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Reasons, Challenges for South Korea Turning Southwards

Seoul is eyeing the growing markets in ASEAN as its regional ties become strained

By Xu Mouquan Updated Sept.12

In early September, South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited three ASEAN countries, Thailand, Burma and Laos, which marked the first ever visit by a South Korean president to Laos and the first visit to Thailand after seven years, reported the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, a Party-run newspaper.

Writing for the newspaper, Zhang Liulu, a staff commentator, noted that since taking office, Moon has been determined to break away from past administrations’ lack of regard for southeast Asian countries and to take a more proactive diplomatic posture – proposing his economic strategy, the New Southern Policy, before carrying out head-of-state diplomacy. 

Explaining why South Korea has turned southwards, Zhang first noted that highly reliant on external markets, its economy has taken a severe hit from the US-triggered global trade protectionism trends and Japan-South Korea trade frictions. Data from the World Bank shows that since the fourth quarter of 2018, its exports have declined for seven months a row. 

The country therefore badly needs to find new external markets. With a population of some 650 million, economy expanding by over 5 percent annually, and a single market taking shape, ASEAN countries are increasingly important to South Korea, Zhang noted. 

Surrounded by four major powers, South Korea has always tried to maintain a balance in Northeast Asia, he wrote. But recently, trade frictions and the end to the military intelligence sharing pact have strained its relations with Japan; its ties with the US also were also under pressure because of it favoring Japan in their row, he said. 

Therefore, South Korea is to some extent forced to turn southwards, attempting to win more maneuvering space through strengthening ties with southeast Asian countries and to offset the harm inflicted by the imbalanced regional geopolitical situation, Zhang argued. 

Nevertheless, South Korea's diplomatic effort still faces some challenges. For one thing, because it has long failed to develop a strategic plan, the depth of South Korea's involvement in ASEAN countries is less than that of China and Japan; constrained by economic size and international environment, the country will find it hard to stand out among the competition.

For another, the New Southern Policy does not display a top-level diplomatic design it needs. It fails to roll out a systemic and complete policy plan. Due to the five-year term limit, the implementation and continuity of the policy has uncertainties, he concluded.