The Green New Deal has the potential to diversify the focus of South Korea’s New Southern Policy by inserting the element of environment in a foreign policy that is thought to be too economic-centric. South Korea and ASEAN must consider greater cooperation in two areas under this element: eco-friendly vehicles and environmental governance.


In November 2019, the ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit in Busan celebrated the 30th anniversary of their dialogue relations and formalised ways forward under the Republic of Korea’s (ROK, hereafter South Korea) New Southern Policy (NSP). The NSP marks South Korea’s foreign policy diversification, beyond its immediate neighbours and the United States, to a more robust focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This refocus would seem to be a long time coming – the Hallyu or Korean Wave has an immense following in Southeast Asia and South Korea is a leading trade partner for most of the ASEAN Member States (AMS). The challenge now is to leverage upon this cultural and economic complementarity towards enhanced diplomatic and functional cooperation to equitably benefit South Korea, ASEAN as an organisation and the AMS. 

In May 2020, South Korea announced its Green New Deal (GND) as the core of its COVID-19 recovery strategy. This would entail, among others, public investments into expanding renewable energy generation and greening the transport sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and generate new jobs. This, in contrast with other countries’ recovery strategies bolstering lucrative but environmentally unsustainable industries, was met with much admiration worldwide. 

While the NSP formally stands on the three pillars of People, Prosperity and Peace, it has remained heavily economic-focused. Indeed, beyond scientific collaborations to offset the environmental consequences of dams along the Mekong, the environment has received little attention under the NSP. As South Korea puts its GND in motion, how can this seemingly more environmentally conscious approach complement the NSP? This piece highlights two areas of mutual environmental concern, which can benefit from enhanced ASEAN-ROK relations: eco-friendly vehicles and air pollution governance. 

As a renowned innovator within the automobile industry, eco-friendly vehicles seemed an obvious starting point for South Korea’s GND. Indeed, under the GND, there is a requirement for 80% of vehicles purchased by public institutions to be eco-friendly by 2021, with a goal for 90% of all public institution vehicles to be eco-friendly by 2030. South Korea will also build new hydrogen production facilities to complement the industry goal of producing 500,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2030. 

This presents interesting opportunities for the ASEAN automobile industry, a particularly important sector in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. While Thailand has its niche in assembling foreign brand automobiles for export, Indonesia produces the same mainly for its huge domestic market. With two national car brands, Malaysia’s automobile landscape has been focused on collaborations between local and foreign brands. The newcomer, Vietnam, specialises in exporting automobile parts to neighbouring countries. 

In these countries, investments and collaborations have been especially active with Japanese automobile brands and manufacturers. Today, these industries are encouraged to move in eco-friendly directions, supported by regional initiatives, such as the ASEAN Fuel Economy Roadmap for the Transport Sector 2018-2025. Thailand is offering corporate income tax exemptions for eco-friendly vehicle investments and Indonesia is giving deductible tax incentives for research and development (R&D) into domestically manufactured eco-friendly vehicles. Furthermore, during President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Malaysia in March 2019, a memorandum of understanding was signed to support Korean electric and hybrid vehicle technology transfer and investments to advance Malaysia’s national car industry. 

Not straying far from the NSP’s economic and prosperity focus, an enhanced ASEAN-ROK collaboration within this sector would be a low-hanging fruit for both sides. It will help South Korea achieve its GND goals and position itself as a serious competitor against Japanese brands in the region while supporting AMS to more sustainably modernise their lucrative automobile sectors. The focus must now be on lowering barriers to entry, including high import taxes which have delayed Korean entry into the Thai automotive market and limitations on foreign shareholdings which is a continued issue in Malaysia. 

Southeast Asia and South Korea share a common environmental problem: seasonal air pollution, known as transnational haze in the former and hwangsa (yellow dust) in the latter. Both have regional origins (transnational haze in regional agribusiness activity while hwangsa in industrialisation around Northeast Asia) and far-reaching socioeconomic implications. 

In the context of COVID-19, mitigating air pollution has become especially important. Studies in the United States, Italy and the Netherlands have shown a positive correlation between air pollution, COVID-19 cases, hospital emissions and deaths – not just with current pollution levels, but also prolonged exposure to polluted air. Other findings highlight how particulate matter can also act as vectors for the virus. These findings place the populations of ASEAN and South Korea, who have suffered severe seasonal air pollution for decades, at heightened risk. 

Regional efforts for hwangsa have been confined to sporadic discussions within general forums, such as the North-East Asian Subregional Programme for Environmental Cooperation (NEASPEC) and the Tripartite Environment Ministers Meeting (TEMM) – both, interestingly, mooted by South Korea. Comparatively, ASEAN has a comprehensive mechanism for transnational haze mitigation built over decades. While transnational haze persists as a problem in Southeast Asia, the platform has been useful in mitigating political tensions linked to the transboundary issue, something that Northeast Asia has failed to overcome. 

Recent research by Korean scientists has shown that locally produced pollution is higher than originally thought. Reflecting South Korea’s strong science-based policymaking tradition, the GND targets to reduce fine dust domestically by 40%, through a combination of reducing reliance on coal, industrial upgrading and urban forests. This inward focus is commendable, but the lack of regional coordination will limit the effectiveness of these efforts. 

Leveraging upon the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) mechanism, South Korea could work with ASEAN to revive the APT Environment Ministers Meeting as a politically neutral forum and learning platform for regional collaboration over hwangsa. At the same time, AMS could learn from South Korea’s science-based policymaking. A starting point could be the ongoing collaboration in the Mekong area, which has been increasingly suffering from haze-producing agricultural fires. While currently focused on dams, scientific collaboration can be extended to the agribusiness sector, especially since South Korea is becoming a more prominent agribusiness investor here. 

With its overwhelming focus on the Prosperity pillar, the NSP’s “infrastructure diplomacy” approach risks falling into old patterns of ASEAN engagement practised by its neighbours, Japan and China. Indeed, while the Presidential Committee on NSP has the Ministry of Economy and Finance as well as the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy on board, the Ministry of Environment is tellingly absent. A fresh foreign policy approach needs to look beyond economics to explicitly include environmental cooperation and this committee would be a good place to start. 

On the other hand, despite its novelty, the question remains if the GND is strong enough given South Korea’s role in climate change. South Korea was the world’s eighth-largest carbon dioxide emitter overall and per capita in 2018, and a recent study concluded that South Korea’s commitments under the Paris Agreement (34% reduction from business-as-usual) are highly insufficient to meet the “fair burden” standard – it should be 74% reduction. 

A GND which extends into foreign policy initiatives as the NSP can significantly help South Korea strengthen its climate commitments. After all, South Korea already has a strong track record of including specifically defined environmental provisions in foreign trade agreements. The right ingredients are in place for President Moon to build a positive environmental legacy through the GND and NSP: the COVID-19 wake-up call, the President’s environmental advocacy background, his administration’s supermajority support in the National Assembly and closely aligned environmental priorities of both parties. In short, a more environmentally balanced NSP will further strengthen ASEAN-ROK economic, diplomatic and indeed environmental ties in the short and long-term.

Helena Varkkey is Senior Lecturer in the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya

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