Still, good intentions aside, the question is how to get results. Hallyu’s soft power can prove fleeting if tastes change, as they are known to. For a more lasting glue, Seoul will need to work harder.
Time to open up
Eight years ago, President Lee Myung Bak announced his New Asia Initiative, which sought to widen his country’s focus from North-east Asia. It was a theme he reiterated at the following year’s Shangri La Dialogue. Seoul did appoint its first ambassador to ASEAN in 2012 but, beyond that, movement has been fitful, especially on security cooperation. South Korea did join ReCAAP, the Singapore-based body that fights piracy and armed robbery on the high seas, but has seemed hesitant about doing more. Certainly, compared with China and Japan, which actively woo the region with aid and defence equipment, its profile does not show up quite enough.
Granted this is not entirely its fault; every time Seoul looks to widen its aperture, its North Korean sibling has pulled its focus back into the neighbourhood either by an act of aggression, such as the sinking of a navy ship, or by conducting ballistic missile or nuclear weapon tests.
But those irritants will not go away. What then should South Korea do to maintain and build momentum?
First, it can contribute to globalisation by keeping its markets open and contributing to wider market opening. South Korea is a part of the RCEP process, the ASEAN-led initiative for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership between ASEAN and the six states ( Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand) with which it has free trade agreements. But it could go further perhaps by dropping its wariness of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, especially as the 11 parties to that arrangement desperately try to salvage the accord despite America’s withdrawal from it.
South Korean participation would be a boost for TPP in more ways than one, including widening its strategic options. Likewise, an early conclusion of an Open Skies Agreement with ASEAN would benefit its own tourism sector. Amazingly, there are virtually no direct flights linking ASEAN capitals to Jeju, South Korea’s beautiful resort island.
South Korea also must seek to fully partner with ASEAN as the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers momentum. The country has led the Bloomberg Innovation Index in recent years and has much to offer the region as it copes with change. The new landscape of automation and additive manufacturing offers Korean companies opportunities to look beyond traditional investment destinations based on market size and wage-competitiveness to a new climate where efficient logistics and expertise in high-tech manufacturing will be key.
A Korea technological university in an ASEAN country, backed by its engineering companies, that draws students from ASEAN as well as Korea would not only boost technical skills in the region but also build a slate of engineers familiar with Korean technology who would carry this knowledge and goodwill into their occupations. This will eventually help boost Korean companies’ chances of winning business in the region.
On the strategic side of the equation, Seoul has to show more than a transactional interest in defence arrangements with ASEAN. It should signal clearly that it, as much as any other nation, places value in keeping the sealanes of communication open, and will act to do so. One lesson it could draw from ASEAN is on how this region seeks to balance all major powers, and particularly how it deals with Japan.
South-east Asians, who have endured much pain at the hands of the Japanese in an earlier era, have learnt to forgive and move on, even as they will never forget Japanese excesses. South Korea, on this score, far too often shows up as a boat that, to borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, beats back against the current, ceaselessly borne into the past.