“Two Regions Committed to Sustainable Development.” This was the theme of the 17th Senior Officials Meeting of the Forum for East Asia–Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC), held in Guatemala City from August 24 to 26. The host country, Guatemala, co-presided the meeting along with the Republic of Korea, with both currently serving as the 2015-2017 regional coordinators of the forum. In May 2017, the 36 FEALAC members will convene again in Seoul, on the occasion of the 8th Foreign Ministers Meeting—the highest summit in this inter-regional mechanism.
Despite its low profile, FEALAC’s relevance as the sole forum linking East Asia and Latin America has grown over the past years, driving its members to commit towards raising the institution’s visibility. And among its members, South Korea has been particularly active in promoting greater institutionalization of the forum. This has entailed the skillful integration of so-called “inter-regional diplomacy” into the foreign policy agenda, effectively linking it to Korea’s key priorities under the Park administration: middle-powerism and Latin American engagement.
Building upon its stated aspirations to act as a “responsible middle power” in the international arena—one of the three pillars of President Park Geun-hye’s Trustpolitik—Korea has privileged network-building by strengthening bilateral partnerships and multilateral engagement across regions. Within this global outreach, Latin America has been highly prioritized. Invited to the 7th Summit of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) held last June in Havana, Cuba, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se remarked that:
Over the past years, my government has made enhancing connectivity with Latin America and the Caribbean an important priority. We have been working closely together with our regional partners the Forum for East Asia Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC), the Central American Integration System (SICA), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Mercosur, and the Pacific Alliance.
Latin America’s standing within Korea’s foreign policy priorities is further evidenced by the hosting of the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), President Park’s state visits to five Latin American countries in 2015-2016, the annual hosting of the High Level Forum on Korea-Latin American Partnership along with business forums, and the active pursuit of FTAs across the region.
But when it comes to FEALAC, the coherent blending of Korea’s foreign policy strategies is all the more visible, portraying characteristic features of middle power diplomacy and developing a leadership position for inter-regional relations. Since the forum was founded back in 1999, South Korea acted as a co-president and regional coordinator twice, co-chaired different working groups, hosted a Senior Officials Meeting in 2005, and will host the upcoming Foreign Ministers Meeting. In 2010, the country received unanimous support to its proposal of establishing and running FEALAC’s Cyber Secretariat, giving Seoul permanent visibility through the coordination of numerous official events. In 2012, Korea also suggested the creation of FEALAC’s Vision Group, in charge of charting the forum’s medium-to-long-term strategies, chaired by Korea’s leading specialist in Latin American affairs.
Acting as East Asia’s regional coordinator in the recent senior official’s meeting, South Korea presented the document “Towards a More Dynamic FEALAC,” which gathers proposals by different members in favor of strengthening the forum’s institutional framework. Major suggestions included creating a FEALAC Fund, establishing a Foreign Ministers’ Troika System, which had its inaugural meeting on the margins of September’s UN General Assembly, and a FEALAC Summit, potentially for the forum’s upcoming 20th anniversary. These suggestions, along with Guatemala’s opportune call for utilizing Spanish as FEALAC’s second official language, will be further discussed in Seoul.
Taken together, these initiatives reflect several distinctive roles of middle powers, namely, those of facilitators, managers, and catalyzers of cooperation. By launching and managing the Cyber Secretariat, proposing and chairing the Vision Group, and brokering member’s ideas into recommendations for a New FEALAC Action Plan, South Korea is effectively contributing to the facilitation, management, and catalysis of East Asia-Latin America cooperation, all while building-up its profile as a leader of inter-regional relations.
Going a step further, the theme of Korea and Guatemala’s co-presidency, “Two Regions Committed to Sustainable Development,” is also deserving of attention. While the topic itself is not new for FEALAC — with members such as Japan leading workshops on related issues year after year — the theme fits well with both regional coordinators. Accordingly, the Senior Officials Meeting deliberated on FEALAC’s potential contributions for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Discussions will continue, with final conclusions most likely to be contained in a “Seoul Declaration” at outset of the Foreign Ministers Meeting next May.
Sustainable development is a vital topic for both regions, and even more so for these co-presidents. Ever since becoming a member of the OECD, South Korea has prioritized development assistance in its foreign policy agenda, especially as it allows the country to portray itself as a bridge between developing and developed countries—yet another feature of middle power diplomacy. And although Latin America has not been among the highest recipient regions of Korean traditional aid, since 2012 it has been increasingly the focus of Korea’s new trademark in development assistance: the Knowledge Sharing Program (KSP).
The number of KSPs in the region has grown to make it the second beneficiary after North, South, and Southeast Asia combined, bringing Korea closer to Latin American countries. And while Guatemala is one of the latest newcomers to the KSP club, it has long been a key partner for Korea in Central America, as well as one of the first recipients of Korean aid since KOICA’s founding in 1991. In that context, Guatemala’s call for an increase in joint projects, workshops, and internships between both regions echoes quite well with Korea’s globally recognized knowledge-sharing drive.
Whether a more dynamic FEALAC will grow to fulfill its members’ aspirations for deeper inter-regional cooperation and contribute to sustainable development remains an open-ended question. But for South Korea today, FEALAC has indeed become a key platform where major elements of its foreign policy agenda converge, allowing it to position itself at the center stage of East Asia – Latin America relations.
Anaïs Faure holds a Master’s degree in Korean Studies from the Academy of Korean Studies and a Master in Development Policy from the KDI School of Public Policy and Management, both in Korea