FEATURE: South Korea's Moon Jae In to visit South-east Asia

Chang May Choon
South Korean President Moon Jae In (centre) and his wife, Kim Jung Sook, outside the presidential Blue House in Seoul on May 15. Mr Moon will visit South-east Asia next month - his first to the region since he took office in May.PHOTO: REUTERS


SEOUL (The Straits Times/ANN) - The South Korean President's trip will raise ties with the region to the country's level of relations with US, Japan, China and Russia.

South Korean President Moon Jae In is scheduled to visit Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines next month as he sets about expanding his country's diplomatic ties beyond the major powers.

The presidential Blue House's announcement yesterday (Oct 12) came amid a festering row with China and an escalating stand-off between the United States and North Korea.

South Korea started looking towards South-east Asia after it was hit by China's economic boycott over the deployment of a US missile defence system, and as Asean countries friendly with North Korea cut back on ties with the increasingly volatile nuclear-armed state.

Mr Moon is to travel first to Jakarta on Nov 8, to meet President Joko Widodo, and then to Danang in Vietnam on Nov 10, for the Apec summit. His final stop is Manila, on Nov 12, to attend the Asean Plus Three summit.

Mr Moon's trip will be his first to South-east Asia since he took office in May. It reaffirms his commitment to raise diplomatic ties with Asean nations "to the level of relations with the four world powers", his press secretary, Mr Yoon Young Chan, had said earlier, referring to the US, Japan, China and Russia.

Asean is South Korea's largest trade partner after China, with bilateral trade reaching US$118.8 billion (S$161 billion) last year.

The 10-nation grouping is also South Korea's second-largest foreign investment destination, after the US. South Korean firms invested US$5.1 billion in several Asean nations last year, up from US$3.8 billion in 2013.

Tourism figures have also spiked, partly due to the Korean Wave. Asean visitors to the land of K-pop and K-dramas rose from 1.55 million in 2013 to 2.2 million last year, while more than six million South Koreans visited Asean countries, up from 4.93 million in 2013.

South Korea's efforts to deepen engagement with Asean have increased since Beijing started its economic retaliation in March over Seoul's deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system.

Bilateral trade hit a record high of US$71.8 billion in the first half of this year, according to trade ministry figures, and is expected to grow beyond last year's figure. Indonesia and in particular Vietnam have reaped economic benefits.

The Lotte Group, forced to shutter most of its stores in China after incurring Beijing's wrath for giving up a golf course to house Thaad, on Monday (Oct 9) said it has formed a joint venture with Indonesia's Salim Group to launch a mega online shopping platform called iLotte.

Vietnam now counts as its largest foreign investor South Korea, which beat Singapore and Japan with investments of over US$6.02 billion as of August.

Besides reaffirming bilateral ties and increasing economic partnerships, analysts expect Mr Moon to rally support among Asean nations against North Korea.

Dr Lee Jae Hyon from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies think-tank said Mr Moon will probably outline his Asean-Korea vision during the visits and seek Asean support to change Pyongyang's behaviour.

"He would want South-east Asia to play a bridging role or be a mediator between the two Koreas," he told The Straits Times. "North Korea doesn't listen to the US, Russia or China, but as it views South-east Asia as a more neutral party, South-east Asia may have a chance to give some friendly advice to change North Korea's mind."