South Korea’s New Southern Policy Aimed at Inclusive Indo-Pacific

The importance of Indian Ocean Conference has only been growing. Asia-Pacific region is now being combined with the Indian Ocean region for free trading nation like Korea in the Indo-Pacific as it is emblematic of economic prosperity. Our vital interests lie in the in the Indo-Pacific because it is an indispensable conduit for Korea’s exports and energy imports: 85 percent of its energy supply comes from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is Korea’s key trade route and therefore safeguarding the peace and the stability of the region, especially the freedom of navigation and flight is critically important for Korea.

Recently the international policy community has been paying greater attention to how to build the regional architectures that ensure people to people exchange, mutual prosperity and peace in the Pacific region. A number of new ideas and creative initiatives have been proposed and some of them have already been put into practices. There have been Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategies, India’s act east policy and Indonesia’s fusion of the Indo Pacific.

The term Indo Pacific has become the universal currency when U.S. president Donald Trump unveiled his vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific in November 2017 in Vietnam. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added the details to this strategy by announcing America’s Indo-Pacific economic vision in July 2018. China has also put forward its belt and the road initiative as a means to enhance the regional connectivity. An essential tenet to these common initiatives was based on how to bolster regional connectivity. Korea welcomes and is open to these various initiatives and ready to join forces to enhance the digital and physical connectivity in the region. In the process of building regional architectures, we need to consider a list of the following three principles.

1) Any kind of initiative for building regional architectures in the Indo-Pacific should be based on open regionalism. Korea supports an open, transparent and inclusive regional architecture. We are all players, living in harmony for peace and prosperity while respecting each other and abiding by international laws.

2) Any emerging regional architecture should promote multilateral norms and institutions. It is imperative that trade be open, disputes be resolved peacefully and the potential of a mutually beneficial cooperation be fully realized under the auspices of multilateral norms and institutions.

3) Future regional architecture should be built upon the existing institutional resources. The multilateral mix in the institutions such as ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) and the East Asia Summit should be fully utilized. In particular East Asia Summit whose membership includes 18 nations in the Indo-Pacific can be a solid platform on which we can further build upon.

Korea fully supports the critical role that ASEAN has been playing in promoting regional cooperation. ASEAN centrality is an important institutional asset in the future regional architecture building process.

The Korean government’s ‘New Southern Policy’ also aims to create an open, transparent and inclusive Indo-Pacific by strengthening its partnership with the countries in the region. As a matter of fact, Korea’s diplomatic vision so far has been mostly confined to Northeast Asia due to geopolitical, economic as well as historical reasons. The new southern policy will provide Korea a new framework through which it can reach out to its partners and the friends in ASEAN and the Indian Ocean region.

During his visit to India and the ASEAN countries, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced the vision to significantly bolster partnerships on three Ps, namely – People, Peace and Prosperity, and to work towards fostering a future oriented relationship. In particular, Korea aspires to be a reliable partner in working together to bring about the practical and mutually beneficial cooperation. For instance, President Moon during his visit to India in July 2018, with Prime Minister Modi announced to establish the India-Korea Center for Research and Innovation cooperation and the India Korea future strategic group to jointly develop the information and communication technology and advanced manufacturing technology.

Singapore-Korea launched a new cooperative partnership in the area of a digital technology that would contribute to advancing the ASEAN smarter citizen network. Korea also pledged to triple its cooperation fund by 2020 and expand on technology transfer and the job training programs for small and medium enterprises in ASEAN countries. In Northeast Asia, the task of building a lasting and a stable regional security architecture still remains an unaccomplished task. In September 2005, in the context of the six party talks we once spelled out a shared vision for establishing a multilateral security arrangement in Northeast Asia. However, with the nuclear talks impacts afterwards, the idea has never come to fruition. Only recently, we found a silver lining on the horizon as the prospects for the completed denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula looks brighter than ever before. What makes it unique this time is the fact that the top leaders are prompting the denuclearization process. Decisions are made at the top and then delegated to the working level for implementation. This is an unprecedented procedure and I believe it makes it success more probable than ever.

In its party central committee meeting in April 2018, North Korea officially terminated its policy of  parallel development of a nuclear buildup and economic growth and announced a new strategic line that focuses on economic development. In order for North Korea to develop its economy, international sanctions must be lifted, which in turn can only be achieved when it takes  substantial denuclearization measures. At issue now is a declaration to end the Korean War that settled into an uneasy truce in 1953. End of a war declaration can simply be a political and symbolic measure pending the ultimate establishment of a permanent peace regime on the peninsula. Nevertheless, it can have its own merits. It would help ease the tensions on the peninsula and provide North Korea with a room to envision a new political imagination that would charter a totally different future path for North Korea.

It is entirely possible that this new political imagination would lead  North Korea to the imperatives of economic development, the mitigation of sanctions and the denuclearization, thereby creating a positive cycle that interlocks path towards economic prosperity and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. It is absolutely necessary that the end of a war declaration should be adopted in tandem with Pyongyang to take concrete measures to halt its nuclear weapons program.

A Korean peninsula without a nuclear threat is a sure way to normalise North Korea’s relations with South Korea, the United States and Japan. In this respect, denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula is the key to building a lasting regional security architecture in Northeast Asia. The Indian Ocean Conference is providing a valuable opportunity for all of us to share insights into creating open, transparent and inclusive regional architectures in the Indo-Pacific.

(This article is a summary of the speech delivered by Mr. Cho Byung Jae, Chancellor,
Korea National Diplomatic Academy, South Korea on 28
th August, 2018 at the
3rd Indian Ocean Conference, at Hanoi, Vietnam organised by India Foundation.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of January-February 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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