President Moon Jae-in of South Korea unveiled the New Southern Policy in November 2017 in Jakarta, aiming to upgrade the Korea-ASEAN partnership in the areas of people, prosperity and peace. Now, after two and a half years, it is high time to consider where the New Southern Policy stands and explore its way forward.
Thus far, the highlight of Korea’s New Southern Policy has been the ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit, held in Busan last November to celebrate a 30-year partnership. There, a number of concrete actions were agreed upon.
The size of the ASEAN-Korea cooperation fund was doubled to US$14 million a year. From 2020 to 2022, a Korea-led project called “Higher Education for ASEAN Talent”, worth $8.3 million, will provide 90 ASEAN postgraduate students with full PhD scholarships. A separate program for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), worth $6.9 million, will help to lay the foundation for the enhancement of human resources in ASEAN member states. Korea will also work with the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center in a $3.5 million project to improve ASEAN’s disaster management capacity.
In a nutshell, President Moon and ten ASEAN leaders pledged to build a people-centered community of peace and prosperity between Korea and ASEAN. In addition, President Moon has shown a strong commitment to the Korea-ASEAN partnership by becoming the first Korean president to visit all 10 ASEAN member states in less than two years, as he promised.
In 2019, the two-way trade volume between Korea and ASEAN was $151 billion. Korea is ASEAN’s fifth-largest trading partner, while ASEAN is Korea’s second-largest. Last year, ASEAN was also the most popular region for Korean travellers, with more than 10 million Koreans visiting Southeast Asian destinations, including Bali. In 2019 alone, Korea’s investment in ASEAN was $8.3 billion, while about 10,000 Korean companies employ millions of ASEAN workers. All in all, through the New Southern Policy, Korea has been laying, gradually but consistently, the meaningful grounds to upgrade the Korea-ASEAN strategic partnership.
COVID-19 appeared unexpectedly early this year, creating an environment unfavourable to the full-fledged strengthening of cooperative ties between Korea and ASEAN. As a result of domestic lockdowns and flight bans, people-to-people exchanges have been suspended and the flow of goods has been severely affected.
COVID-19, however, has also provided Korea and ASEAN with an opportunity to further expand cooperation in human security and beyond. After all, people have always been at the center of the three pillars of Korea’s New Southern Policy. It was against this background that President Moon emphasized the importance of timely support for the region’s quarantine and medical needs at the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit on COVID-19, held on April 14 by video conference.
To implement these commitments, the Korean mission to ASEAN has recently launched a project titled “Enhancing the Detection Capacity for COVID-19 in ASEAN Countries”, a Korea-ASEAN joint program worth $5 million. Test kits, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment and personal protective equipment will be provided to each and every ASEAN member state, including Indonesia.
Korea will also do its share when the ASEAN COVID-19 response fund is established. In the very near future, Korea will unveil a new public health initiative on a much larger scale to support ASEAN’s efforts to address the COVID-19 crisis, as well as its mid- and long-term needs and concerns.
While the COVID-19 situation is different in every country, we firmly believe that solidarity and cooperation among nations will be the only path to victory over the virus in the end. In this spirit, the Korean government will continue to work with ASEAN in the coming months and years until we are all free of COVID-19.
Furthermore, with our unwavering commitment to the strategic partnership between Korea and ASEAN, I am sure that we will not just be able to overcome this crisis but also turn it into an opportunity for further cooperation to revitalize our trade and people-to-people exchanges sooner rather than later.
With the socioeconomic changes brought about by COVID-19, Korea and ASEAN will work together to find new opportunities for cooperation in areas such as 4IR, fintech, smart cities and digital industries. In this context, the Financial Cooperation Center, the Science and Technology Cooperation Center and the Industrial Innovation Center between Korea and ASEAN, which will be created in accordance with an agreement made at the Commemorative Summit, will play pivotal roles as facilitators of new kinds of cooperation in these areas.
Just as the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s led to the birth of regional financial cooperation through the Chiang Mai Initiative, the crisis at hand could work to our advantage depending upon our wisdom and determination. Korea’s New Southern Policy will continue to be expanded and upgraded so that the Korea-ASEAN strategic partnership will provide a regional platform for both sides to overcome COVID-19 and move forward.
The writer is ambassador of the Republic of Korea to ASEAN and former vice foreign minister.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.