By Kim Jae-kyoung
The Korea-ASEAN commemorative summit is just three weeks away.
President Moon Jae-in and his administration must be busy preparing for the summit, which Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha says will set a diplomatic milestone with the 10-member economic bloc in Southeast Asia.
This will be a crucial opportunity for Korea to upgrade its links with ASEAN as the gathering, scheduled to be held from Nov. 25-27 in Busan, is designed to mark the 30th anniversary of bilateral ties.
Over the past three decades, Korea has been strengthening its foothold in the region in economic and cultural terms. Now is the time for the country to rethink its ASEAN strategies to further solidify its footprint there.
Both the Korean government and businesses might want to focus on stealing the hearts of the 10 member states' leaders to win new opportunities in rapidly growing markets during the historic summit.
For the successful hosting of the summit and further development of bilateral cooperation, however, Moon and his staff should keep in mind a few things before treating guests from Southeast Asia.
Data shows that there has been significant progress toward integration among ASEAN member states in terms of several items where tariff barriers have been removed. However, there is still a lot of work to be done in the harmonization of standards and so on. Big nations such as Indonesia are showing a worrying trend of following China and India in seeking to extend domestic supply chains. This cuts into integration. In this regard, a specific strategy for each nation is required.
Besides, Korea needs more political and academic involvement in ASEAN. It has been steadily gaining in image in the region. It has tremendous soft power as its pop culture has been immensely popular. But despite significant growth in economic and cultural visibility, Korea lags behind China and Japan significantly in mind share and involvement in ASEAN.
There is a sense that Korea is more transactional than China and Japan. For example, Japan has given maritime patrol craft to Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. China has supplied radar to Indonesia and has been doing deals across the region. Korea is hardly seen in this kind of picture.
Against this backdrop, Korea needs new approaches to build a more solid relationship with ASEAN and its 10 member countries ― Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
First, Korea should capitalize on its soft power and unique advantages that Japan and especially China do not have. Korea should make more efforts to make ASEAN people feel we take them seriously. We should consider ASEAN as a friend and strategic partner, not just an export destination or cheap production base. Otherwise, the relationship and cooperation won't be sustainable.
Second, Korea must adopt a two-pronged ASEAN strategy. While pursuing an ASEAN-wide approach, we need to pull out all stops to build stronger bilateral ties with each country. The Moon administration should develop strategies tailored to each market because the ASEAN member countries are all different in economics, politics and culture.
To this end, following the summit, Moon should encourage his policymakers and politicians to visit ASEAN countries more often to beef up bilateral exchanges and improve political presence in the region.
Finally, the country should ensure a two-way cultural exchange between Korea and ASEAN to prevent ASEAN countries feeling the threat from the rapid penetration of Korean pop culture and goods. There also should be more efforts to help Koreans deepen their understanding of ASEAN by having Koreans become more interested in ASEAN cultures.
The popularity of Korean dramas and music in Japan, the beginning of the hallyu globalization, is now losing steam. This suggests that popularity in ASEAN can also die down anytime. Now is time to reset ASEAN strategies.
The writer is finance editor of The Korea Times. He previously served as Asia bureau chief and Singapore correspondent covering the entire ASEAN region.