South Korea’s Bid for Security and Pivotal Status in Southeast Asia

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and the former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia on Nov. 12 2023. Source: KHMER TIMES

In November 2022, President Yoon Suk-yeol introduced the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and the Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI) in Cambodia. This is the first time the Republic of Korea (ROK) pushed for the improvement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the ROK relations on a regional level since President Yoon took office in 2021.

Both the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the KASI possess many key elements and characteristics that could benefit South Korea. These strategies will also be a strong sign of unison and a testament to the ASEAN and ROK’s shared visions and mission such as peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.     

Both the IPS and KASI signaled that South Korea is ready to take on more cooperation. But why did South Korea choose to cooperate with the Indo-Pacific? And why is ASEAN included?

The Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS)

Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy—also known as the “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region”—is a plan outlining South Korea’s comprehensive engagement ambition with the Indo-Pacific region. The strategy encompasses vast realms of cooperation such as in economy, security, foreign policy, and strategic dialogue. 

Home to 60% of the world’s economy and 65% of the world’s population, the Indo-Pacific region is vital to South Korea’s development. With this importance in mind, President Yoon believed that “peace and stability in the region is directly connected to our survival and prosperity.”

Therefore, to better engage with the region, the IPS highlights nine main lines of effort. Among these are the pledge to build a regional order based on norms and rules, non-proliferation, counterterrorism, comprehensive security cooperation, and the promotion of mutual understanding.  

If implemented as planned, the IPS line of efforts will elevate South Korea’s image more intensively in the region. This will not only promote K-culture, but also a people-to-people exchange.

The Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI)

Southeast Asia is located in the Southern part of the Indo-Pacific region, which is also included in the ROK’s IPS. This part of the world has a regional grouping known as the ASEAN which is home to 600 million people, making it an economically advantageous region for the ROK to cooperate with. 

Therefore, to directly cooperate with the ASEAN, President Yoon launched the KASI. This initiative will be a component of the IPS and focus on three main visions such as freedom, peace, and prosperity. 

To effectively carry out these visions, the KASI consists of eight core lines of effort. The plan includes the expansion and promotion of ASEAN-ROK cooperation, partnership, and most importantly, security cooperation to peacefully resolve any conflict in the region.

The KASI implication for the Indo-Pacific region

Despite it being an area of vast economic benefit, the Indo-Pacific region also possesses many issues including the South China Sea conflict. The South China Sea is the  area stretching from South China roughly to Singapore and the Strait of Malacca possessing trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources. This area consists of many maritime territorial disputes between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia.

Hence, by cooperating with the Southeast Asian region to solve the conflict through the KASI, South Korea will be able to pin its security presence and political image in the region. Through that, Seoul will be joining Japan, the US, China, Australia, and many others as important actors in Southeast Asia.

Globally, the KASI will enable South Korea to become a global pivotal state as pledged by President Yoon during his first year in office. A pivotal state is a country that has worldwide significance and is influential on the global stage. By that, it seems like South Korea is proving that it’s trying to join the ranks of global powers with the announcement of the KASI.

The map of the Indo-Pacific. Source: GIGA | Wikimedia: Dmthoth

Too Good to be True?

Despite the KASI being good news for ASEAN-ROK relations, the initiative could be overshadowed by South Korea’s IPS. This is because ASEAN is not even the focal point of the IPS. The KASI is also more of a cooperative structure that exists within the ROK’s IPS framework.

With the ROK’s primary concern over North Korea, there is a high possibility that ASEAN issues will be overlooked by the ROK. Conflicts such as the Myanmar crisis, the South China Sea, and even the Taiwan Strait complication could receive less attention from the ROK compared to the North Korean matter.

Moreover, the ASEAN as a whole might not wholeheartedly share the same vision as the ROK government, especially in the security realm. This is because the ASEAN has a habit of not choosing a side between any major powers and the bloc will continue to adhere dedicatedly to its existing neutral stance.

The ASEAN’s neutral stance includes engagement with every actor, for the sake of its peaceful maneuverability in the current geopolitical competition of big powers. This is different from the ROK, which is seen as pivoting away from China and tilting towards the United States (US). 

Potential Challenges

The first challenge to the implementation of the KASI and IPS is the lack of mutual threat perception on both sides. While the ASEAN is dealing with issues such as the Myanmar crisis and the South China Sea disputes, South Korea’s main threat is North Korea. These differences could slow cooperation.

Second, the KASI entails a general plan to engage ASEAN but it does not describe how South Korea will operationalize this line of efforts into a reality. This is also considering that the ASEAN is a grouping in which members have different historical, security, cultural, economic, and diplomatic backgrounds.

A hopeful future

In the long run, mutual commitment and understanding between the ROK and ASEAN are needed. Both sides need to negotiate for a clear operational deadline of action and reports to ensure the KASI and IPS goals are realistic, not rhetoric.

The IPS and the KASI will bind the ASEAN and ROK more comprehensively. Just as President Yoon said “The Republic of Korea … has committed to coordinating our Indo-Pacific strategies, and exploring new areas of cooperation.” With more time and continuous communication between the two sides, the strategies will bring freedom, peace, and prosperity to the region.

About Bunly Ek 3 Articles
Bunly Ek is currently pursuing a Master in International Cooperation and East Asia at Yonsei University as a 2022 Global Korea Scholarship (GKS) recipient from Cambodia. Currently, he is a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) in Cambodia. Prior to arriving in Korea, he served as a personal assistant to the former Executive Director of CICP, who had previously been Cambodia’s Ambassador to Japan. His publication and research focus on East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US–China relations which can be found in the Korea Times, the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodianess, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Stratsea, and CICP.