“New Horizons” for South Korean Diplomacy in South-East Asia

15 November 2017 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


South Korean president Moon Jae-in unveiled his “New Southern Policy” on 9 November in Jakarta during an eight-day tour to three countries in South-East Asia. At the Indonesia-Korea Business Forum, Moon told attendees that ‘Korean diplomacy in Asia has been more towards Japan, China and Russia. But I see that it should expand to new horizons’. This policy will compliment Moon’s “New Northern Policy” which seeks to reinforce economic co-operation with Russia and other Eurasian countries. Moon began his South-East Asian tour in Indonesia where he signed a series of business agreements worth $2.5 billion and elevated the status of the relationship to that of a special strategic partnership. During his journey, Moon also visited Vietnam and took part in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum in the Philippine capital, Manila.


In announcing the New Southern Policy, Moon noted that he would like to bring his country’s ties with the ASEAN states to the same standing as South Korea’s ties with other major world powers. The primary motivation is economic, particularly, to boost trade with the region. Currently, South Korean trade is dominated by three major powers: China, the US and Japan. Those three powers collectively account for 47 per cent of Seoul’s total trade, with half of all South Korean exports going to those countries. Collectively, ASEAN is also a major market for South Korea, making up 13 per cent of Seoul’s total trade and receiving 15 per cent of South Korean exports (eight per cent in both cases when excluding Vietnam). With talk of ASEAN becoming the fourth-largest market by 2050 (and, potentially, by 2030), it is no surprise that Moon is looking to engage further with the region. Combining South Korean capital and technology with the resources and labour of ASEAN can significantly boost production in the region and further benefit South Korea’s trade with the region in the long run.

Through engaging ASEAN, Moon is also looking to bolster defence co-operation in the region. While no specific defence agreement was reached, Moon will likely focus on Indonesia when considering defence relations with ASEAN. South Korea is currently developing its own fighter jet, the KF-X, with input from Indonesia in return for fifty jets that will be built for the Indonesian National Armed Forces. The KF-X programme has not been without problems, however; Seoul threatened to postpone the project after Jakarta failed to pay its share of development costs earlier this year. Despite that, Indonesia still holds great potential as a market for South Korean defence materiel. In December 2011, South Korea concluded a $1.5 billion contract with Indonesia, selling it three Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines. It was the largest single overseas contract for South Korea at the time. More defence contracts can be expected to become available as Indonesia continues to modernise its military forces under the “Minimum Essential Force” (MEF) framework.

In addition to trade and defence, Moon used his trip to garner support to tackle the North Korean problem. Speaking at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in the Philippines on 14 November, Moon called for a unified approach to addressing North Korea’s missile provocations and cyber threats. Speaking to Arirang News, Lee Jae-hyon from the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies noted that, from North Korea’s perspective, it is much easier to hold dialogue with ASEAN countries rather than South Korea, China and the US, which have traditionally led discussions on North Korea. From the South Korean perspective, therefore, stronger ties with ASEAN could be an essential precursor to opening up dialogue with North Korea.

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