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Moon’s Singapore Visit Shifts Strategic Weight to ASEAN

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27 Jul Moon’s Singapore Visit Shifts Strategic Weight to ASEAN

On 11 July 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrived in Singapore for a three-day state visit, the first by a South Korean president in fifteen years. Following the historic summit between the United States and North Korea a month ago, Mr. Moon’s visit to Singapore, the host of the summit, affirms South-east Asia’s strategic importance in bringing peace to the Korean peninsula. Singapore is also the ASEAN Chair for 2018, and Mr. Moon is keen to elevate engagement with ASEAN states as part of his New Southern Policy, which aims to diversify Seoul’s diplomatic and trade ties. In this context, reciprocating South Korea’s efforts is in ASEAN’s best interests, in both the security and economic arenas.

Facilitating Peace on the Korean Peninsula

Under Mr. Moon’s administration, South Korea has been working to provide a bridge between the US and North Korea in bilateral discussions. South Korea believes ASEAN is able to fill a similar role as a facilitator in the peace process, given the regional bloc’s existing relations with Pyongyang. North Korea has diplomatic relations with all ten ASEAN countries, and maintains embassies in each country except Brunei and the Philippines. North Korea also regularly takes part in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), making it one of the few international meetings that North Korea participates in. The fact that the ARF is attended by both the US and North Korea has historically been useful; it has provided a venue for informal contact between both sides under past American administrations.

While ASEAN has been criticised for maintaining relations with Pyongyang throughout its provocative nuclear and missile tests, the inter-Korea and US-North Korea summits this year signal a change in North Korea’s mood. If North Korea is indeed genuine about ending its nuclear program, then ASEAN has a role to play in continually offering channels through which North Korea and the international community can engage with each other. After all, ASEAN has a vested interest in avoiding any kind of conflict in its neighbourhood.

Trade and Business Opportunities

Beyond the peace process, ASEAN has much to gain from Mr. Moon’s New Southern Policy. Currently, South Korea is ASEAN’s fifth largest foreign investor with room to grow. ASEAN is an attractive destination for manufacturing investments because of its sustained growth and competitiveness, against the backdrop of rising labour costs in China.

ASEAN officials are aware of the disruptive potential of automation and digitalisation, as outlined in the ASEAN Community 2025 Vision and highlighted by Singapore’s “Resilient and Innovative” theme for its chairmanship this year. South Korea’s breakneck transformation from a poor agrarian state into a high-tech hub offers ASEAN valuable lessons for moving up the global value chain. South Korean firms can lend their ASEAN counterparts expertise in technology and innovation, aiding ASEAN’s transition into a digital economy.

South Korea’s renewed interest in ASEAN raises the bloc’s visibility as a strategically important regional actor, and as a rapidly-growing economy with massive potential. Through pursuing economic opportunities with South Korea, ASEAN can gain the requisite knowledge and capital for growing from a low-cost manufacturing hub into a high-tech, value-added one. Additionally, South Korea would like to see further ASEAN engagement with North Korea; greater exchanges between ASEAN and North Korea would open up new avenues to normalising relations with Pyongyang, encouraging it to be a responsible member of the international community rather than a rogue state.

Sources:

The 42nd Singapore Lecture by His Excellency Moon Jae-in, President of The Republic of Korea, “ROK and ASEAN: Partners for Achieving Peace and Co-prosperity in East Asia” [ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 13 Jul 2018]

South Korea’s Moon unveils new focus on Southeast Asia [Reuters, 9 Nov 2017]

Booting up Asean 4.0 with expertise from South Korea [The Nation, 24 May 2017]

Photo Credit: Singapore President Halimah Yacob and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at state dinner, Office of the President, The Republic of Korea