To elevate the ASEAN-ROK relations beyond the level of summits and merely signing documents, concrete cooperation between ASEAN and South Korea in three areas should be considered – culture, human security and the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Since the announcement of the New Southern Policy (NSP) by the Moon Jae-in administration in 2017, the response from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has shifted from an initial scepticism to a positive embrace. The Republic of Korea (ROK, hereafter South Korea) has consistently demonstrated its intention to treat ASEAN on par with its other traditional partners. After the Busan Summit in 2019, how will the second phase of the NSP look like? For the remaining two years of Moon’s presidential term, it is time to deliver the promises of the NSP in the form of implementation. 

South Korea has demonstrated its sincerity and seriousness in leaving a legacy in Southeast Asia, comparable to China’s and Japan’s grand infrastructural diplomacy. There is a need for the NSP to bring about the materialisation of the ASEAN-ROK partnership to another level, in addition to the bilateral summits and memorandums of understanding (MOUs). However, the realisation of the many promises could be dependent on the successful implementation of the NSP 2.0. 

With the popularity of the Korean Wave, also known as Hallyu, a compelling Korean soft power is already being embedded in ASEAN Member States (AMS). To avoid the shortfall suffered by Japan’s “economic giant, political pygmy” problem, South Korea urgently needs creative interventions to transform its soft power influence into substantive political influence. 

The ASEAN Culture House in Busan, launched in 2017, is an initiative to make known the cultures and histories of the 10 AMS to the South Korean people. Through this platform, it is hoped that the South Koreans will be more interested and receptive to the various cultures represented in ASEAN. 

A joint research project between the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS) and South Korea shows that there is an opinion – among Indonesia’s elite – that South Koreans are fascinated with American and European cultures, and not Southeast Asian. With the creation of the ASEAN-Korea Centre in Seoul and ASEAN Culture House in Busan, South Korea has taken proactive steps to publicise ASEAN cultures domestically. 

Likewise, ASEAN should promote its cultures widely in South Korea to create awareness and attract interest. Furthermore, it should make efforts to develop a better understanding of South Korea’s significance to the region. It is high time to establish ASEAN-Korea Centres in the ASEAN capitals to increase awareness and understanding of South Korea as well as ASEAN-ROK relations. The transformation of perceptions is a two-way street. 

Aside from economic and traditional security cooperation, the NSP should also acknowledge the human security dimension. This aspect may be controversial, but could be fruitful and groundbreaking if pursued boldly in collaboration with regional governments. 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 1.1 million people from Myanmar migrated to other countries (855,000 in Bangladesh, 154,000 in Malaysia and 93,000 in Thailand) in 2019. One outstanding issue in this context is the Rohingya crisis, which ASEAN has yet to resolve and remains a big concern. 

The protection offered by other AMS is weak and lacking solid national legal frameworks for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. During the 36th ASEAN Summit, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin called the UNHCR to work closely with AMS to expedite the resettlement process of UNHCR cardholders to third countries. South Korea’s involvement in the Rohingya crisis is not widely known. Nonetheless, since 2015, South Korea had already partnered with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR on a pilot resettlement programme. Such a step is mandated by South Korea’s 2013 Refugee Act, which is the first in Asia. 

In December 2019, more than 100 Myanmar refugees, who came to South Korea as part of the pilot project, have been resettled in the Bupyeong district of Incheon. Even though the number is relatively small, South Korea proved its resolve to contribute to the issue of refugees. This is also an opportunity for South Korea to include the rights of immigrants and migrant workers into the People pillar of the NSP. 

Through these small steps, South Korea could assist and persuade ASEAN to provide better human rights protection to vulnerable groups. South Korea could even promote the beneficial experience of establishing the legal mechanism or policy framework to manage and protect refugees and displaced peoples. 

The affected AMS should start to recognise the longstanding problems and take inspiration from South Korea’s model. The other AMS that are not directly affected should also offer support and join the efforts. It will require extensive development assistance and a shared resettlement scheme amongst those who take part in the framework, which ASEAN and South Korea can collaborate in. Such an initiative will not only highlight the humane element of South Korea’s governance model, but may potentially offer alternatives to ASEAN to initiate a problem-solving mechanism on an intra-ASEAN transboundary issue. 

When it comes to the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea also has a few lessons to share. As of mid-October 2020, South Korea has 25,275 cases of infection and 444 deaths. By late August 2020, South Korea had conducted over 1.8 million coronavirus tests, which led to its success in flattening the infection curve. While some AMS struggle to manage the pandemic and economic performance, South Korea has been successful in containing the virus without shutting down its economy. 

South Korea’s effective pandemic measure is a combination of technological prowess and bureaucratic acumen, according to the country’s Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters (CDSCH). In terms of technology, the South Korean government called upon the private sector to innovate and produce the coronavirus testing kits and advance its professional healthcare. 

As reported by Analytics Insight, Seoul-based Seegene utilised artificial intelligence (AI) to rapidly develop testing kits while a medical AI software firm named Lunit developed a technology to analyse lung diseases using chest X-ray images. These successes are part of Seoul’s global health diplomacy instruments. South Korea could play a leading role as a strategic partner in the area of technology transfer on the use of AI in a pandemic outbreak. 

South Korea’s bureaucratic effectiveness is a marvel even in comparison with other developed countries and shall be a model to be exported. Many countries struggle to contain the virus outbreak under weak governance and implementation of a public health strategy partially due to lack of resources. 

The combination of transparency, aggressive education of the public and constant dissemination of information by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) works well especially in supressing misinformation, hence reinforcing South Korea’s efforts at managing the pandemic. South Korea can proactively engage and help ASEAN partners to formulate effective measures, especially in such hard-hit countries as Indonesia and the Philippines. 

Indeed, South Korea is not only emerging as a leading democratic country with successes in public health, it is also setting the standard in the human security agenda. It is only natural that aspirations for the NSP take on a new meaning as well as bold approaches for both ASEAN and South Korea to jointly navigate a post-pandemic world.

Siti Atiqah Mokhter is a member of the Malaysia Scholars on Korea (MASK) Network and holds a Master of Social Sciences in Strategic and Security Analysis from the National University of Malaysia

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