Korea: A Model for Southeast Asia?


Traditionally South Korea’s “backyard” in terms of foreign policy priorities, Southeast Asia today is experiencing robust Korean engagement not just socially through the wild popularity of hallyu, or the “Korean wave” of pop culture, but economically as well. South Korea’s shift from an almost exclusive focus on its “frontyard” neighbors in Northeast Asia has important consequences not only for the region, but for the success of the U.S. “pivot” toward East Asia. Washington’s renewed interest in the broader Asia-Pacific region and expansion of cooperation beyond its traditional treaty allies can be greatly enhanced through commensurate and robust engagement by reliable partners such asSouth Korea, which shares not just interests, but global values.

While South Korea has had economic interests in Southeast Asia for decades – South Korea officially launched dialogue with ASEAN in 1989 – peninsular interests always took precedence, followed by those in Northeast Asia, then the broader region, and finally at the global level. In part, the prioritization of local affairs was a functional necessity given Korea’s existential reality of being geographically situated at the intersection of Northeast Asia’s three largest powers: China, Japan, and Russia. As the “shrimp-among-whales,” tiny Korea historically had little means or ability to maneuver an independently consequential foreign influence beyond its own neighborhood. Today, though, South Korea has the capabilities to promote its interests and implement them at a regional and global level.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak began his presidency in February 2008 with a grandiose vision for a “Global Korea.” But although reminiscent of Kim Young Sam’s 1993 segyehwa or “globalization” strategy, Global Korea has the chance for success because the requisite capabilities, infrastructure, and political capacity to implement the strategy exist, unlike two decades earlier. Relatively confident in having secured stable relations with his closest neighbors – China and Japan – early in his first year, Lee expanded South Korea’s diplomatic horizons to the broader Asia region in 2009, enlarging the scope of cooperation from an economic focus to one that included security issues, cultural exchanges, and energy and environmental development. Announced during a presidential tour of Southeast Asia in March 2009, the “New Asia Initiative” (NAI) aimed to “enhance substantial cooperation with all the countries of Asia, and ASEAN in particular.” These include tripling 2009’s $862 million official development assistance budget by 2015, and launching the “Low Carbon, Green Growth” strategy with half of its $200 million budget pledged to the “East Asia Climate Partnership” with ASEAN.

At the core of the NAI is South Korea’s belief that it can play a “bridging” role between large and small powers, as well as between the developed and developing economies. The global financial crisis in late 2008 boosted South Korea’s credibility as an effective bridge for Southeast Asia by elevating the G20 into the primary forum to address global priorities, and Seoul playing host to the Leaders’ Summit in November 2010. Seoul also initiated actions that further cemented South Korea as a globally responsible and active actor in the international arena: it initiated a rapid and significant response to the earthquake in Haiti (January 2010); joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI); sent ships to join in multinational efforts to battle pirates in the Gulf of Aden; and expanded its contributions to peacekeeping operations. International attention turned to Seoul again in late March when it hosted world leaders for the Nuclear Security Summit.


[...] The country shifted from a dictatorship under Park Chung Hee to the rich democracy it is today. The world has never seen this amount of growth in such a short space of time. The Korean economy is now the eleventh largest economy in the world; the Koreans refer to it as [...]

June 19, 2012 at 07:03

China should be content with current Japan else Chinese would be called Japanese now….

Ratana Khmer Citizen.
June 17, 2012 at 13:24

This model is a good one for all the country in Southeast Asia to follow, but do you think that this apporach is the perfect? one Let look to the issues in the Korean Penninsula nowadysr. Is Korea a perfect model for all southeast Asia country.

April 21, 2012 at 15:30

South Korea is not perfect but I bet most people would rather live in South Korea than in the North.

April 20, 2012 at 00:28

This article is overlly inflated.

April 19, 2012 at 23:50

Not wanting to become a Western puppet state like S. Korea does not necessarily mean the other option must be becoming China’s lackey.

April 19, 2012 at 11:36

Thomas, Japan only remained a lackey for the U.S for a good decade or three after WW2, but as a nation, they’ve proven capable to sustain themselves today. In fact, Japan has put forth increasing requests for less U.S military presence…(of any that is left), especially in regions like Okinawa. Don’t think Japan likes being a lacky for anyone. Also, in regards to the Philippines, they may seem like a lacky, but they just choose an ally that’s more beneficial to their interests.

April 18, 2012 at 13:18

are you ready………..to war….

April 18, 2012 at 12:22

You’re right Thomas! Maybe Southeast Asian nations would rather follow the example of North Korea or Myanmar and be a lackey of China instead.

April 17, 2012 at 17:53

South Korea’s model is to be a Western Lackey and puppet state! I’m not so sure East Asians will like being a slave to the west except the Philippines and Japan!

Y Korean
April 17, 2012 at 16:58

The author seems to reveal only the shinny side of S. Korea’s achievements. There are a bunch of controversial issues now the society and citizens have tried to deal with like recent SACHAL program and Nuclear plant malfunction. I think the author who wrote this article should have a responsibility to disseminate exact information with an objective perspective. Then, we can discuss about this topic; Do you think the way of Korean development could be really sustainable?

50 cents bridgade
April 17, 2012 at 14:12

As usual, a lot of columnist writes about East Asia countries, however, it is sad that none of these so called experts understand the success phenomena behind these countries. It is not the political system but in fact the similar culture “Confucius” that all East Asian shared. These so called columnist tries to whitewashed or brainwashed its reader into thinking that the political system as the reason why these countries is successful. If you look carefully, countries that embrace democratically system is the very reason that turned countries like Japan, Taiwan, etc into an economic rot. Democracy breeds chaos. Just look at US, for each succession of leaders, they clamor to destroy what its predecessors builds. Look at Taiwan, the country begins to rot under the Chen Shui Bian leaderships. Thank God, under a strong leader like “Ma Ying Jeou”, Taiwan is now back on track. Face it, for the rest of the world, if you are looking for a model to follow, embrace Confucius. The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, and sincerity. Avoid “Democracy” as if it is a leper.

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