Send to

[Herald Interview] S. Korea-ASEAN poised for new heights on 35th anniversary: ASEAN chief

ASEAN seeks South Korea's flexibility in FTA upgrade negotiations, says Secretary-General Kao

June 25, 2024 - 15:46 By Ji Da-gyum
ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn poses for a photo before an interview with The Korea Herald on May 28 at the Westin Josun Seoul Hotel in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are poised to elevate their relationship to a "comprehensive strategic partnership," marking the highest level that ASEAN's dialogue partners can forge, aiming to cover the most extensive possible range of sectors, ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn said in his interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.

"This year is a very important year in the context that we are commemorating and celebrating the 35th anniversary of our ASEAN-ROK dialogue relations," Kao said in his English-language interview in late May, referring to South Korea by the acronym of its official name, the Republic of Korea.

"Taking the opportunity of this important milestone in our relations, we are looking at how we can take our relationship to new heights. That's why we are looking at upgrading to a comprehensive strategic partnership."

South Korea and ASEAN have agreed to elevate their partnership at the ASEAN-Korea Summit in Vientiane, Laos, which will be held in October, according to Kao.

"The upgrade of the partnership to CSP means that all will practically, from A to Z, cover as many sectors as possible. On the other hand, it aims to deepen and strengthen the existing areas of cooperation we have. Of course, we need to explore new areas of cooperation that we have not been able to cooperate in yet," Kao said.

"So this will be very significant in terms of our relations that we started since 1989."

A woman walks past the Samsung Electronics factory in Vietnam's Bac Ninh province on June 11. (AFP)

Kao said ASEAN aims to enhance economic cooperation, trade and investment with South Korea, while expanding tourism and increasing connectivity. For instance, ASEAN seeks to improve air connectivity with more direct flights between Korea and ASEAN member states and to boost port-to-port connectivity, which is crucial for trade.

Kao also highlighted the significance of enhancing people-to-people exchanges between ASEAN and South Korea, fostering more interactions among students, scholars and researchers from both sides.

ASEAN is a regional organization that aims to jointly foster economic growth, and social progress while promoting regional peace and stability among its ten members: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

According to official ASEAN statistics, the ASEAN region had a combined nominal GDP of $3.6 trillion in 2022, making it the fifth-largest economy globally. In the same year, the population of the ASEAN region reached 671.7 million, making it the third most populous in the world.

South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul (left) celebrates the birthday of ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn on May 28 during a welcoming luncheon hosted by Minister Cho in Seoul. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

'Real partnership'

In essence, Kao assessed that the "partnership between ASEAN and Korea is a real partnership," where both sides view each other as trusted partners, considering each other's interests and working together effectively toward mutual interests.

Kao highlighted that "In the past 35 years, looking back in retrospect, ASEAN-Korea relations have evolved significantly."

ASEAN and South Korea established sectoral dialogue relations in 1989 and Korea became a full dialogue partner in 1991. Then in 2010, leaders elevated the dialogue relations to a strategic partnership at the ASEAN-Korea summit in Hanoi. In 2012, South Korea established its mission to ASEAN in Jakarta and appointed its first resident ambassador.

In 2022, President Yoon Suk Yeol notably announced the Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative at the Korea-ASEAN summit. The KASI aims to broaden the existing partnership focused on trade, economy and socio-cultural areas to a more comprehensive partnership that encompasses cooperation in both traditional and non-traditional security, as well as future and emerging areas.

"We're looking at the ASEAN-Korea partnership ranking third in terms of the number of mechanisms of cooperation. The number of mechanisms means the different structures that we have between ASEAN and Korea, cutting across many different sectors of cooperation," Kao said, referring to Seoul's rank followed by Beijing and Tokyo.

President Yoon Suk Yeol (sixth from left) on Sept. 6 poses for a commemorative photo with Southeast Asian heads of state as well as the leaders of China and Japan at the 26th ASEAN Plus Three Summit held at Jakarta Convention Center in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Kang Min Seok from the Office of the President)

ASEAN and Korea engage in various bilateral and multilateral dialogue mechanisms led by ASEAN at multiple levels. Bilateral-level platforms include foreign ministers’ meetings, economic ministers' meetings, health ministers' meetings, ministerial meetings on transnational crime, and the ASEAN-Korea Joint Cooperation Committee.

Platforms for broader dialogue and cooperation include the ASEAN+3, ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus, East Asia Summit, and ASEAN Regional Forum. Subregional cooperation initiatives encompass the Mekong-Korea Cooperation Fund.

"So the structure is very much quite comprehensive in that manner. We involve a lot of layers of cooperation to build up a strong foundation over the years," Kao said.

"One thing I must say is that over the years, one thing is very clear: We have been able to build trust between ASEAN and Korea. Trust is the key; it is the foundation of any cooperation."

South Korea was ASEAN’s fifth-largest trading partner and sixth-largest source of FDI in 2022, according to ASEAN statistical yearbook 2023.

"That's what we have between ASEAN and Korea over the years. We are able to work together quite solidly. So I think in terms of the overall evolution, in 35 years, it has been an amazing development and transformation of our relationship," he said.

The graph provided by the Korea-ASEAN Center shows South Korea's annual imports and exports to ASEAN countries.

Upgrading FTA

ASEAN and South Korea are currently working toward upgrading their existing free trade agreement.

However, Kao pointed out that upgrading the FTA could require some time, although both sides aim to complete the upgrade "as early as possible."

"We should take time to negotiate, looking at all the areas of cooperation because by reviewing what we have done together, we can identify the areas where we can build on the successes, but also look at what more can be done together," Kao said. "So it may take a little time, but I think the process is equally important to the outcome."

In 2005, ASEAN and South Korea signed the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation. This was followed by four additional agreements, collectively forming the legal foundation for the ASEAN-Korea Free Trade Area.

Kao also underscored, "It's critical, but certainly, of course, Korea is an advanced economy. So we hope Korea will be a little more flexible in that context."

"In addition, of course, we would like to see Korea and ASEAN continue to work together within the framework of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as well," Kao said.

RCEP is the world's largest free trade area by GDP, encompassing 15 members, including the 10 ASEAN countries, along with South Korea, Australia, China, Japan and New Zealand.

"So, that is a very important dimension in terms of promoting a free trade area within this region and, of course, the wider region."

A container ship is unloaded at the Tanjung Priok port which is operated by the Indonesian state-owned PT Pelindo, in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 19. (EPA)

Kao underscored that his top priority for the next five to ten years is to boost economic cooperation with Korea. He called for enhanced collaboration in emerging economic sectors, including the blue economy, circular economy, digital economy and green economy.

“At the end of the day, of course, I think first on the economy. Let's do more together," Kao said. “This is what we call the prosperity agenda for the people of ASEAN and the people of Korea. We cannot continue to take prosperity for granted. So we have to work to do everything possible in terms of how much more trade we can do together.”

Kao's other priorities include enhancing cooperation to promote peace and stability, increasing connectivity and people-to-people exchanges, and improving collaboration in disaster management and public health, including pandemic response.

Kao also emphasized that ASEAN and Korea should look beyond this year's commemoration and consider the future of their long-term relationship. He suggested pondering the next 35 years of their partnership in light of the ASEAN Community Vision 2045.

"We have to be visionary, and we have to look at the long-term future of our partnership."

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un walks to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport outside Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 19. (Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Nuclear-free peninsula

On North Korea's nuclear buildup, Kao said, “ASEAN is a strong proponent of peace.”

“So for us, we are working toward building a nuclear-free region. That's why we have the treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone -- SEANWFZ. So the idea is that we want our region to be free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.”

Kao underscored that what has been happening in the Korean Peninsula is "very worrying," referring to North Korea's continuing nuclear build-up and weapons tests.

Kao emphasized that any developments on the Korean Peninsula will "have serious security implications," not just for the Korean Peninsula, but for the broader region and the international community.

"This is not the way to go. It's a threat to regional peace and global security. Something that we'd like to see is North Korea should listen, of course, to the concerns of the people in the region, and also to the international community," Kao said.

Kao underscored that ASEAN is in favor of supporting "efforts to negotiate toward a completely nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."

"For ASEAN, we want to play a constructive role in that regard. While we have to support, particularly in terms of dialogue and diplomacy, we want to support this," Kao said. "We want to see a completely denuclearized Korean Peninsula, which of course will be important to us."