|Thai Ambassador to South Korea Singtong Lapisatepun says Thailand, as the 2019 ASEAN chair, and other ASEAN countries are open to inviting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the third ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit scheduled from Nov. 25 to 26 in Busan. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
This is the third in a series of interviews with ASEAN ambassadors on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-South Korea relations. ― ED.
By Yi Whan-woo
The prospect for peace on the Korean Peninsula was brighter in November 2018 when Indonesian President Joko Widodo brought up the idea of inviting Kim during his meeting with President Moon Jae-in.
The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) still "have no objection to the idea," according to Thai Ambassador to South Korea Singtong Lapisatepun.
"That's something we agreed upon at the foreign ministerial level," he told The Korea Times recently, in reference to the discussion among ASEAN foreign ministers in June when they were at the 34th ASEAN Summit held in Bangkok.
But North Korea's return to missile tests this year is reminiscent of its choreographed cycle of charm offensives then provocations, calling its commitment to denuclearization into question.
The Thai ambassador regarded Kim's three summits with U.S. President Donald Trump from June 2018 to June 2019, plus the three Kim-Moon meetings last year, as inadequate to justify Kim's possible invitation to the Busan summit.
"DPRK still has many things to prove when it comes to denuclearization," Lapisatepun said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "And we (ASEAN and South Korea) don't want to send a wrong signal by inviting its leader and make DPRK think ‘Oh, everybody welcomes us so we don't have to do anything.'
"If the situation was going on the right track, it would be the case (to invite Kim). But we don't really know. It's not easy to understand the DPRK leader."
He reckoned it is appropriate for South Korea to finalize the decision on extending an invitation to Kim, as the host of the summit with ASEAN.
The Busan summit is scheduled from Nov. 25 to 26, inviting all 10 ASEAN leaders to celebrate 30 years of ASEAN-South Korea relations.
Thailand, according to Lapisatepun, finds the 30th anniversary especially meaningful because it coincides with the country's ASEAN chairmanship for a rotating, one-year term since November 2018.
The two sides held summits in 2009 and 2014 to mark the 20th and 25th anniversaries of their relations.
"This summit will provide the Republic of Korea (ROK) and ASEAN member states an opportunity to review their past accomplishments and also to exchange ideas and visions in order to set the tone and direction of our dialogue relations going forward," Lapisatepun said.
He speculated ASEAN will have more to cooperate with South Korea over the North's denuclearization than any other cooperative regional bloc around the world.
He underlined all 10 ASEAN countries have diplomatic relations with the North, share a "similar way of Asian thinking" and, because of regional proximity, are more sensitive and more cooperative in tackling Pyongyang's military threats.
The interests of each ASEAN country and South Korea are intertwined with the U.S. and China.
Lapisatepun reckoned this accordingly makes the two former groups work more closely together as they strive to maintain a balanced relationship amid the Washington-Beijing rivalry.
"(South) Korea as a dialogue partner of ASEAN could take into account the similarity of our situation and perhaps enhance cooperation in areas which are needed to mitigate the effects," he said.
Regarding the 30th anniversary, the ambassador speculated the third commemorative summit will help address the theme for 2019 ASEAN chairmanship — "Advancing Partnership for Sustainability" — and how ASEAN and South Korea can enhance cooperation accordingly.
The theme is aimed at propelling ASEAN into a digital, seamless and sustainable bloc, by enhancing partnerships with other countries.
"And South Korea can fit into our theme," Lapisatepun said, adding its capacity in the digital and IT sector as well as its commitment to sustainable development "perfectly complement ASEAN's efforts."
"I am confident that (South) Korea will continue to be ASEAN's valued partner in the future for much longer than the next 30 years," he added.
Among the notable achievements so far are inclusion of the ASEAN Centre of Military Medicine (ACMM) in Thailand as a subsidiary body under ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting, launch of the Disaster Emergency Logistics System for ASEAN (DELSA) Satellite Warehouse, also in Thailand, and adoption of the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in ASEAN Region.
The ACMM is to foster practical and effective cooperation among the military medical services of ASEAN and its dialogue partners.
The DELSA warehouse in Thailand is a part of ASEAN's plan to better respond to disasters in the region by building corresponding facilities across Southeast Asia.
The Bangkok Declaration is to combat marine debris by strengthening relevant laws and regulations as well as by promoting the principle of the so-called 3Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle.
Lapisatepun noted such achievements were made possible by building on last year's achievements led by Singapore's chairmanship under the theme — "Resilient and Innovative."
He also thanked Brunei, as a country coordinator for the ASEAN-ROK Dialogue Relations, for helping forging closer relations between ASEAN and the ROK.
In relation to President Moon's signature New Southern Policy, Thailand has been trying to woo South Korean investment in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC).
The EEC is an axis of industrial estates southeast of Bangkok. It is also Thailand's flagship project in line with its ambitious 20-year strategy introduced in 2018 — Thailand 4.0 — to transform the Southeast Asian kingdom into a tech-centric economy.
The latest cooperation with South Korea was a partnership between Kamnoetvidya Science Academy (KVIS) — a secondary school in the EEC nurturing students for mathematics, science, engineering and technology — and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), one of the top engineering schools here.
A delegation from the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation also visited South Korea.
The ministry was formed in May 2019 to focus on post-secondary education exclusively in relation to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The delegates met with executives from Hanyang University and other schools with strong engineering programs and explored their interests toward opening campuses in the EEC.
The primary targets of the EEC are still the Korean enterprises. And those affiliated with next-generation technology, such as electric cars and autonomous vehicles are welcomed regardless of their sizes, according to Lapisatepun.
To cope with South Korea's ASEAN investment heavily concentrated in Vietnam, Lapisatepun underscored a need for "two-way efforts" for promotional campaigns.
For instance, South Korea can diversify programs to raise investment opportunities for each of the 10 ASEAN members on hand while the Royal Thai Embassy in Seoul, jointly with the Seoul branches of the Department of International Trade Promotion and Thailand Board of Investment, can introduce more investment destinations in the kingdom.
The following is a transcript of the interview.
Q1. What does it mean for each ASEAN nation, especially Thailand, to mark the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-Korea relations?
A1: 2019 marks an important milestone for the Republic of Korea (ROK) and ASEAN Member States (AMS) as both sides have established their dialogue relations for 30 years. Over the past three decades, the ROK and ASEAN have been working closely to further enhance mutual trust and friendship across all aspects of their ties, namely political, economic, socio-cultural and development cooperation.
To commemorate this auspicious occasion, the third ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit will be held from Nov. 25 to 26 in Busan. This summit will provide the ROK and AMS an opportunity to review their past accomplishments and also to exchange ideas and visions in order to set the tone and direction of our dialogue relations going forward. In addition, a number of special events, for instance, ASEAN-ROK Business and Startup Expo, will also be held on the sidelines of the summit, serving as a concrete platform for Korean and ASEAN business leaders to enhance their cooperation.
Q2. How would you assess Thailand's role as the chair of ASEAN so far?
A2: The theme for Thailand's Chairmanship this year is "Advancing Partnership for Sustainability." Under this theme, we aim to achieve "Sustainability of Things" (SoTs), which refers to sustainability in all dimensions, and also to promote an inclusive development that leaves no one behind and looks to the future.
As of now, we are half-way through our Chairmanship of ASEAN. Since the handover of the ASEAN Chairmanship from Singapore in November last year, Thailand has been consistent in turning visions into actions as it has hosted a number of meetings that covered various issues under the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, particularly the 34th ASEAN Summit which was successfully held from June 20 to 23.
Despite the growing challenges from economic tensions between major powers and complex regional issues facing ASEAN, the leaders gathered in Bangkok for the 34th ASEAN Summit were able to launch two major deliverables, adopt several key documents and agree on many issues of common interest.
The first major deliverable is the inclusion of the ASEAN Centre of Military Medicine in Thailand, as a subsidiary body under the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting. The Centre will enable an establishment of practical and effective cooperation amongst the military medical services of ASEAN and its Dialogue Partners. The second deliverable is the launch of the Disaster Emergency Logistics System for ASEAN (DELSA) Satellite Warehouse in Chainat Province, Thailand, which fulfils DELSA's plan to establish satellite warehouses in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand to strengthen disaster response capacity.
On sustainability, the ASEAN leaders also adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in ASEAN Region, which was a result of the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Marine Debris held on March 5 in Bangkok. The Declaration calls for ASEAN members to combat marine debris by strengthening national laws and regulations as well as by promoting the principle of 3R ― reduce, reuse and recycle.
Q3. To what extent is Thailand's 2019 ASEAN chairmanship theme "Advancing Partnership for Sustainability" applicable for the 30th anniversary and next 30 years of ASEAN-Korea relations?
A3: As I mentioned, our chairmanship theme places great importance on all dimensions of sustainability and promotes the development of the people-centered community that leaves no one behind and looks to the future. Under this theme, we aim to achieve three main goals, which are to build 1) Digital ASEAN, 2) Seamless ASEAN and 3) Sustainable ASEAN.
In order to achieve those goals, ASEAN needs to work together and collaborate with its dialogue partners to realize the digitization of ASEAN, enhance regional connectivity and promote sustainability mindset.
And South Korea can fit into our theme.
As the Republic of Korea is renowned for its strength in the digital and IT sector and its expertise in infrastructure development, which perfectly complement ASEAN's efforts, I am confident Korea will continue to be ASEAN's valued partner in the future for much longer than the next 30 years.
Q4. It was in 2000 when Thailand was the chair of ASEAN and North Korea joined the ASEAN Regional Forum. What can we expect from Thailand this year or in the near future to help North Korea take a step closer to ASEAN and, furthermore, with the rest of the world?
A4: Peace on the Korean Peninsula is strategically vital to ASEAN's security and prosperity. As ASEAN's chair, Thailand will continue to engage constructively with North Korea through both bilateral channels and multilateral platforms, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and other venues available. We will also continue to create a positive atmosphere in order for relevant parties to resume dialogue and further the agenda towards denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Q5. What are advantages ASEAN has over other inter-governmental unions, such as the EU, in promoting peace and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula?
A5: Apart from the proximity factor, ASEAN's sincere interest to support peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula cannot be taken lightly. All 10 ASEAN member states have official diplomatic relations with the DPRK. ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is the only multilateral forum apart from the U.N. that the DPRK sends representatives to state their take on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and meet with officials from other concerned countries, e.g. ROK, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.
Regarding ARF, the North Korean delegation can say what they would like to say and share their ideas, while at the same time other countries can share their concerns or say something about North Korea.
Another thing related is we're also Asia, so the way of thinking is more or less close to South Korea, different from European countries, then also a factor that we're in a better position.
Also we're closer to North Korea than those in terms of distance. So we're more concerned about the situation in the area, so I think it's the reason why we ASEAN are in a better position and of course we have a platform, the framework to let DPRK express their concerns or talk with an international forum.
ASEAN has been growing from strength to strength, demonstrating our strong relations and resilience against external political pressure. The impartial and balanced views that ASEAN holds generate an atmosphere of trust, which enables all sides to work together much easier when ASEAN member states played host to the U.S.-DPRK summits.
Q6. Please explain to what extent discussions have been made regarding an idea to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the 2019 ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit. What are possible prerequisites for the invitation to be realized? Do you think the third U.S.-North Korea summit will facilitate any related efforts for invitation?
A6: As far as I am concerned, ASEAN member states have no objection to such idea and are of the view that it would be appropriate for the ROK, as host, to extend an official invitation to the North Korean leader to attend the 2019 ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit. ASEAN and the ROK will work together closely on the presence and participation of the North Korean leader during the summit and what the expected outcome would be. Such a decision will be based on the future development of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The DPRK still has many things to prove when it comes to denuclearization, such as the U.N. Security Council resolutions.
If the situation was going on the right track, it would be the case. But we don't really know. It's not easy to understand the DPRK leader.
And we don't want to send a wrong signal by inviting its leader and make DPRK think "Oh, everybody welcomes us so we don't have to do anything."
Q7. How effective do you think President Moon Jae-in's New Southern Policy (NSP) has been? During a past media interview, you mentioned about capitalizing on the New Southern Policy and Thailand 4.0 to create a win-win situation. Please explain any progress that has been made, including possible cooperative projects on the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC).
A7: Since President Moon's official announcement of the NSP in November 2017, the Korean government has carried out countless efforts to forge closer ties and enhance cooperation with Southeast Asian countries including Thailand. I noticed that when it comes to the NSP, all relevant Korean agencies, whether it be the Blue House, relevant ministries or business association, speak with one voice, which is a positive sign.
In 2017, the Presidential Committee on NSP was duly established to ensure the successful implementation of the policy. Recently, the Korea-South and Southeast Asia Business Coalition was established to enhance economic cooperation between Korea and South and Southeast Asian countries. So far President Moon has visited seven out of 10 ASEAN member states and will visit the three remaining countries by the end of this year. These continued efforts to carry out the NSP by all relevant agencies are very much appreciated.
Regarding capitalizing on the NSP and Thailand 4.0 to create a win-win situation, so far we have seen concrete cooperation in the area of science, technology and innovation (STI), for example, Kamnoetvidya Science Academy (KVIS), which is a leading science high school located in the Eastern Economic Corridor of Innovation (EECi) with a specific purpose of nurturing gifted and talented students in mathematics and science and contributing to Thailand's science and technology development. The school has partnered with Gyeonggi Science High School for the Gifted and Korea Science Academy of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
In addition, recently, representatives from the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation (MHESI) of Thailand visited Korea and had a meeting with the presidents of many Korean universities with specialization in STI. The objective of this visit is to explore Korean universities' interest in establishing their overseas campus to and providing education in Thailand, especially in the EEC area where special investment incentives will be provided. Among many Korean universities visited, Hanyang University expressed its interest in establishing an EEC campus. To follow up on this, MHESI will invite Hanyang University's executives to visit EEC soon.
Q8. Please explain the strategy of ASEAN towards the intensifying U.S.-China confrontation, ranging from the South China Sea dispute to the Huawei row, and explain to what extent Korea can take such strategy into account.
A8: The interests of ASEAN countries and those of China and the U.S. are closely intertwined. China is currently the largest trading partner of ASEAN while the U.S. is the fourth. Under this context, no ASEAN country benefits from the confrontation between the two major powers. In order to avoid adverse effects from the unnecessary entanglement with the escalating U.S.-China strategic competition, ASEAN has strived to maintain balanced relationships with both sides, while following the developments with concern. Korea as dialogue partner of ASEAN could take into account the similarity of our situation and perhaps enhance cooperation in areas which are needed to mitigate the effects.
Q9. Korea's investments in ASEAN are focused heavily on Vietnam. What are ways to diversify Korean investment and has there been any discussion among ASEAN countries over the issue?
A9: In my opinion, there are several ways the Korean government and relevant agencies could consider in order to encourage the diversification of Korean investment and trade, including raising public awareness of new markets and alternative investment destinations by organizing seminars or forums to present trade and investment opportunities and inviting Korean business delegations for visits.
For the government of Korea, I think you should not put all eggs in one basket when it comes to investment in ASEAN.
However, promoting closer economic relations is a two-way effort. Apart from initiatives by the Korean side, the role of foreign counterparts in attracting Korean companies is also significant. In the case of Thailand, the Royal Thai Embassy, along with the Office of Commercial Affairs (Department of International Trade Promotion-DITP) and Thailand Board of Investment (BOI), has carried out over the past years a wide range of projects and activities to promote Thailand as an alternative investment destination and market for Korean business community. The study trip to Thailand for Korean media that the embassy organized back in 2016 and that you participated in is one example.
Q10. Please explain how ASEAN is similar and different to the EU and other inter-governmental organizations.
A10: ASEAN and EU are similar at least in the four following ways. Firstly, both ASEAN and EU are regional organizations with legal personalities. Secondly, the two bodies were originally created in order to promote peace in their respective regions. Thirdly, both organizations aim to integrate the economies of their members into a single market. Fourthly, both hold regular political and economic dialogues and also conclude free trade agreements (FTA) and comprehensive economic partnership agreements (CEPA) with important external partners.
Both are different at least in the five following ways. Firstly, ASEAN is an inter-governmental organization. The EU, in contrast, is a supranational organization in which its member states have agreed, in certain areas, to give up part of their sovereignty.
The collective sovereignty is exercised by the European Commission on behalf of the member states, while with ASEAN, all countries keep their sovereignty. Secondly, the EU has a common currency called the euro, while ASEAN does not have a common currency and has no plans for one. Thirdly, the EU has a parliament and ASEAN does not. The fourth difference is their decision-making processes. While ASEAN makes all its decisions by consensus, the EU can decide by taking votes. However, in the area of common foreign and security policy, decisions are based on unanimity. The fifth difference is the official languages. While the EU has 23 official languages, ASEAN uses English as the sole medium for meetings and communications.