Skip to main content



S Korea, Asean can forge an economic powerhouse

The new South Korean President, Mr Moon Jae-in, has promised to create more jobs and jump-start a sluggish economy.

The appointment of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon as a special envoy to Asean was a good first step towards stronger ties. Photo: Reuters

The appointment of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon as a special envoy to Asean was a good first step towards stronger ties. Photo: Reuters

Follow us on TikTok and Instagram, and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.

The new South Korean President, Mr Moon Jae-in, has promised to create more jobs and jump-start a sluggish economy.

He has also advocated a more independent approach to foreign policy as well as a reduction in South Korea’s over-reliance on traditional major powers such as the United States and China.

Therefore, there is a case to be made for Seoul to look more closely at the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and think about how to further buttress ties.

President Moon’s appointment of a special envoy to Asean, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, on May 19 was a good first step, but much more can be done in the months and years ahead.

In recent years, South Korea-Asean trade has been trending in the wrong direction, falling from US$135 billion (S$188 billion) in 2013 to US$122.5 billion in 2015.

This is a far cry from the two parties’ stated goal of US$200 billion by 2020. This economic relationship certainly holds far more promise than has been realised thus far.

While it is understandable that the more pressing concerns for South Korea are the bellicose North Korean government and pressures from the Sino-US rivalry, South Korea stands to make substantial gains from a stronger economic push into South-east Asia — one that can be led mainly by its private sector.

With a combined GDP of approximately US$2.51 trillion and a population of 628 million people, Asean is already an economic giant — the seventh-largest economy in the world. Moreover, 67 million households in Asean are already part of the “consuming class”, which has significant disposable income.

This figure could almost double to 125 million households by 2025. Therefore, the time is ripe for South Korean conglomerates to expand their presence and increase their exports to South-east Asia, and capture the growing spending power in this region.

South Korea is also no stranger to the construction industry in South-east Asia, with its major construction companies having had a solid track record in the region for several decades. For instance, Ssangyong in the 1980s built the Raffles City complex in Singapore. In Malaysia, one of two skyscrapers that make up the Petronas Twin Towers was built by Samsung in the 1990s.

South Korea can build on those experiences and move into infrastructure development projects such as railways, subway networks, ports and information technology (IT), either within individual South-east Asian states or across the region’s borders.

While South Korea stands to gain tremendously by engaging in more infrastructure development projects in South-east Asia, it needs first to learn quickly from the mistakes it has made in the recent past.

For instance, with regard to the first South-east Asian cross-border High Speed Rail (HSR) project, which will connect Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the front-runners in this project are arguably Chinese and Japanese companies.

If the South Koreans had signalled their interest to bid for this project and begun diplomatic lobbying at an earlier stage, they might have stood a better chance of being considered.

The long-term benefit of being the eventual winner in this HSR project is to gain the platform to showcase their country’s HSR technology and expertise, with an eye to winning future intra-Asean HSR projects.

Besides the role that conglomerates can play in South-east Asia, there is also great potential for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) from South Korea and Asean to work together.

For South Korean SMEs, this is the best time for them to capitalise on the positive image that the people in the region generally have of Korean brands, products and services.

The South Korean SMEs can work together with South-east Asian SMEs, tapping their contacts and knowledge of the region to penetrate these emerging markets more effectively.

President Moon should, in his future first visit to South-east Asia, also include the heads of promising SMEs that offer goods and services that are in demand in the region in his business delegation.

These could include SMEs that specialise in e-commerce, cyber security, smart technologies and healthcare products.

Business-matching sessions can be organised in the South-east Asian countries by their respective associations of SMEs, in order to pair up potential partners from both sides.

In the field of tourism, the number of South Korean tourist arrivals in Asean in 2015 was 5.83 million — a relatively small figure considering its population of about 51 million — whereas the number of Asean tourist arrivals in South Korea was a mere 1.6 million.

There remains tremendous growth potential for more tourists to visit one another’s countries, especially since the longest flight time between any part of South-east Asia and South Korea is no more than seven hours.

More efforts can be made by organisations such as the Asean-Korea Centre — an intergovernmental organisation that promotes exchanges among Korea and Asean — to connect the Korea Tourism Organisation with South-east Asian tourism boards.

These tourism organisations can cooperate to further promote the attractiveness of their respective cultures, heritage and cuisines in order to increase intra-regional tourism.

In this highly significant 50th year of Asean’s founding, it may therefore be timely for South Korea and Asean to reassess how this relationship can be taken to the next level in practical terms.

More can be done by South Korea to reap the economic benefits from the myriad opportunities present in the South-east Asian region.

Asean itself would also stand to benefit from a greater South Korean presence in the region as it could serve as a viable third Asian option, besides China and Japan.

If the new Moon administration is able to formulate a coherent Asean strategy and implement it, this could prove to be the missing piece in South Korea’s foreign economic policy puzzle.


Shawn Ho is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). Harry Sa is a Research Analyst with the US Programme at RSIS.

Read more of the latest in



Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.