Moon puts Southern Policy into effect on trip to AseanPresident Moon Jae-in’s campaign to reinforce Seoul’s strategic partnerships with Southeast Asian nations gained fresh momentum this week as he made a tour of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, Blue House aides said Friday.
Moon made a pitch for the New Southern Policy less than three months ahead of a special summit with Asean in Busan, his hometown. It will be the largest diplomatic event to take place in South Korea under the Moon administration.
He has kept his word to visit all 10 Asean member states in his presidency, becoming the only South Korean president to do so. He earlier traveled to India, another key partner in the New Southern Policy initiative.
“It reflects how important we regard the Asean and India,” Joo Hyung-chul, a Blue House adviser for economic affairs, said at a press briefing. Seoul is in a speedy drive for strong, strategic partnerships with the Asean bloc, although it started later than Tokyo and Beijing.
Through this week’s regional trip, Moon has laid the groundwork to push for the New Southern Policy “with stability” and demonstrated his “sincerity and determination for cooperation” with the 10 Asean members, Joo said.
It came as Moon is facing more troubles than ever, having entered the third year of his presidency.
The Korean Peninsula peace process has made no further progress amid a delay in the resumption of North Korea-U.S. nuclear talks. Inter-Korean relations were not like in 2018, when Moon met the North’s leader Kim Jong-un three times.
Seoul is in a trade fight with Tokyo stemming from a row over shared history. Washington is displeased with Seoul’s decision to terminate an accord with Tokyo on sharing military intelligence. The Trump administration is heaping pressure on South Korea to pay more for U.S. Forces Korea, raising public concerns about the future of the alliance.
From the start of his liberal administration in 2017, Moon was aware of the need to diversify Seoul’s diplomatic portfolio.
On a visit to Indonesia in November of the year, he declared the New Southern Policy, aimed at upgrading Seoul’s ties with India and the Asean bloc to the level of its relations with four regional powers - the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
“South Korea can show its diplomacy is much more than North Korean policy,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in western Seoul.
“It can play a middle power role, helping network countries in Asia within an updated rules-based order.”
Travelling to Southeast Asia this week, Moon, in fact, focused more on strengthening bilateral cooperation than talking about North Korea.
In Bangkok talks Monday, Moon and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha reached a deal to expand bilateral partnerships to high-tech sectors in response to the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution.
The two sides also signed an agreement on exchanging and protecting military intelligence, which is expected to help deepen their military ties and defense industry cooperation.
Moon attended a launching show for Brand K, an official trademark for goods produced by dozens of South Korean small- and medium-sized enterprises. It’s designed to capitalize on the increased popularity of South Korean culture abroad in the marketing of their products.
Leaving Thailand after a two-day stay, Moon said the Brand K show was “particularly impressive.”
He then traveled to Myanmar, where he had talks with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Win Myint.
The two sides agreed to strengthen partnerships in economy, culture and development for synergy between South Korea’s New Southern Policy and the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan.
South Korea has decided to double its aid for Myanmar through the Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF) to $1 billion between 2018-2022 from the previous five years.
During a summit with Aung San Suu Kyi, Moon proposed cooperating in the “Myanmar peace process,” which includes the sensitive issue of the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. Moon’s administration supports the “safe, voluntary and dignified” return of Rohingya refugees in line with the United Nations’ position.
“Middle powers diplomatically address issues of principle and values, rather than use them for propaganda or ignore them for convenience,” Easley noted.
“This means discussing civil-military relations with Thailand, human rights with Myanmar and disaster prevention and response with Laos."
On a visit to the Laotian capital of Vientiane, Moon had back-to-back talks with Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith.
Among issues discussed was the deadly collapse last year of a saddle dam of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower project, in which a consortium of South Korean firms are participating.
He’s scheduled to hold a group summit with his counterparts from Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand in Busan a day after the Nov. 25-26 Asean summit.