The Asean-South Korea relationship has dynamically evolved over the past three decades, moving from a sectoral dialogue in 1989 to full dialogue in 1991 and strategic partnership in 2010.
Bilateral trade volume reached $119.3 billion in 2016. Vietnam and Singapore are the two major trading partners of South Korea.
South Korea’s investment in Asean increased from $0.53 billion in 2000 to $5.1 billion in 2016, while its official development assistance to Asean rose from $85.6 million in 2006 to $418.9 million in 2016.
People mobility is remarkable. About six million South Korean tourists visited Asean and 2.2 million Asean tourists visited South Korea in 2016.
There are about half a million Asean migrant workers in South Korea, 41.1 percent of which is non-professional work.
About 13,000 Asean students are pursuing their studies in South Korea, accounting for about 12 percent of the total international students.
The Asean Culture House was inaugurated last Friday in Busan, a coastal city in South Korea, to further promote cultural exchanges and people bonds between the two regions. Cultural diversity is the strength of East Asia.
Promoting awareness and understanding of Asean cultures to South Korean people is critical to having more balanced, interactive cultural exchanges and dialogues.
Busan Mayor Suh Byung-soo said: “I hope the Asean Culture House will become an important hub that will facilitate communication and cultural exchanges between Busan and the Asean region.”
Asean has been one the foreign policy priorities, especially under Moon Jae-in’s administration. Upon his inauguration, Mr Moon sent a special envoy to Asean in May to beef up the bilateral partnership.
South Korea is committed to strengthening its partnership with Asean to the level of those of other global powers, including the US and China.
Speaking at an international conference on the Asean-Korea Partnership organised by the Asean-Korea Center in Seoul last week, leaders from South Korea and Asean praised their past achievements while pledging to further deepen the partnership.
Calling Asean an “immediate neighbour”, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha highlighted three cooperation areas between Korea and Asean, including sustainable prosperity, people-centered exchanges and a peaceful and secure new East Asia.
South Korea will further energise its Mekong initiative to support the Mekong countries to catch up with other Asean members, which in turn will reduce regional inequality or the development gap.
She also appreciated Asean for its “undivided support” on the North Korea issue. South Korea and Asean are committed to levelling up their bilateral trade volume to $200 billion by 2020.
The Secretary General of Asean, Le Luong Minh, praised South Korea’s contribution to Asean community building, especially in narrowing the development gap in Asean and addressing non-traditional security issues such as climate change.
Former Prime Minister of South Korea Lee Hong-koo emphasised the role of Asean in maintaining the momentum of “internationalism” and “regionalism”, which are under stress now due to “de-globalisation”.
He said Asean was an “essential force” in maintaining regional peace and stability. Asian peace cannot be realised unless the Korean Peninsula is peaceful, he said.
Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines Alan Peter Cayetano said he regarded Asean and South Korea as “yesterday allies”, “today partners” and “tomorrow brothers and sisters”.
He suggested that both sides should maintain constant communications and interactions, be patient and work hard.
Looking ahead, South Korea will put more effort into advancing the bilateral strategic partnership, while Asean welcomes a more active role of South Korea in all fields such as security, economics and culture.
A comprehensive bilateral cooperation roadmap and action plan, expected to be more strategic, will be likely announced at the upcoming Asean-Korea Summit in November in Manila.
Promoting a people-centered Asean and East Asian community, embracing diversity for an inclusive and resilient regional community and promoting security connectivity between Southeast and Northeast Asia will be further concretised.
Asean needs to be more proactive in promoting security dialogues and cooperation, while strengthening security multilateralism.
Promoting common understanding of and approach towards regional security threats and developing security connectivity between Southeast and Northeast Asia would help Asean to strengthen its regional security role.
Asean can provide a conductive environment and platform for inter-Korean dialogues and communication given now there is no direct communication between the two Koreas. Direct communication can reduce tension and prevent conflict.
South Korea needs to connect its soft power-economic cooperation and cultural presence with its new strategic interest in order to further raise South Korea’s regional security profile.
South Korea needs to have a broader foreign policy strategy towards Asean by moving beyond North Korea’s nuclear threat.
“As fellow middle powers, which have similar reservations vis-à-vis great power rivalry and anxieties over a broad range of traditional and non-traditional security threats, South Korea and Asean are in a unique position to develop a common understanding of what an inclusive, robust and dynamic regional security architecture should look like,” Richard Javad Heydarian, a Manila-based academic and author, said.
“And together, they can contribute to its establishment. While the North Korean issue is a natural starting point for tighter cooperation, it is crucial for both sides to diversify and expand their areas of strategic engagement by focusing on maritime security, counter-terrorism, and macro-scale infrastructure development,” added Mr Heydarian, who is also the Asean-Korea Next Generation Leader.