South Korean Marines take part in a landing operation drill. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji
South Korean Marines take part in a landing operation drill. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

Vietnam asks South Korea for backing in the South China Sea against China; Seoul wants more coordination with Hanoi on North Korea’s mounting threat. So are the two strong trade and investment partners set to upgrade their strategic ties into a more comprehensive bilateral relationship?

Last week Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc asked South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, visiting Hanoi to mark 25-years of bilateral ties, to support Vietnam’s position on the South China Sea disputes and help with its “law enforcement” in the contested maritime area.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in advance of Yun’s trip that it was expected “to serve as a milestone for a closer coordination with Southeast and Southwest Asian countries on North Korean issues.” It also noted that Vietnam publicly condemned Pyongyang’s latest nuclear tests and agreed to take part in “international efforts to sanction the North.”     

Engaged: South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se (L) with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh (R) in Hanoi on March 20, 2017. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

South Korea and Vietnam announced a strategic relationship in 2009 that covered military cooperation, high level visits and a strategic dialogue mechanism that has so far remained dormant. Seoul did not indicate it would play any time soon an active role in the South China Sea, though it said last year in a statement that “freedom of navigation and overflight should be safeguarded” in the contested maritime area.

Yun’s visit to Vietnam came against the backdrop of sliding relations with China after the recent deployment of a US-provided Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to guard against possible North Korean missile strikes.

Beijing has said the system “impinges on its national interests” and has hinted at retaliatory economic measures, witnessed in this month’s closure by authorities of nearly two dozen of South Korean Lotte Group retail stores in China and a tourism ministry order this month to Chinese tour operators to stop selling trips to South Korea.   

Closed for business: A Lotte Mart shuttered in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Photo: Reuters

South Korea and Vietnam ties are centered largely on trade and investment. According to Vietnam’s foreign investment agency, South Korea contributed US$5.6 billion worth of FDI through the third quarter of 2016, a third of the total Vietnam had received at that juncture last year.

South Korea is already Vietnam’s biggest foreign investor, with major outlays in factories, property and retail. Major South Korean companies like Samsung and Lotte Group have both made major investment commitments to the country’s fast growing export and local sectors. 

A bilateral free trade agreement, activated in late 2015, aims to boost bilateral trade from US$29 billion to US$70 billion by 2020. There are already an estimated 100,000 South Korean expatriates living across Vietnam, with vibrant South Korean neighborhoods in several cities, including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

South Korean pop culture, known as hallyu, has caught on in a big way with Vietnamese youth, as has its television dramas with a wider crowd.

Fawning youth: A Vietnamese fan of a South Korean girl band. Photo: Reuters/Kham

Yet to date strategic and military engagement is at a low level, characterized mainly by occasional high-level visits and meetings on the sidelines of international fora.

China and Japan, which likewise have robust trade and investment ties with Vietnam, also maintain high-level strategic partnerships, with an increasing degree of military engagement in the case of Tokyo as tensions have surged with Beijing.

Yun’s high-profile visit may indicate the two sides are considering to activate the now dormant dialogue mechanism that could lead to a higher level of strategic engagement. The two sides, however, did not make a joint statement on any new strategic agreements during the one-day visit.

While South Korea has so far remained mum on Vietnam’s South China Sea request, unless Vietnamese premier Pham and his foreign affairs officials badly miscalculated, Hanoi clearly hopes Seoul is prepared to take a stronger interest in the region’s strategic balance.

Given Vietnam’s enthusiasm to embrace multiple nations and cooperate across varied spheres, the exclusion so far of this kind of engagement is most likely due to South Korean disinterest, especially under ousted President Park Geun-hye. Her predecessor, Lee Myung Bak, was more amenable, with the strategic partnership signed during his tenure.

For South Korea, Vietnam is uniquely placed to assist in dealing with North Korea. As an old communist ally, Hanoi still maintains close and cordial ties to Pyongyang, witnessed in the large number of North Korean students who attend Vietnamese universities.

On a bigger stage, Vietnam is also well-positioned to serve as a possible back-channel mediator between North Korea and the US – and by extension South Korea. It is the type of high-profile role Vietnam has long coveted, both to burnish its image as a responsible international actor and counter consistent complaints of its chronic rights abuses.

Old friends: North Korea’s then Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong (R) looks at an air raid siren that was used in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Photo: Reuters/Hoang Dinh Nam/Pool

It is not clear, however, how Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong’s role in the recent murder by nerve agent of Kim Jong-nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother, at a Malaysian airport has impacted on North Korea-Vietnam relations, if at all.

South Korea will likely not want to wade too deeply or quickly into touchy issues between Vietnam and China, especially at a time when its government is essentially in a caretaker mode after the impeachment of Park and new presidential elections due on May 9.

But Hanoi’s invitation to Seoul to support its position in the South China Sea could signal South Korea’s entry to the fray, as Japan did years ago, if for no other reason than to provide a modicum of protection for its deep and wide commercial interests in Vietnam.

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