[Overseas view]Korea and Southeast Asia: a new era

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[Overseas view]Korea and Southeast Asia: a new era

South Korea’s growing role and importance in Southeast Asia is too often overshadowed by the attention given to China’s effective policies toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the region, as well as to the past regional prominence of Japan.

This year, Korea enters a new era in its increasingly important relations with Southeast Asia. Korea will open in Seoul an Asean Center, and the government will provide an initial $3 million towards its support. The memorandum of understanding that has been signed plans for enhanced trade and investment, as well as cultural and educational opportunities.

This new era is the third period of expanding Korean relations with the region.

From independence until 1961, Korea paid little attention to Southeast Asia, even though Philippine and Thai troops helped defend South Korea in the Korean War.

General (later President) Park Chung Hee was determined to expand Korea’s foreign policy to compete with North Korea. South Korea was disadvantaged, as North Korea was included in the 1955 Bandung non-aligned meeting, while South Korea was considered in the U.S. camp.

Park negotiated with the United States to have South Korean troops (some 326,000) fight in Vietnam, and Korean contractors found Vietnam an excellent training ground for their overseas work.

Korea benefitted in grants, loans, subsidies and contracts to a total of some $8 billion; this was important in providing capital for Korea’s economic development.

The second stage of South Korean involvement in the region was a result of the boisterous but bloodless Korean popular democratic revolution of June 1987 that forced the government to liberalize the Constitution and the direct election of the Korean president. A product of this tumultuous event was the freeing of the labor movement, which had borne Korean economic development on its back through repression of union rights and salaries.

Combined with U.S. pressures on the Korean currency, Korean businesses sought cheaper and controlled labor in other countries, specifically in Southeast Asia.

There was thus a vast expansion of Korean interest and investment in the region.

Korea’s economic success story attracted the envy and attempted mimicking of some of Korea’s developmental policies.

Korean managers were often hired to run non-Korean companies. Although touted as an indication of Korea’s growing capacities, in too many instances these managers, lacking cultural sensitivities in the region, treated their Southeast Asian workers with disdain and sometimes brutality (as they might have in Seoul), creating an extremely negative impression in much of the region.

At about the same time that labor intensive industries were heading to Southeast Asia, there was still a need for employment in Korea in those “dirty and dangerous” jobs at relatively low wages for which Koreans refused to work. Thus, a training program was started to bring Asians to Korea to work for various firms for specific times.

Since 1993, some 550,000 migrants have come to Korea, of whom 186,000 (including 67,000 from Indonesia and 45,000 from Vietnam) were from Southeast Asia. Labor rights were violated, however, and Korean human rights organizations took up their cause, resulting in changes in the system and improvement in the situation.

Yet although there are some 300,000 legal foreign workers in Korea (many are ethnic Koreans but Chinese citizens), there are an equal number who have overstayed their visas and are now considered illegal workers.

In addition, there have been many marriages between Koreans and Southeast Asians, especially Vietnamese and Filipinos, making up a significant percentage of all Korean-foreign marriages, which now total some 11 percent of all marriages in Korea.

This dilution of the famed and mythic Korean identity that conflated ethnicity, language, culture, nation, “blood,” and family will cause considerable anguish within Korea.

Yet Korea needs the infusion of foreigners because its birth rate at about 1.2 percent is the lowest among developed countries. The increased dependency ratio as Korea ages must be met from some sort of external infusion of new labor if it is to continue to grow economically, and that itself is a political requirement for a stable Korea.

As personal and national relationships have flourished, Korea also has been active in Asean. It is a member of the “Asean Plus Three” (China, Japan, Korea) and the Asean Regional Forum.

It is evident that the region is of increasing importance to South Korea.

Bilateral trade with the area has mushroomed. Exports from Korea to the region were $5 billion in 1990 but $29 billion in 2006, while imports from the region were about the same in 1990 but were $27 billion in 2006. Asean accounts for 25 percent of Korean exports and 12.3 percent of imports. Korean investment in the area from 1990 to 2007 totals some $11.6 billion, and in 2007 alone $1.284 billion.

Korea supplies foreign assistance in loans and grants to the various countries in the region.

Korea needs Southeast Asia.

It is in Korea’s security interests to ensure the supply of energy from and through the region, as well as the supply of minerals required for Korea’s continued growth.

It views Southeast Asia as a major market for higher tech Korean products, including the building of nuclear power plants (it already has trained over 350 Southeast Asians in Korea on various aspects of nuclear activities under its aid program).

Other aspects of Korea’s relationship with the region have expanded as well.

Korea sent some 1.2 million citizens to the area as tourists in 2007 alone (20 percent of all foreign travel). They are the largest number of tourists in the Philippines and Cambodia. Large numbers of Korean Christian (Protestant) missionaries permeate the area, as Korea sends out more missionaries than any other country except the United States.

There are some 80,000 Koreans resident in the region; many go to study, especially for English language training.

Hallyu, the “Korean Wave” or prevalence of popular Korean culture, has struck the region, increasing interest in and travel (272,000 Southeast Asians) to Korea.

It has, however, been used in Korea as an element of Korean nationalistic fervor.

The Korean intellectual community has responded to the importance of the region. The Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies has about 150 specialist professors and researchers on that area, and a variety of language and area studies courses exist at a few select universities.

Yet there remain major problems with Korea’s relations with the region even though they are formally correct and appropriate.

There is a clear lack of cultural sensitivity to the various countries of Asean, and while Southeast Asian studies are taught in some universities, there is little absorption of such individuals into the appropriate government agencies or the larger Korean businesses.

Korean tourists are now known for their rowdy, inappropriate behavior and their exclusive use of Korean companies and institutions, rather than local ones, in much the same way that the Japanese did 30 or 40 years ago; the Japanese are now considered model tourists.

Although the Korea Foundation, supported through funds authorized by the legislature, has expanded education on Korea and Korean language quite successfully in the Asean region, the government has done little to ensure that its citizens, either tourists or investors, operate with sensitivity in Southeast Asia.

The Korean government has recognized that from a homogenous society, promoted by the government because it fostered unification with the North, Korea is rapidly becoming a “multicultural society.”

This is necessary both to sustain the shrinking labor force because of very low fertility rates as well as to increase Korea’s capacity to compete in the globalized world. Many new Koreans are from Southeast Asia.

But while there has been progress in Korean-Southeast Asian relations, much still needs to be done.

The opening of the Asean Center in Seoul in 2008 is an excellent opportunity as well as a means to improve Korea’s relations with the region.

*The writer is distinguished professor and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

By David I. Steinberg


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