Korea: A Model for Southeast Asia?

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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.

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