Early this week, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen lauded the role of South Korea in Southeast Asia especially under the leadership of President Moon Jae-In and his New Southern Policy which was announced last year. It is a critical turning point in South Korea’s regional diplomacy.
The “Asean-Korea Future-oriented Community Initiative” is the core of the New Southern Policy and it is guided by “3 Ps” referring to people, peace and prosperity.
“People-centred diplomacy” is the core principle of President Moon’s foreign policy towards Asean. He is enthusiastic in linking the spirit of South Korea’s “candlelight revolution” with the spirit of people-centred, people-oriented Asean.
“To ensure the sustainability of people-centered cooperation, all countries in the region must grow and develop together,” said Mr Moon.
“Cooperation between Korea and Asean will be developed in a way that respects public opinion among all of the peoples of our association, gains their support, and invites their hands-on participation,” he added.
In addition to a people-centered cooperation, the New Southern Policy is to reverse South Korea’s foreign investment and trade from a China-dependent framework to the countries in Southeast Asia. In 2016, Asean became South Korea’s second largest trading partner, and last year total trade volume with the regional grouping amounted to $119 billion. Asean is also South Korea’s second largest investment partner with an investment capital of $5.1 billion and the second largest overseas construction market with an amount of $8.8 billion.
South Korea pledged to double the Korea-Asean Cooperation Fund to $14 million by 2019 and increase the cooperation fund for a Korea-Asean FTA so that bilateral trade volume could reach $200 billion by 2020.
Mr Moon’s strategy towards Asean is also to diversify strategic partners as well as to expand strategic space. Asean is put on par with other four major strategic partners of South Korea, namely US, China, Japan, and Russia.
“I will improve the diplomatic relationship between Korea and Asean, bringing it to the same level as the relationship between Korea and its four surrounding countries,” said Mr Moon.
Korea also plays an active role at the sub-regional cooperation level. Also early this week, Mr Hun Sen proposed to South Korea to upgrade the Mekong-Korea Cooperation mechanism to a summit level and also encouraged Seoul to build the Cambodia-Korea Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River. In March, government of South Korea announced it would help to build a Cambodia-Korea Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River in the future. The announcement came after a meeting between Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and newly-appointed South Korean Ambassador to Cambodia Oh Nak-young, who returned as ambassador after leaving Cambodia 10 years ago.
Founded in 2010, the Mekong-Korea Cooperation aims to promote cooperation in six areas, namely infrastructure, ICT, green growth, water resource management, agriculture and rural development, and capacity building.
The cooperation gained new momentum after the adoption of an Action Plan 2017-2020 last year. The plan focuses on Asean connectivity, sustainable development and human-centered development, and practical cooperation projects.
“There is no doubt that the enhanced connectivity and rapid economic growth in this critical region of the Mekong will greatly expedite the realisation of the Asean community,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said at the Seventh Mekong-Korea Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Busan in 2017.
The Mekong region is the new growth center of Asia. South Korea needs to strengthen its engagement and presence in this region in order to realise its New Southern Policy. People-centered resource management should be the new area of cooperation and South Korea can share knowledge and expertise on this.
In terms of bilateral relations, South Korea is one of the key development partners of Cambodia. Cambodia is the second largest recipient of South Korea’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), and received about $600 million from 1987 to 2016. Additionally, Cambodia is the fourth largest recipient of South Korean grants and the fourth largest recipient of concessional loans from the country. Bilateral volume reached $860 million in 2017 and total investment capital was $5.3 billion as of September 2017.
The four key areas for connectivity projects that South Korea is interested in helping Cambodia are transportation, energy, water resources, and developing smart cities. In terms of development cooperation projects managed by South Korea’s development arm KOICA, the priority areas are agriculture (rural development), education, transportation and environmental protection.
South Korean Ambassador to Cambodia Oh Nak-young told Khmer Times early this year that, “Despite the short time, relations between the two countries have been growing remarkably in all fields, including politics, economics, social development and culture […] Our relations will continue to grow, with both nations benefitting from it”.
Going forward both countries must widen and deepen cooperation in both soft and hard infrastructures. Building synergies between Cambodia’s national development strategies and Asean-Korea partnership and Mekong-Korea Cooperation mechanisms will help improve efficiency as well as generate greater impacts.
Chheang Vannarith is Khmer Times’ opinion editor. The views here are his own.