(Editor's Note: This is the ninth installment in a series of Yonhap interviews with key officials on South Korea's major policies)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, July 16 (Yonhap) -- Backed by a clear vision, resources and concrete action plans, not to mention political will, South Korea's pledge to cement ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) goes beyond just rhetoric, a senior diplomat said.
Central to that commitment is Seoul's New Southern Policy that it has forged ahead with the installation of a special presidential panel and a foreign ministry bureau solely for ASEAN affairs, and sharp increases in related projects, staff and funding.
The initiative is set to gain greater traction in November when South Korea hosts a commemorative summit with ASEAN in the southeastern port city of Busan to mark the 30th year since the two sides established bilateral sectoral dialogue relations.
"In the past, there was diplomatic rhetoric that underscored the importance of the bloc. But this government is different in that it has a clear vision, goals and means, and in terms of their actual implementation," Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Yoon Soon-gu told Yonhap News Agency in a recent interview.
Since taking office in May 2017, President Moon Jae-in has been pushing for his flagship foreign policy initiative under the slogan of "three Ps" -- people-oriented exchanges, peace and prosperity. It is in line with his vow to elevate ties with ASEAN to the same level as those with the four major countries: the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
The policy pivot to the region came amid efforts to diversify Seoul's diplomacy and its growing awareness of ASEAN's strategic importance related to its growth potential, rich resources and the prospects of its role in engaging with North Korea.
ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. As a whole, it has around 647 million people -- the world's third-largest population after China and India -- with its gross domestic product reaching US$2.7 trillion in 2017, the third largest in Asia.
"Partnering with ASEAN is not just a matter of choice but a path now clearly presented to us. Without heeding the dynamism of the region, countries like South Korea cannot maintain sustainable growth," Yoon said.
"We are pursuing a mutually beneficial partnership and co-prosperity, not a one-way street. We have a clear policy goal that seeks a kind of cooperation to contribute to the development of ASEAN," he added.
Over the past two years, the initiative has been making steady progress as evidenced by numerical data.
The number of visitors traveling between South Korean and the ASEAN region surpassed the 10 million mark last year. The number of ASEAN students studying in South Korea was tallied at 32,574 last year compared with 19,000 recorded in 2017.
Last year, South Korea's trade volume with ASEAN -- its second-largest trading partner and top infrastructure market -- reached a record high of US$160 billion. The two sides have set a goal of increasing the volume to $200 billion by next year.
South Korea has also doubled a government fund dedicated to bolstering cooperation with ASEAN to $14 million.
In line with the policy drive, Seoul's foreign ministry has established a bureau dedicated exclusively to ASEAN affairs and elevated the level of its Indonesia-based ASEAN ambassadorial post to vice minister from director general.
"South Korea has been striving to institutionalize cooperation with the ASEAN region, seeking to establish a fundamental foundation upon which future successive governments in Seoul can steadfastly manage bilateral ties," Yoon said.
Seoul is now pinning hopes on the special South Korea-ASEAN summit, slated to take place on Nov. 25-26 in Busan, to renew its commitment to broadening relations with the region and create greater traction for its New Southern Policy.
"The summit will serve as a venue to reflect on the 30 years of the South Korea-ASEAN relationship and draw a blueprint for how the two sides will chart the next three decades of their partnership," he said.
The summit preparations have drawn keen media attention since Indonesian President Joko Widodo floated the idea of inviting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the summit during an annual summit between South Korea and ASEAN in Singapore last November.
Yoon said there have been consultations on the issue with ASEAN, while noting that Kim's participation in the summit would underscore the bloc's role in promoting peace on the divided Korean Peninsula.
"Related to the idea (of inviting Kim), we believe that ASEAN is a crucial partner for cooperation in opening a new chapter of peace on the peninsula," Yoon said.
After the summit, South Korea plans to host another summit with five ASEAN member countries located along the Mekong River -- Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia -- that are among the fast growing economies in the region.
The inaugural summit with the five countries reflects Seoul's resolve to deepen engagement with the resource-abundant Mekong region that is full of economic potentials but in need of systematic development support.
"The Mekong region boasts an annual growth rate of at least 6 percent, a market with a population of some 250 million people, many of whom are young. To put it simply, the potential for this region is great," Yoon said.
"Through various co-prosperity projects, including educational programs, we are seeking greater cooperation with the region," he added.
South Korea is not the only country that has been seeking to court ASEAN. The U.S. has been reaching out to the region as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, while China has been deepening its strategic engagement with a massive infrastructure program, called the One Belt One Road initiative.
Yoon said that South Korea can explore ways to find common ground with the policy initiatives of the major powers as long as they are anchored in the "fundamental principles" of openness, inclusiveness and adherence to international norms.