The New York Times

October 24, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

South Korea Rising


HO CHI MINH CITY — Squeezing news from summit meetings of the Association of South East Asian Nations is always difficult, and the meeting that began Oct. 23 in Thailand is unlikely to be an exception.

As of now it is noteworthy only for being the successor to one in April that had to be abandoned in the face of protests by supporters of Thailand’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

Perhaps more significant for the region, at least symbolically, could prove the visits of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to three of the Asean members — Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Lee has been taking advantage of the regional meeting that follows the Asean summit to raise awareness of Korea’s ambitions on the international stage, not least in Southeast Asia.

Seoul’s profile is being raised in many directions: A Korean is U.N. secretary general; Korea is the host of next year’s Group of 20 summit; it has signed a free-trade deal with the European Union; it is seeking a big increase in its voting power at the International Monetary Fund to reflect its role in global trade.

All this has helped shift the global focus on Korea away from the problems of the peninsula and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions toward South Korea’s role as a normal middle-ranking power.

Southeast Asia is a particularly fertile ground for enhancing Seoul’s influence. So it is not surprising that in Hanoi, Lee and his Vietnamese counterpart, President Nguyen Minh Triet, agreed to a “strategic cooperative partnership” between their countries.

The nature of this partnership may be fuzzy, but it speaks to Korea’s determination to keep a balance in its regional relations. This is a complex equation given Seoul’s security dependence on the United States, the importance of China — now its largest trade partner — and its crucial but troubled relationship with Japan. Adding friends in Southeast Asia expands its influence and fine tunes its balancing act.

As for the Asean states, they mostly welcome more outside players in the region, particularly at a time when some have been worrying that China is becoming too important for their long-term comfort.

Korea’s desire for influence in the region has also had a constructive impact on Asean itself by pushing trade and financial agreements between Asean and the three northeast Asian countries, which otherwise could well have foundered on Sino-Japanese rivalry.

Economically there is nothing new about the Korean presence in Asean. Its companies were among the first to set up export factories in Vietnam more than a decade ago. Korean manufacturing investment is found everywhere in Asean. Koreans have bought up golf courses and colonized the tourist districts of Manila and Cebu in the Philippines. Their appliance manufacturers outsell all others in much of the region and Korean TV dramas have a huge following elsewhere in Asia.

The South Koreans are democratic at home but have made no effort to concern themselves with democracy or human rights elsewhere in Asia, a stance that appeals to many Asean members.

Until recently, Korea’s official presence was quite muted. Now it has both the confidence and money to make its own mark. Aid has been stepped up, and Koreans have been prominent in disaster relief efforts in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Seoul also has arms sales ambitions that could discomfort arms manufacturers from the United States, Europe and Russia, and before long China. South Korea is to supply Indonesia with submarines and is looking for arms business in Thailand, Malaysia and possibly Vietnam.

Some in Southeast Asia are wary of the hard-driving nature of Korean business, and worry particularly about its hunger for resources. Perceived Korean ruthlessness can upset easier-going Southeast Asians. But by and large Korea is very welcome — not big enough to be a threat but important enough to offer options to countries that have sometimes felt bullied either by the U.S., Japan or China.

The push for links with Vietnam may be especially significant given Hanoi’s key role in resisting China’s claims over the South China Sea, as well as the trade-dependent area’s interest in open sea lanes. So while neither China nor Japan will want to see South Korean influence expand at their expense, China probably has more to lose.