November 9, 2017, which unveiled the NSP, http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/policies/view?articleId=151092

4. Agence-France Presse as reported in, “South Korea’s Moon draws fury at home over language gaffe in Malaysia,” The Japan Times, March 22, 2019, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/03/22/asia-pacific/politics-diplomacy-asia-pacific/south-koreas-moon-draws-fury-home-language-gaffe-malaysia/#.XME0OOgzbIU

5. Cheng-Chwee Kuik, “Opening a Strategic Pandora’s Jar? US-China Uncertainties and the Three Wandering Genies in Southeast Asia,” The Asan Forum, July 2, 2018, http://www.theasanforum.org/opening-a-strategic-pandoras-jar-us-china-uncertainties-and-the-three-wandering-genies-in-southeast-asia/

6. Discussion during Malaysia Scholars on Korea (MASK) Network Roundtable on "Malaysia-Republic of Korea Relations: Advancing the Case for a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership," April 23, 2019.

7. This adaptation is based on the original conception by Jakkrit Sangkhamanee on Korea’s roles in Mekong development as regimes of Institution, Investment, Physical Infrastructure and Human Resource. See Jakkrit Sangkhamanee, “The Roles of Korean Development in the Mekong Region,” CEFIA, August 21, 2016.

8. This author’s visit to the ASEAN-Korea Center in Seoul left the impression that there was a certain level of anxiety over how to substantiate cooperation outside of the economic framework. See Chiew-Ping Hoo, “The View from ASEAN: President Moon Jae-in’s Visit to Southeast Asia,” Sejong Commentary, http://www.sejong.org/boad/bd_news/1/egoread.php?bd=1&seq=4722

9. Klaus Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution, About Us,” World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/about/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-by-klaus-schwab

10. Nike Ching, “US Sounds Warning as SE Asia Countries Choose Huawei for 5G,” Voice of America (VOA), April 5, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/a/us-sounds-warning-as-se-asia-countries-choose-huawei-for-5g/4863794.html

11. The Moon Jae-in Process is the name on the 2019 Blue House calendar that replaces the longer policy name of “Moon Jae-in’s Policy on the Korean Peninsula” towards North Korea.

12. Lee Min-seok, “Moon Appeals to Malaysia to Back Easing Sanctions Against N.Korea,” Chosun Ilbo, March 14, 2019, http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2019/03/14/2019031401779.html

13. Gilbert Rozman, “China-South Korea-U.S. Relations,” in Rozman, ed., Joint US-Korea Academic Studies: Asia’s Slippery Slope: Triangular Tensions, Identity Gaps, Conflicting Regionalism, and Diplomatic Impasse toward North Korea, (Washington, DC: Korean Economic Institute, 2014), p. 49.

14. “Sinister Intent of S. Korean Regime’s ‘New Southern Policy,’” Rodong Sinmun, November 20, 2017, https://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2017-11-20-0004

15. I have briefly talked about potential ways ASEAN can enter the inter-Korean process via the ASEAN Committee in Pyongyang, finding niche areas of cooperation such as agricultural, forestry, medical health exchanges, etc. See Hoo Chiew Ping, “Asean as an interlocutor for peace on Korean peninsula?” Khmer Times, July 24, 2018, https://www.khmertimeskh.com/514829/asean-as-an-interlocutor-for-peace-on-korean-peninsula/ For the most recent undertakings by the Singaporean NGO promoting entrepreneurship in North Korea, see Chosun Exchange, April 23, 2019, https://twitter.com/chosonexchange/status/1120941408808919040