Issue Briefs


1. Introduction

Despite the ongoing efforts to build a permanent peace through the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula continuing to dominate domestic and international headlines, the Moon Jae-in government is moving forward with its other key foreign policies that he promised during his election campaign. Other than the building of ‘Permanent Peace in the Korean Peninsula’ and the ‘New Economic Map of Korean Peninsula,’ an economic vision for a peaceful Korean Peninsula, the Moon government is also pursuing a more consolidated partnership with neighboring countries through its New Northern Policy (NNP) and New Southern Policy (NSP). The NNP intends to build stronger economic linkages with countries to Korea’s north, including Russia, Mongolia and Central Asian countries. The NSP, meanwhile, focuses on countries to Korea’s south in Southeast Asia and India. The two regional initiatives, as pillars of economic prosperity, are linked to the ‘Peaceful Korean Peninsula’ and to the ‘New Economic Map’ of Korean Peninsula. This new policy orientation is being pursued under the government’s broader strategy of promoting a ‘Northeast Asia Plus Community for Responsibility-sharing’ (NEAPC).

More specifically, the NSP aims to elevate Korea’s strategic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including its member countries, and with India par on with Korea’s four major diplomatic partners: the United States, China, Japan and Russia. It is a novel attempt to put ASEAN countries and India at the center of Korea’s foreign policy agenda, which so far has been almost exclusively dominated by the Korean Peninsula and the role of these four major powers. President Moon Jae-in announced the NSP during his visit to Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines for the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit and 2017 ASEAN+3 and East Asia Summit (EAS) meetings.1 He noted that the initiative was guided by the “three Ps” of People, Prosperity and Peace, and announced a number of economic and socio-cultural initiatives that would lead the initiative. The government, in addition, set up a special presidential committee to implement the NSP and to coordinate various initiatives by ministries, agencies and local governments under the umbrella of the NSP.

This begs the question, why the sudden interest in ASEAN? Is ASEAN important enough to be one of the main foreign policy agendas of South Korea? The first purpose of this paper is to answer these questions. To do so, one has to start from a review of Korea’s previous policy toward ASEAN countries. After reviewing this, this article examines the importance of ASEAN to Korea across a few different areas such as the economic and socio-cultural nexus between ASEAN and Korea, and then looks at Korea’s broader foreign policy directions such as the pursuit of a ‘middle power’ status and the response to superpower rivalry in the region that potentially has some negative impacts for Korea’s interests.

The second goal of this article is to analyse a key pillar of the NSP: peace cooperation or building a peace community jointly with ASEAN. This element is a new addition to Korea’s initiative toward ASEAN which has been largely dominated by economic cooperation (Prosperity) and sociocultural exchange (People). Then, one may ask a question – what is novel with ‘Peace Cooperation’ under NSP? What kind of strategic calculation does Korea have in pursuing peace cooperation? Most importantly, does it have any implications for Korea’s most important security concern, the Korean peninsula issue? In the fourth section of this article, the author provides an answer to these questions. After this brief introduction, the paper first explains what the NSP is, including the overarching vision of the Northeast Asia Plus Community, of which NSP is a part. In the third section, the paper explores the motivations for introducing the NSP before turning to an analysis of peace cooperation. The paper concludes with some policy suggestions for more effective and efficient implementation of the NSP toward ASEAN countries.


2. New Southern Policy and Northeast Asia Plus Community

President Moon’s NEAPC first appeared in his election manifesto. Cooperative diplomacy with Korea’s four major partners – the US, China, Japan and Russia – and NEAPC was one of his promises made in the field of foreign policy. The manifesto outlined three main items under the NEAPC initiative: “strengthening Korea, China, Japan trilateral cooperation and resuming the Six Party Talks”, “building NEAPC by integrating multilateral security cooperation and economic community”, and finally, “elevating ASEAN and India as economic, political and strategic partners on par with the four major powers”.2 This was the first occasion that ASEAN was mentioned in any presidential election campaign.

It is also interesting to note that the ASEAN element was a new addition in the 2017 presidential election campaign. President Moon had lost at the 2012 presidential election. Moon’s presidential election manifesto in 2012 contained almost all elements of his promises in the 2017 campaign, except any mention of ASEAN and India or the so-called New Southern Policy (NSP).3 The election manifesto in 2012 mentioned balanced diplomacy for cooperation and integration of East Asia, but it only focused on Korea-US, Korea-China, Korea-Japan bilateral relations; a “Partnership for Regional Peace in Northeast Asia”; and laying the basis for an East Asia Community. While the East Asia Community was generally regarded as a vision encompassing ASEAN as well, the 2012 manifesto did not specifically mention ASEAN.

In July 2017, the Moon Jae-in government announced 100 national policy priorities. Notably, a new concept called the ‘Northeast Asia Plus Community for Responsibility Sharing’ was first unveiled to the public.4 The presidential transition committee on foreign policy and national security prepared a report on NEAPC. This plan had three components: a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Platform (NAPCP), a New Northern Policy (NNP) and a New Southern Policy (NSP). While Northeast Asia and a Northern policy have long been integral parts of Korean foreign policy, the NSP was a new addition. In many ways, NAPCP shared many aspects with the so-called Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative or NAPCI of the previous Park Geun-hye government. The core security questions revolving around the Korean Peninsula and North Korean nuclear threat are not significantly different from the previous government. An NNP with different names has been embedded in Korean foreign policy in almost every administration.5

President Moon Jae-in first revealed his New Southern Policy during his first trip to Southeast Asia –visiting Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines – in November 2017. The initial announcement of the NSP did not contain full details of the new government’s initiatives and ideas towards ASEAN. It only mentioned the guiding principles – People, Prosperity and Peace or the 3Ps – and some economic programs designed for the three countries, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, that he visited.6

“People” comes first among President Moon’s 3Ps towards ASEAN. President Moon has put people or ordinary citizens as one of the core features of his policies. Although the slogan was not frequently used in the 19th presidential election campaign, his main campaign slogan for his unsuccessful bid in 2012 was “People First, Korea”. This emphasis on people or ordinary people’s concerns, welfare, and prosperity strikes a chord with the ASEAN Community’s ‘People-centered Community’ principle or ‘Caring Society’ slogan of ASEAN.

Of the remaining two, “prosperity” and “peace” mirror rather traditional components of the past Korean approach to ASEAN. “Prosperity” now means “establish[ing] a foundation of economic cooperation to support a mutually beneficial and future-oriented community” rather than Korea’s economic gains.7 In addition, it also means not just sharing Korea’s development experience with ASEAN developing countries, but also laying the basis for the long-term growth of those countries through infrastructure development, capacity building and so on. The economic assistance that President Moon announced during his trip to ASEAN in November 2017 included Korea’s initiatives on infrastructure development. Finally, the “peace” pillar was not heavily mentioned by President Moon in his initial announcement of NSP. Nevertheless, it is notable that he mentioned ‘peace’, not ‘security’. It is thus likely that the strategic cooperation between ASEAN and Korea is more about building peace in the region rather than about security and military issues.

Last but not least, there is a major difference on the domestic front between the Moon administration’s approach to ASEAN and previous ones. In the early days of each administration, there had been some emphasis on ASEAN policy and initiative. It did not last long, however. Over time, Korean Peninsula issues and Korea’s relations with major powers pushed ASEAN policy aside and the initiative toward ASEAN increasingly became secondary. To avoid the same mistake, the Moon administration is attempting to institutionalize an inter-ministerial body that coordinates ASEAN policy. It is tasked with monitoring and coordinating ASEAN-related initiatives and policies. With this institutionalization, it is expected that Korea’s initiative towards ASEAN would not be sidelined by other diplomatic and foreign policy concerns. While there are other domestic issues such as changing the public’s perception toward ASEAN and an expanding knowledge base on ASEAN in Korea, the institutionalization of a government agency on ASEAN initiative is a meaningful breakthrough in Korea’s policy towards ASEAN.


3. Why ASEAN? Motivations of the Policy

3-1. Review of Korean Policy Towards ASEAN

If we review ASEAN-Korea relations over the past 28 years since Korea was accepted as a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1989, there have been fundamental changes in every aspect that defines the bilateral relationship. Bilateral trade has grown 12-fold and Korean investment in ASEAN economies likewise has expanded substantially. Socio-cultural exchanges such as mutual visits and student exchanges have exponentially grown as well. Due to expanding regional multilateral institutions, there are more opportunities for Korea and ASEAN countries to meet and discuss issues of mutual interest.

Unlike the impressive track-record of ASEAN-Korea relations, the Korean government’s policy initiatives towards ASEAN have experienced frequent ups and downs across different administrations. Despite the official ties made between ASEAN and Korea in 1989, the real beginning of cooperation was under President Kim Dae-jung in the late 1990s. Two factors brought about the development. First, President Kim personally had knowledge and interests in Southeast Asia, which was built in his personal interactions with Southeast Asian leaders of democratic movements such as Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Corazon Aquino of the Philippines. Second, he was elected as president in the middle of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, which set his policy priority. ASEAN+3, initiated by ASEAN, was regarded a good instrument to overcome the economic crisis through cooperation among regional countries. President Kim invested a lot of his political will to promote ASEAN+3 regional cooperation.8 This brought Korea closer to ASEAN and ASEAN countries. More importantly, the policy direction under President Kim laid the basis for exponential growth in cooperation between ASEAN and Korea thereafter.

Before discussing the policy initiatives of other administrations after President Kim, it should be noted clearly that the partnership and practical cooperation between ASEAN and Korea has grown continuously under the three presidents after Kim: Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. This was mainly due to three different but interlinked factors. Already, the basis of cooperation had been laid under Kim Dae-jung’s leadership on the Korean side. Due to regional cooperation such as ASEAN+3 and East Asia Summit (EAS), Korea had to participate in multilateral cooperation projects under these institutional frameworks. In addition, the regionalization momentum increased economic interactions. ASEAN countries and Korea were tightly interlinked to each other economically and private businesses investing in and trading with ASEAN countries were propelling inter-governmental cooperation with ASEAN.

Nevertheless, the three administrations after President Kim showed weaker commitment towards ASEAN. The Roh Moo-hyun administration shifted its regional policy priority back to Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula as summarized in his initiative for “Korea, Northeast Asia Hub Country.”9 With the détente between the two Koreas begun under Kim Dae-jung, President Roh tried to further push the momentum forward to craft a decisive turning point in the Korean Peninsula situation. The Lee Myung-bak administration announced an initiative called the “New Asia Initiative”, but the regional focus was not about Southeast Asia but rather the entire Asian region. What is more, the initiative was fundamentally a mercantilist one – maximizing economic gain of Korea from the Asian region. In this context, Southeast Asia was viewed simply as a market for Korea. The Park Geun-hye administration switched back to Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula as summarized by its “Korean Peninsula Trustpolitik” and “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative” (NAPCI). Although, later, ASEAN was invited to the NAPCI process, ASEAN’s participation in NAPCI was peripheral as an observer.10

As shown above, Korea’s policy toward ASEAN has been inconsistent. While Kim Dae-jung was very active in building a closer partnership with ASEAN countries in the context of regional multilateral cooperation, other governments have been less enthusiastic about ASEAN. The overall regional foreign policy concern of Korea since then quite often omitted ASEAN as one of the major focuses of Korean regional foreign policy. The net consequence of Korea’s policy toward ASEAN in the past 30 years before the Moon government was decreasing Korea’s presence in the region. Korea’s absence from the regional diplomatic scene went against the trend of Korea’s growing economic and soft power. This mismatch between Korea’s growing capacity and constantly shrinking and inconsistent foreign policy scope is one of the backdrops of the Moon Jae-in government’s New Southern Policy which puts ASEAN and India at the center of Korean foreign policy.

3-2 Mirroring the existing partnership between Korea and ASEAN

The second motive of the NSP is to give ASEAN due status in Korea’s foreign policy agenda. Despite the lack of political will and systematic policy implementation, bilateral relations between Korea and ASEAN have grown significant over the past three decades since 1989. In political cooperation, the institutions of regional multilateral cooperation expedited cooperation between Korea and ASEAN. Despite the government’s lack of a grand policy initiative, the private sector, largely private companies and social organizations, have fully utilized the small window open for interaction and exchange between Korea and ASEAN.

There are numerous dialogues and cooperation platforms in which ASEAN and Korea interact on top of regional multilateral platforms such as ASEAN+3, EAS, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+). Bilaterally, the highest dialogue channel between ASEAN and Korea is the summit. Since 1997 Korea and ASEAN leaders have held summit meetings at least once a year. So far, there have been more than 20 ASEAN-Korea summits, including two special summits. Below the summit, there have been Foreign Ministers’ meetings and Economic Ministers’ meetings since 2003. Other cooperation fields such as trade, information and communication technology (ICT), cross-border crime, and transportation have their own ministerial level meetings.

One of the main dialogue channels for cooperation is the ASEAN-Korea Dialogue, headed by the deputy foreign ministers. The ASEAN-Korea Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) is the main institution supervising the implementation of bilateral cooperation projects. The JCC is held at the ambassador level and has a JCC working group as a sub-unit.11 In 2013, the leaders of ASEAN and Korea made the decision to hold an ASEAN-Korea Security Dialogue. Since then, the security dialogue has been held on the occasion of the ASEAN-Korea Dialogue where various security issues, ranging from the situation in the Korean Peninsula to a variety of non-traditional security issues, including anti-terrorism measures, food security, energy security and disaster management, have been discussed.

Economic relations between ASEAN and Korea are substantial. ASEAN is the number two trading partner of Korea and Korea is ranked 6th for exports, 5th for imports and 5th for overall trade from the perspective of ASEAN countries. In 2017, Korea’s exports to ASEAN were USD 95.3 billion and Korea’s imports from ASEAN were USD 53.8 billion, which made the total trade volume between Korea and ASEAN almost USD 150 billion. Trade with ASEAN accounts for 14% of Korea’s total trade. Only trade with China, which was USD 240 billion in 2017, exceeds that with ASEAN in the same year.12 Southeast Asia is Korea’s second biggest investment destination. From ASEAN’s point of view, Korea is the 6th biggest investor in ASEAN countries. Korea invested USD 4 billion to 10 ASEAN countries in 2017 and total accumulated investment in ASEAN countries recorded USD 43.7 billion in the same year.13 ASEAN is the second biggest overseas construction market for Korean construction companies and the total amount of construction projects carried out by Korean companies in Southeast Asia was USD 6.3 billion in 2017.14

Socio-cultural and people-to-people exchanges are likewise impressive. More than 7.9 million Koreans visited Southeast Asia which constituted 29% of all Korean overseas tourists in 2018, making ASEAN countries the most popular Korean tourist destination. Meanwhile around 2.4 million Southeast Asian nationals visited Korea in 2018 and Southeast Asian visitors ranked third behind Chinese and Japanese tourists to Korea in the same year.15 In addition, Southeast Asian nationals are found in every corner of Korean society today. There are more than 300,000 Southeast Asian nationals in Korea in 2017 as students, marriage migrants and migrant workers.16 In return, a similar number of Koreans reside in 10 Southeast Asian countries.17

Given these deep economic and socio-cultural ties with ASEAN countries, one could easily appreciate the importance of ASEAN for Korea’s national interests. What is more, given the depth and width of interactions compared with the US, China, Japan and Russia, the so-called four major powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula, ASEAN is more important than those countries in many areas. As the table below shows, ASEAN is Korea’s second biggest partner in trade and investment, easily beating US and Japan. When it comes to people-to-people exchanges, ASEAN is ranked fairly high compared to the four major powers. There are more than enough reasons for the Moon administration to elevate its diplomacy with ASEAN on par with those of the four major powers.


Table 1. Selected Economic and People-to-People Exchange Indicators between Korea and ASEAN and Four Major Partners of Korea

Trade (2018)18 Investment (2018)19 Foreign Visitors to Korea (2018)20 Outbound Korean Travelers (2018)21 Koreans Overseas (2018)22
Country Volume (USD Mil.) Country Volume (USD Mil.) Country 1,000 people Country 1,000 people Country 1,000 people
China 268,614 US 10,808 China 4,789 ASEAN** 7,991 China 2,548
ASEAN 159,739 ASEAN 6,135 Japan 2,948 Japan 7,538 US 818
US 131,588 China 4,766 ASEAN* 2,445 China(2017) 3,854 Japan 818
Japan 85,133 Japan 1,312 US 967 US 911 ASEAN 319
Russia 24,825 Russia 94 Russia 302 Russia 254 Russia 169


3-3. Shaping the future: Strategic considerations

The NSP indicates the Moon administration’s focus is on the potential of the future partnership between ASEAN and Korea. In other words, based on existing relations and partnership, the initiative intends to deepen the ties for the shared interests of ASEAN and Korea in the future. President Moon’s intention of diplomatic diversification is a backdrop for his ASEAN initiative. Korean diplomacy and foreign policy so far have been disproportionally focused on the Korean Peninsula and the so-called four major partners of Korea. The security and strategic environment surrounding South Korea forced Korean governments to put all their strategic eggs in a very limited number of baskets. Although the issue and the four partners are quite critical to Korea’s national security and interests, the narrow focus is unable to reflect the changing strategic environment.

Korea is increasingly facing contradicting pressures from superpowers around the Korean Peninsula as the strategic rivalry and competition between the US and China deepens. As China is becoming increasingly assertive strategically in the region, South Korea’s strategic dilemma is deepening. Korea is fundamentally dependent on the US for its security, especially protecting the country against potential North Korean provocations through the military alliance. Meanwhile, China is the biggest partner for Korea’s economy. In 2018, the bilateral trade volume was USD 268 billion, and Korea had a USD 69 billion trade surplus with China.23 Korea has been recording a trade surplus with China since 1993, a year after Korea and China normalized diplomatic relations.

One of the most alarming developments was Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and China’s subsequent economic retaliation in 2016-2017. Although Korea defended its decision to deploy THAAD as a measure against potential threats from North Korea, China regarded it as a security threat – China viewed it as in effect a US strategic move to check Chinese rising power in the region. What South Korea had to bear instead was Chinese economic retaliation, which is not completely over yet even in 2019.24

More recently, a trade war between the US and China is a concern of not just Korea, but of most regional countries. To varying degrees, regional countries are dependent economically on China, especially on the Chinese market for their exports. When the trade war makes Chinese exports to the US market harder, regional countries indirectly suffer since their exports of raw materials and intermediary goods to the Chinese market drops subsequently. Furthermore, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the US Indo-Pacific Initiative increasingly put pressure on regional countries including Korea to make a choice between the US and China. With this development, Korea’s room for manoeuvring or autonomous space is shrinking.

Korea nonetheless has to manage the contradicting pressures coming from superpowers, to decrease tension surrounding the Peninsula and to expand its strategic autonomy. Increasing Korea’s strategic leverage against superpowers by forming coalitions with countries of similar interests holds the key to solving the strategic puzzle facing Korea. In this regard, ASEAN is Korea’s number one partner for strategic cooperation. After Northeast Asia, ASEAN is geographically closest to Korea. The geographical proximity makes the two ideal strategic cooperation partners. What is more, there are already substantial grassroots cooperation and partnerships, on which the two parties can build further in-depth strategic cooperation. Geographical proximity and existing cooperation basis are only necessary conditions.

The sufficient condition for ASEAN-Korea deepening strategic cooperation is that the two parties share similar strategic interests. In a recent opinion survey conducted by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies based in Singapore shows that ASEAN countries are in a similar strategic dilemma.25 More than half of the respondents of this survey expressed their distrust towards superpowers, with 51.5% and 50.6% of respondents stating that they cannot trust China and the US, respectively. On various issues the Southeast Asian opinion leaders do not have strong confidence in the US, China and superpowers’ commitments in the region. They do not show strong confidence in Trump’s engagement with Southeast Asia and the US’ capacity as a regional stabilizer. Likewise, Southeast Asian opinion leaders are suspicious of China’s Belt and Road initiative and do not have confidence in China’s regional leadership.26 Furthermore, 68.4% of the respondents see the US and China as on a collision course.

ASEAN and Korea are to a certain degree squeezed between the contradicting pressures from the superpowers and are striving to expand their autonomous space in the region and to increase diplomatic leverage. A strategic dialogue and potential cooperation are likely to benefit both ASEAN and Korea. Individually, regional small and medium powers cannot exert a big impact on the superpower rivalry. Collectively though, they can wield strategic leverage over the two superpowers. Although their collective power is not enough to deter the superpowers, it is enough to safeguard the small and medium powers’ interests.

Another important aspect of future-oriented cooperation between ASEAN and Korea is that enhanced cooperation with ASEAN is fulfilling an expected – and to a certain degree self-claimed – role of Korea by the international community. Since the Lee Myung-bak administration, one of the buzzwords of Korean diplomacy and foreign policy was “middle power diplomacy”.27 This is based on Korean confidence in its economic and technological capability. Korea has been trying to be active in many international forums such as the G20 and Nuclear Security Summit. It also tried to make a meaningful contribution to global development cooperation.

One of the areas that the South Korean government has been focusing on as a field of Korea’s contribution to the international community is international development cooperation. Korean official development assistance (ODA) to developing countries has steadily increased, although it still falls short of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) recommendation.28 Korea’s ODA/gross national income (GNI) ratio is just 0.17 which is far below the OECD DAC recommendation and is lower than countries like Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Slovenia.29 On top of that there have been programmes to share the Korean experience of economic growth and democratisation with developing countries. The growing consciousness and efforts of Korea reflect the increasing pressure from the global community that Korea must do its share to provide common goods for the international community, given its economic strength and capacity.

If Korea wants to continue its commitment to developing countries and to conduct the roles expected by the international community, the first target for Korea is the developing countries in the ASEAN region. Already Korea is stepping up its effort to share its development experience and resources with ASEAN countries. A substantial portion of Korean ODA goes to ASEAN developing countries. As Table 2 illustrates, six ASEAN countries receiving Korean ODA – Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam – are all included in the top 10 countries of Korean ODA in terms of amount disbursed. There are many joint efforts to address regional non-traditional and human security issues. Still, however, there is a lot more to be done in this area. If Korea is genuinely interested in the peace and prosperity of the region, this is the future direction for ASEAN and Korea to cooperate. Without addressing comprehensive development issues – not just about economic development, but also human security and development as well – genuine peace and prosperity is not attainable.

Table 2. Major Recipients of Korean ODA (2019, USD Billion)30

Country Grant Loan Sum
Vietnam 38.6 132.1 170.7
Bangladeshi 12.8 99.5 112.3
Philippines 19.5 70.2 89.7
Laos 25.6 63.1 88.8
Myanmar 36.1 47.7 83.8
Cambodia 21.4 52.0 73.4
Indonesia 13.7 59.5 73.2
Tanzania 17.9 50.1 68.0
Senegal 14.2 43.4 57.6
Mongolia 13.6 42.2 55.9


4. The NSP’s Peace Cooperation and Korean Peninsula Issues

As far as the questions of differentiating the NSP from previous administrations’ approaches towards ASEAN, it is important to emphasize the role of ‘peace’ cooperation, representing political-security cooperation, among the so-called 3Ps (people, prosperity and peace) principles of the NSP. Political-security cooperation is lagging far behind economic and socio-cultural cooperation between ASEAN and Korea.31 Korea’s pre-occupation with the Korean Peninsula as much as ASEAN’s sensitivity in developing security cooperation with external powers has prevented effective security cooperation between the two sides. Both ASEAN and Korea, as regional small and medium powers, do not have strong incentives to develop security cooperation. This section analyses structural limits that have prevented more effective security cooperation between ASEAN and Korea despite substantial progress made in other fields. Based on this, rationale and ways to upgrade political-security cooperation between ASEAN and Korea will be suggested.

4-1. Peace cooperation and small and medium powers

It is first needed to identify the factors that have held back ASEAN-Korea political-security cooperation to find ways to advance cooperation in the field.32 Most importantly, the cooperation agendas on the table are different. Korea’s major security concern is the Korean Peninsula issue and North Korea’s nuclear threat whereas North Korea is not an immediate security concern for ASEAN.33 Whenever the Korean government approaches ASEAN regarding Korean Peninsula issues, the government did not seek a constructive and active contribution by ASEAN. Korean governments have been more interested in ASEAN’s unequivocal and unanimous support for South Korea’s position than ASEAN’s constructive and active role. When relations between North and South Korea were frozen and economic sections on North Korea were strengthened, the South Korean government wanted ASEAN countries to fully subscribe to the sanction measures, which could have been a burden for individual ASEAN countries who still maintained diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea.

Over the years, ASEAN countries have been very cautious to get themselves involved in Korean Peninsula issues.34 ASEAN countries have been maintaining their neutrality between North Korea and South Korea as some have diplomatic ties with both North and South. The fact that they have more extensive economic and socio-cultural relations with South Korea did not translate into their support for South Korea’s position. Most of the countries in Southeast Asia did not want to cause diplomatic troubles with North Korea by subscribing to the South Korean position. In addition, Korean Peninsula issues in general and the North Korean nuclear issue in particular is a matter that superpowers, especially the US and China, have different and often conflicting strategic interests.35 Given that, the ASEAN countries did not want to undermine their relationship with a superpower by choosing a side.

ASEAN countries have been cautious in developing security cooperation with each other as well as externally. It partly explains a slower development of security cooperation with Korea and also their reluctance in making their position clear on Korean Peninsula security issues. As a group of small and medium-sized countries in the region, ASEAN countries have been more interested in expanding their strategic room for manoeuvre and autonomy. This explains their disinclination for a deeper strategic, security and military cooperation let alone military alliance with external powers. Maintaining neutrality and being flexible in regional strategic and security matters serves their interests. The logic not just applies to its relations with external powers, but also rules the relations among ASEAN countries. ASEAN countries first convened a defense ministers’ meeting in the mid-2000s, almost 40 years since its establishment in 1967.

There is an assumption that ASEAN and Korea understand each other’s security concerns well given the existing cooperative relationship in other areas and the geographical proximity. The reality, however, is different. There are not many experts from ASEAN states on the Korean Peninsula issue and Korean experts are quite ignorant of ASEAN security concerns, including South China Sea dispute which is so vital for Korea’s economic and security interests. This reality has some implications for ASEAN-Korea security cooperation. First of all, since both ASEAN and Korea do not know much each partners’ major security concerns, they are not able to identify issues to cooperate on. In addition, ASEAN countries and South Korea have few common security threats, which means it is not compelling and urgent for the two parties to work together in the security field.

The power structure in the region also prevents effective security cooperation between Korea and ASEAN. As the strategic reality in the region shows, the two superpowers, China and the US, loom large in the regional strategic and security scene. From the ASEAN perspective, it is China and the US that are crucial for their strategic and security interests. Countries like Korea are a secondary consideration for security cooperation. There are no strong incentives for ASEAN countries to develop and deepen security cooperation with these second-tier countries, investing limited resources. From the Korean perspective, ASEAN countries are likewise second-tier countries for its security concern. Nevertheless, Korea is not inclined to invest much resource to develop security cooperation when the resources could be used in other fronts such as to the US or to China, which, in Korea’s strategic calculation, are more useful in managing the Peninsula situation. Structurally, strategic cooperation between and among small and medium powers has embedded limitations.

In this vein, the discourse of ‘peace cooperation’ adopted by the NSP, replacing more traditional ‘political-security cooperation’, has the potential to promote ASEAN-Korea cooperation further. Setting the Korean Peninsula issue aside, peace cooperation has the potential to reduce the sensitivity that ASEAN traditionally has had towards security cooperation with external powers.36 In general, peace cooperation does not necessarily assume common security threats.37 It does not target anyone or any specific country as an enemy or a security threat. It is cooperation to build a peaceful region rather than preventing a threat. Whereas ASEAN-Korea security cooperation has not made much progress because of a lack of common security threats, peace cooperation could be an alternative discourse to further strengthen cooperation.

Peace cooperation also has the potential to avoid the structural difficulties that ASEAN and Korea, as second-tier countries to each other and as small and medium-sized powers in the region, had before. To address specific security threats, regional small and medium-sized countries tend to resort to a bigger power as indicated above. The bigger powers or superpowers have a decisive say in security issues, having a command on overwhelming military and other powers. In peace cooperation, hard power’s importance decreases substantially. In a joint effort to build a peaceful region, the utility of hard power is rather limited. Instead, norms and rules of multilateralism are more important. Multilateralism is the preferred means of small and medium powers while superpowers prefer bilateralism. It is an ideal field of cooperation for small and medium-sized countries with limited hard power to advance meaningful cooperation.

Beyond facilitating cooperation among small and medium-sized powers or between second-tier countries, peace cooperation has another strength or utility: small and medium-sized powers’ ethical edge over superpowers. Building peace or a peaceful region is a very normative discourse that no one can reject.38 Superpowers are not able to reject or discredit cooperation to build peace among regional powers who can pursue peace cooperation, being less mindful of superpowers’ response. Given these conditions, for ASEAN and Korea, peace cooperation, preferably pursued through multilateral format, is a promising field of cooperation.

4-2. ASEAN and peace building on the Korean Peninsula

One of the most promising areas for peace cooperation and peace building in the region is on the Korean Peninsula. ASEAN has great potential to be an important contributor to the dynamics of peace building on the Peninsula. ASEAN and North Korea relations are long and deep, but this is not widely known in South Korea. Historically, North Korea had been more active with ASEAN than South Korea before the 1990s when South Korea was admitted as a dialogue partner of ASEAN. Kim Il Sung and former Indonesian President Sukarno enjoyed quite cordial relations as good partners in the Non-Aligned Movement.39 Former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, also had close personal relations with Kim Il Sung.40 Although North Korea has had two new leaders since 1994, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un both descend from Kim Il Sung and the memory of close partnership between Kim Il Sung and some Southeast Asian leaders makes North Korean leaders feel comfortable with ASEAN states.

Some Southeast Asian countries, politically, have dialogue channels with North Korea either through party-to-party relations or with mutual high-profile interactions.41 There are also economic relations. While more than 90% of North Korea’s trade is with China, some Southeast Asian countries have their own trade relationship with North Korea, notably Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Although the amount of bilateral trade is not substantial, these countries used to be or are still ranked within the top 10 trading partners of North Korea.42 Socio-culturally, some countries have accepted workers from North Korea.43 The Singaporean government used to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea and Choson Exchange, an NGO based in Singapore offering entrepreneurship training to North Koreans. Lots of government-affiliated North Korean individuals pursue economic activities in Southeast Asian countries, too.

Excluding China, ASEAN countries have the most intensive interactions with North Korea. South Korea, the US and Japan do not have such a channel. From North Korea’s perspective, Southeast Asian countries are quite comfortable cooperation and dialogue partners. When North Korea faces severe international criticism and sanctions, North Korea used to turn to Southeast Asian countries. In addition, ASEAN, as a group of small and medium-sized powers, is not a potential threat to the North Korean regime. ASEAN does not have a biased view of North Korea from the North Korean perspective. Unlike North Korea’s relations with South Korea, the US and Japan, there is at least a certain amount of trust between North Korea and Southeast Asian countries.

4-3. ASEAN’s role in making North Korea a normal state

If we divide a long-term process of building a peaceful Korean Peninsula into two parts – pre-denuclearization and post-denuclearization – ASEAN’s role in the former is rather limited.44 North Korea’s sincere commitment for denuclearization is a precondition for ASEAN’s active contribution. If North Korea starts the denuclearization process, it will be followed by a lifting of economic sanctions on North Korea. Then North Korea is likely to open its economy as the regime’s foremost priority is economic development along with regime survival. Then, step by step, North Korea is likely to engage with regional countries and then the international community. In this long-term process of North Korea’s transformation, there are specific areas that ASEAN can make a significant contribution economically, diplomatically and domestically inside North Korea.

Despite North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, economic development is one of the main goals of the North Korean regime as Byungjin, or the simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and economic development, indicates. In the ongoing process of deals between North and South, and North Korea and the US, the North Korean regime looks to the loosening of economic sanctions, economic survival and future economic growth. If and when international economic sanctions on North Korea are loosened or lifted, the past experiences of some ASEAN countries, notably Vietnam and more recently Myanmar, may offer some lessons for North Korea on how to open its economy and how to manage a new economic environment for the purpose of positive economic growth.45 ASEAN countries, utilizing low cost labour in North Korea, may invest in the low technology, labour intensive manufacturing sector, which will be an economic boost for ASEAN countries and will be a significant help for the North Korean economy. In addition, international investment including from ASEAN countries will make North Korea’s economic opening irreversible, which will speed up the transformation of North Korea.

When North Korea begins to change, there are a lot of reforms required domestically. For example, if North Korea wants to receive international investment, they will need new laws and international treaties that govern foreign direct investments. This is a new territory for North Korea that the regime has never explored. More economic opening and sociocultural opening towards the outside will require regulations, laws and institutions that they never have thought about before. In every aspect of these changes, North Korea needs advice and guidance from others. This is where ASEAN countries can become involved and make a substantial contribution to supporting North Korea’s transformation. Countries like Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam have experienced this stage of transformation and may have their own insights. More importantly, ASEAN countries are better positioned to give advice and guidance to North Korea given the past relations with North Korea and the trust existing between ASEAN and North Korea. ASEAN’s active advice and guidance will be better accepted by North Korea than that provided by the US, China, Japan or South Korea.

Last but not the least, ASEAN has great potential for making North Korea a normal state, meaning a state that has normal diplomatic relations with the international community and has cooperative, or at least interactive, relations with international and regional institutions. North Korea first has to engage with regional institutions such as ASEAN+3, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus and so on. This would be a step towards a wider engagement with the international community and multilateral institutions. As the concept of ASEAN Centrality indicates, it is ASEAN that holds the key to inviting regional counties to the institutions and of making decisions on a country’s membership in many regional institutions.46 This is shown clearly when the US and Russia were accepted as members of the EAS. As a kind of gate-keeper of ASEAN-centered regional institutions, ASEAN can invite North Korea into these institutions or block North Korea’s entry.



This study so far has argued that Moon Jae-In administration’s New Southern Policy is a novel and a fresh start to strengthen ASEAN-Korea relation. It duly reflects what have been missing in the previous Korean foreign policy and policy towards ASEAN. First, this article analysed the strategic motivation behind the announcement and implementation of New Southern Policy in general. They policy attempts to depart from previous governments’ inconsistency in their policies toward ASEAN and to find a due status of ASEAN in Korean foreign policy given its importance for Korean interests. Overall, it is a trial for diversifying Korean foreign policy to strengthen its strategic leverage against superpower in the context of growing strategic dilemma of Korea and for fulfilling Korea’s role as a middle power.

Another central feature of New Southern Policy is peace cooperation that replaces more traditional term of political-security cooperation. This study first discussed the factors behind less-than-satisfactory performance of security cooperation between ASEAN and Korea. They include both sides’ sensitivity towards security cooperation; lack of common security threats between ASEAN and Korea; and structural limits that both ASEAN countries and Korea are regional middle and small powers. The discourse of peace cooperation between ASEAN and Korea effectively avoids these issues. Peace cooperation which has normative edge for small and medium power to cry for and does not assume common enemies is an ideal discourse to adopt for regional small and medium powers like ASEAN and Korea to promote a mutually benefitting strategic cooperation.

Despite such a neck-breaking development in Korea Peninsula issue between North and South Koreas, and also between US and North Korea in the year 2017 and 2018, Moon Jae-In government has implemented the New Southern Policy in a steadfast manner. Other than else, the political will from the presidential office has been pushing the policy forwards so far. It is proven in a few presidential visits to ASEAN countries – so far to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, the Philippines and Brunei – and the set-up of a Presidential Committee for New Southern Policy in 2018. Now it is a time for the Korean government to put forward a concrete workplan of New Southern Policy before the end of 2019 when the 10 ASEAN leaders and Korean leader gather together in Korea for the 3rd Commemorative ASEAN-Korea Summit and the 1st Mekong-Korea Summit. On top of that, the government has to upgrade its efforts to introduce New Southern Policy to ASEAN countries since there are still complaint of lack of information on the New Southern Policy.


The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

  • 1. When President Moon Jae-in first announced the New Southern Policy, he specifically mentioned the ‘ASEAN-Korea Future-oriented Community Initiative’ as a sub-policy targeting ASEAN under the broader New Southern Policy. Since then, however, the term ASEAN-Korea Future-oriented Community Initiative has rarely been officially used. In this article, the New Southern Policy is used instead of the ASEAN-Korea Future-oriented Community Initiative as the term describing the Moon Jae-in government’s foreign policy toward ASEAN. Regarding the official announcement of the New Southern Policy on his trip to Indonesia, see Darren Whiteside, “South Korea’s Moon unveils new focus on Southeast Asia” Reuters, December 9, 2017. (
  • 2. The Minjoo Party, 19th Presidential Election Manifesto (2017, in Korean), p. 235. (, In Korean)
  • 3. Minjoo Party, People First, Korea – 18th Presidential Election Manifesto (2012, in Korean), p. 191.
  • 4. Cheong Wa Dae (Korean Presidential Office) Website, “National Policy Priorities,” (, in Korean).
  • 5. Refer to Presidential Committee on Northern Economic Cooperation, Vision and Direction of Northern Economic Cooperation (2017, in Korean), p. 8. It was the Roh Tae-woo government that first initiated a Northern Policy in 1990, known as Nordpolitick. Since then Kim Young-sam’s Segyehwa policy, Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, Roh Moo-hyun’s Northeast Asia Peace and Prosperity, Lee Myung-bak’s Energy Resource Diplomacy and Park Geun-hye’s Eurasia Initiative all had elements of a northern-oriented policy.
  • 6. Moon Jae-in, “Toward a People Centered ASEAN Community,” Project Syndicate, November 10, 2017. (
  • 7. Presidential Committee on New Southern Policy Website (
  • 8. Richard Stubbs, “ASEAN Plus Three: Emerging East Asian Regionalism?” Asian Survey, Vol. 42, No. 3 (2002).
  • 9. Kihl Young Whan, “The Past as Prologue: President Kim Dae Jung’s Legacy and President Roh Moo Hyun’s Policy Issues and Future Challenges,” in Alexandre Y. Mansourov ed., A Turning Point: Democratic Consolidation in the ROK and Strategic Readjustment in the US-ROK Alliance (Honolulu: Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2002).
  • 10. There was no ASEAN presence in NAPCI intergovernmental meetings and Track 1.5 meeting in 2014 and 2015. The only ASEAN presence was at international conferences and joint seminars. Refer to NAPCI website (
  • 11. For more on this institutional arrangement, refer to Lee Jaehyon, “25 Years of ASEAN-Korea Relations and Beyond: From a Slow Start to a Solid Partnership,” in Lee Choong Lyol, Hong Seok-Joon and Youn Dae-young (eds.), ASEAN Korea-Relations: Twenty-five Years of Partnership and Friendship (Seoul: Nulmin Publishing, 2015), pp. 193-196.
  • 12. Export-Import statistics of K-Stat (
  • 13. Overseas Investment statistics of Korea Exim Bank (
  • 14. ASEAN-Korea Centre, Key Indicators on ASEAN-Korea Relations (2018), (
  • 15. Korea Tourism Organization, Korean Overseas Tourism (January 2019, In Korean) (; Statistics for Korean Overseas Tourism (January 2019) of Korea Tourism Organization (
  • 16. ASEAN-Korea Centre, Key Indicators on ASEAN-Korea Relations (2018), (
  • 17. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Overseas Korean 2017(2017, in Korean), (
  • 18. K-Stat National Export and Import Statistics (
  • 19. Korea Exim Bank Statistics (
  • 20. This does not include Brunei. Korea Tourism Organization, Korean Overseas Tourism (January 2019, In Korean) (
  • 21.This does not include Brunei, Laos and Cambodia. Korea Tourism Organization, Korean Overseas Tourism (January 2019, In Korean) (;
  • 22. These statistics include those who acquired foreign nationality, permanent resident status, and citizenship, as well as students and other temporary residents overseas. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Overseas Korean 2017 (2017, in Korean), (
  • 23. K-Stat (
  • 24. Regarding some measures taken by China and its economic impact on Korea, see Ethan Meick and Nargiza Salidjanova, 2017. “China’s Response to US-South-Korean Missile Defense System Deployment and its Implications,” Staff Research Report by US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (July 26, 2017), pp. 7-9.
  • 25. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, The State of Southeast Asia: 2019 Survey Report (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2019).
  • 26. In the survey, there were a few relevant questions through which one can understand the undercurrent view of ASEAN countries on the US and China. For example, 59.1% of respondents answered that US global power and influence decreased compared to a year ago. 68% of respondents said that US engagement with Asia under President Trump has weakened. More people (34.6% vs. 31.9%) answered that they have no or little confidence in the US as a strategic partner that can provide regional security. Meanwhile 45.4% of people believed China would be a revisionist power in the region while 47% of respondents predicted that the BRI will drag Southeast Asia into a Chinese orbit (Both scored highest among choices provided). In addition, an absolute majority of people (68.4%) said that the US and China are on a collision path. Refer to Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, The State of Southeast Asia: 2019 Survey Report (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2019).
  • 27. Andrew Cooper, “G20 Middle Powers and Initiatives on Development,” in Jongryn M. eds., MIKTA, Middle Powers, and New Dynamics of Global Governance: The G20’s Evolving Agenda (New York: Palgrave, 2015).
  • 28. Lee Seungjoo, “Multilayered World Order and South Korea’s Middle Power Diplomacy: The Case of Development Cooperation Policy,” EAI Middle Power Diplomacy Initiative Working Paper No. 06, (2014).
  • 29. OECD, DAC statistics (
  • 30. ODA Korea, 2019 Plan for International Development Cooperation (2019, in Korean) p. 148.
  • 31. In fact, the role of government or track I in economic and sociocultural cooperation, which are respectively represented by the principles of prosperity and people, is rather limited. The government’s job in these two fields is to open a door, channel or paving a way for cooperation. Then, economic and sociocultural cooperation is followed up by private businesses and associations. It is private companies that trade and invest, and private associations that lead socio-cultural interactions and exchanges. Unlike these two fields, there is little room for private sector involvement in security and peace cooperation. Security, political and peace cooperation is largely a government domain, although there is a limited space for private associations or NGOs to participate in a rather limited way.
  • 32. David Koh, “South Korea and Southeast Asia: Ideas for deepening the partnership,” in David Steinberg, ed., Korea’s changing roles in Southeast Asia: expanding influence and relations (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), p. 33.
  • 33. Tang See Kit, “Facilitator or bystander: ASEAN’s role in North Korean crisis,” Channel NewsAsia (May 16, 2017).
  • 34. Jun Endo, “ASEAN countries at impasse on North Korea,” Asia Nikkei (April 27, 2017). (; Sahil Mathur, “ASEAN and North Korea: Strange Bedfellows?” The Diplomat (May 3, 2017).
  • 35. David Han, “How should ASEAN respond to the North Korea threat?” East Asia Forum (June 10, 2017).
  • 36. Alan Collins, Security and Southeast Asia: Domestic, Regional and Global Issues (London: Lynne Rienner Publisher, 2003), pp. 140-152.
  • 37. Elke Krahmann, “Conceptualizing Security Governance,” Cooperation and Conflict Vol. 38, No.1 (2003).
  • 38. Christine Ingebritsen, “Norm Entrepreneurs: Scandinavia’s Role in World Politics,” Cooperation and Conflict Vol. 37, No. 1, (2002).
  • 39. Jamil Maidan Flores, “The odd couple: North Korea and Indonesia,” Jakarta Globe (June 23, 2012).
  • 40. Michael C. Williams, “North Korea: Tilting Towards Moscow?” The World Today Vol. 40, No. 10, (1984).
  • 41. “Vietnam, North Korea Vow to Boost Party Relations,” Viet Nam News (November 10, 2010); “Vietnam, North Korea boost military ties,” Thai News Service (March 28, 2011); “Vietnam, North Korea to boost trade ties in trade, culture,” Thai News Service (May 13, 2008); “Vietnam, North Korea Beefing up Policy Exchange, Trade, Investment,” Viet Nam News (May 12, 2008).
  • 42. Refer to Kent Boydston, “North Korea and the Southeast Asia Connection,” a blog post at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (May 26, 2017).
  • 43. Wang Zhen, “Guest Workers: the North Korean expats forced to feed the regime,” The Guardian (July 05, 2017). (
  • 44. Even before a full denuclearization of North Korea, still ASEAN can 1) lead an international support for a peaceful dialogue among concerned parties or put pressure to continue the dialogue when it faces a deadlock, 2) give a friendly advise to North Korea on the potential benefit of giving up nuclear weapon and opening up, and 3) share their experience of ironing out differences when ASEAN countries negotiated and signed the treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.
  • 45. Le Hong Hiep, “The Vietnam Model for North Korea,” Project Syndicate (Feb. 26, 2019). (; Scott Snyder, “US Policy Toward North Korea,” SERI Quarterly Vol. 6, No. 1. (2013).
  • 46. For more on the concept of ASEAN Centrality, refer to Mely Caballero-Anthony, “Understanding ASEAN’s centrality: bases and prospects in an evolving regional architecture,” The Pacific Review Vol. 27, No. 4 (2014).

About Experts

Lee Jaehyon
Lee Jaehyon

Center for Regional Studies ; Publication and Communications Department

Dr. LEE Jaehyon is a Principal Fellow of the Center for ASEAN and Oceanian Studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Previously, Dr. Lee was a research fellow at the Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KISEAS) and a visiting professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS), Korean National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA). Dr. Lee’s research focuses on Southeast Asian politics and international relations, East Asian regional cooperation, and non-traditional and human security issues. His recent publications include “Transnational Natural Disasters and Environmental Issues in East Asia,” IFANS Review (2011), “Political Crises after Democratization in South Korea and Thailand: Comparative Perspectives of Democratic Consolidation,” Korea Observer (2008), “A 2+2 for the Future: The First Korea-Australia Foreign and Defence Ministers’ Meeting,” (2013), “Identifying South Korea’s Regional Partners: On the Environment, Family Values, Politics and Society,” (2015). Dr. Lee received a B.A. and M.A. from Yonsei University and his Ph.D. in politics from Murdoch University, Australia.