Busan in South Korea. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Busan, South Korea's second city and the setting for the ASEAN-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Superstars played and CEOs spoke on Monday as President Moon Jae-in oversaw the biggest diplomatic event of his term, hosting nine of the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to a two-day summit in South Korean’s second city, Busan.

There was glitz – a performance from supergroup BTS played on-screen in front of the visiting leaders – and waffle – Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix and Bang Si-hyuk, CEO of BTS’ label Big Hit Entertainment, spoke on the intersection of content and technology as the ASEAN-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit got underway.

Moon is scheduled to hold bilateral talks with all the visiting ASEAN leaders. The South Korean president, halfway through his five-year term, has visited all 10 ASEAN countries. The ASEAN leaders reciprocated by attending the Busan event – bar Cambodian leader Hun Sen, who cited his mother-in-law’s illness for his absence.

Trade, investment and cultural ties were very much to the fore at the two-day ASEAN-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit. The event celebrates the 30th anniversary of the opening of diplomatic relations between ASEAN and South Korea and the 12th anniversary of a free trade agreement entering force.

The summit is a foundation stone of Moon’s “New Southern Policy,” first made public in November 2017. The policy sees upgraded ties with ASEAN re-balancing Seoul’s diplomatic status – which have customarily leaned heavily toward China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

However, that may be unrealistic. The Southeast Asian bloc is impotent to assist South Korea with the core security and strategic challenges it faces in Northeast Asia.

Pros of the ‘New Southern Policy’

A Japanese businessman with long-term experience in Southeast Asia, and who visited Bangkok recently, told Asia Times that he was astonished at how South Korea appeared to have replaced Japan as the region’s front-of-mind trade partner. And certainly, South Korea is a serious player in Southeast Asia.

In 2018 – according to a summit brochure handed to foreign reporters – ASEAN-South Korea trade totaled US$159.74 billion. In the same year, Korean investment in the regional grouping was $8.59 billion. Some 11.4 million visitors traveled in both directions, served by 1,200 weekly flights connecting South Korea and Southeast Asia.

And Hallyu – the “Korean Wave” of K-pop and K-dramas – is highly visible and arguably more popular in Southeast Asia than in any other part of the world.

With a population of more than 654 million and a combined GDP of $2.9 trillion, there are rich pickings to be had from ASEAN – albeit, South Korean firms are heavily focused on Vietnam, where nearly 43% of Korean investment in the bloc is located.

In a televised speech from Busan, Moon called ASEAN Korea’s second-largest trade partner – after China – and hailed its 5% annual growth rate.

About 500 businesspersons were expected to attend a gathering on the sidelines of the summit, and Moon noted that South Korean companies including Daelim Industrial, Samsung C&T, Lotte Chemical and POSCO were key players in ongoing ASEAN projects including Brunei’s longest bridge, Vietnams’ first LNG terminal and in Indonesian petrochemical and steelworks.

He said he would upgrade human ties by assisting research institutes in Myanmar and Vietnam and upgrading rural cooperation in developing areas of ASEAN. On innovative growth, Moon vowed to increase startup funding and will establish a business cooperation development center with ASEAN next year. He also said he would upgrade funding for infrastructure investments across ASEAN.

An FTA, concluded in October between Indonesia and South Korea was hailed on the day. Further bilateral FTAs are in process with Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, both South Korea and ASEAN are signatories to the upcoming Beijing-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP.

ASEAN and South Korea also agreed to launch a consultative council on smart city projects. Seoul hopes to leverage its ICT know-how to win related projects in Southeast Asia, where 26 cities are reportedly planning to transition to smart cities. South Korea hopes to complete its first native smart city, Busan Eco Delta City, by 2024. Groundbreaking took place on Sunday.

The ‘New Southern Policy’ cons

Moon is well placed to benefit from the optics in Busan. “There is a certain diversification, a conscious effort, on the trade front of not depending on China and Korea is part of this new bloc, RCEP,” Mike Breen, author of The New Koreans, told Asia Times. “These things can position Moon as a successful diplomat, as if the problematic ties with Japan and US are not his fault.”

But beyond the good vibes in Busan, Moon’s foreign policy is unlikely to win any “A” grades.

He inherited poor relations with China from his predecessor after the previous administration green-lighted the emplacement of an American THAAD anti-missile battery on his soil. China retaliated economically and that dynamic persists. His grand hope of creating a cross-DMZ “Peace Economy” with North Korea has foundered on the rocks on stalled denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Seoul’s only ally, Washington.

Meanwhile, a combined historical-diplomatic-trade spat with Tokyo, which has largely been prosecuted by Seoul, has dragged relations to their lowest ebb in decades. And Seoul and Washington are deeply divided over the issue of cost-sharing for US troops in Korea, with the Trump administration demanding a gob-smacking five-fold increase in Seoul’s payments.

Accelerating ASEAN-South Korean ties may gloss over Moon’s foreign policy record and even be a legacy move. However, whether ASEAN can influence key macro and security challenges facing South Korea is another matter.

“Given the challenging economic environment caused by the spread of protectionism and the need for cooperation to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula, diversification in foreign relations and economy has become not an option but a requirement,” the brochure said.

However, the influence of ASEAN over key macro and security challenges facing South Korea is questionable. Whether ASEAN-South Korean ties can hedge against the trans-Pacific trade war between Korea’s leading export destinations – China and the United States – which is hitting Korean exporters, or an ongoing trade spat between Japan and South Korea, whose supply chains are closely entangled, is unclear.

ASEAN has zero influence over Northeast Asian security, where China, North Korea and Russia face off against US-backed Japan and South Korea. South Korea is equally invisible in the key ASEAN security issue. It has not undertaken freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea which other US allies – including Australia, France, Japan and the United Kingdom – have.

“The immediate problem is Moon does not seem to be faring very well with regard to the most important and urgent problems – his relations with Japan, China, the US and North Korea,” a retired senior Korean diplomat told Asia Times. “Nothing seems to be going right for him.”

What, no Kim?

Alongside Cambodia’s Hun Sen, another absentee was North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

After being disappointed last December – when they had expected the North Korean leader to make a historic, first trip to Seoul – when Kim was, for unexplained reasons, a no show, for unexplained reasons, South Korea’s presidential Blue House had publicly hoped Kim would attend the Busan event.

Those hopes raised questions about the realism of Blue House staff in the mind of the retired diplomat.

“They do not seem to realize what is involved for Kim Jong Un to travel outside his country – especially to South Korea – and he does not have any experience in multilateral conferences,” he told Asia Times. “The greatest obstacle for him to be present in an international conference is that at home he is almost a demi-god, but it would be almost impossible for him to have that status in a multi-lateral format.”

Questions also hover over Moon’s pragmatism. “Moon Jae-in seems to be investing more in the area of hope than in the area of immediate necessities,” the retired diplomat said.

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