By Zhiqun Zhu

While North Korea has grabbed the world's attention again in recent months, few people have noticed a new diplomatic initiative launched by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak earlier this year. If fully implemented as envisioned, the new policy, dubbed "New Asia Initiative", will not only enhance South Korea's international standing but promote peace and prosperity throughout Asia.

Announced during a conference of Korean diplomatic mission chiefs in Asia held in Jakarta, Indonesia on March 8, 2009 following Lee's successful visits to Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, the new initiative seeks to upgrade Korea's role as a power player in Asia by engaging the region and creating stronger ties.

The initiative represents a shift in South Korea's foreign policy focus from the big four -- the United States, China, Japan and Russia -- to smaller regional neighbors. It will broaden South Korea's diplomatic horizon in two new directions. First, it will expand South Korea's traditional foreign policy focus from Northeast Asia to the entire Asian region. Second, the scope of cooperation will be extended from economy to security, culture, energy and other sectors.

Ambitious initiative
Under the ambitious initiative, Seoul's goal is to speak for Asian nations in the international community. According to Cheong Wa-dae, the office of the president, South Korea seeks to cooperate with its Asia-Pacific neighbors while playing a leading role in resolving transnational problems such as the financial crisis and climate change. Lee has said South Korea can serve as a good example for less developed Asian nations in economic development and democratization.

It's only natural for South Korea to strengthen ties with Southeast and Central Asia. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is South Korea's third-largest trading partner after China and the European Union. It is also South Korea's second biggest area for investment, after the United States. The Lee administration hosted its first multilateral meeting, the South Korea-ASEAN summit, on June 1-2 on Jeju Island, with hopes of strengthening economic, security and cultural cooperation. South Korea established official ties with ASEAN in 1989, though it had already developed strong bilateral relations with several ASEAN members prior to that.

As the 13th-largest economy in the world and a country that lacks resources, South Korea is a main energy consumer and importer. It is vital to develop close relations with oil-rich regions including Central Asia. As part of the New Asia Initiative, Lee visited Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in May with a focus on energy cooperation.

Foreign policy ambitions
Lee is not the first Korean leader to have high foreign policy ambitions. The New Asia Initiative reminds one of the "balancing policy" proposed by Lee's predecessor, the late Roh Moo-hyun. In a series of speeches in early 2005, president Roh unveiled a new foreign-policy doctrine by declaring that South Korea should play the role of a balancer so that tensions do not revive and escalate in Northeast Asia.

Roh stated that South Korea could serve as an honest broker between China and Japan and between the United States and China. As visionary and courageous as he was, Roh was unable to further pursue this policy after he was strongly criticized by his domestic opponents and foreign observers for being idealistic and impractical.

Lee is likely to face similar challenges. Interestingly, just like what happened to Roh's policy initiative, neither the United States nor China - South Korea's two key external powers - has expressed any public comments on Lee's new diplomatic initiative. Without the support from these two powers, South Korea's diplomatic space will be limited. South Korea's rags-to-riches story has much to offer other developing nations. To enhance cooperation in economic development, South Korea plans to triple its official development assistance to ASEAN by the year 2015. Its Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF) has become more active in providing aid to developing countries. In October 2008, the South Korean government approved a US$100 million loan to Vietnam, the biggest single loan to any country in EDCF history.

'Low Carbon, Green Growth'
Under the slogan of  "Low Carbon, Green Growth", the South Korean government has also proposed the "East Asia Climate Partnership Fund" to assist developing countries. It will provide $100 million from 2009 to 2012 to assist ASEAN countries in their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

South Korea will continue to promote cultural and people-to-people exchanges. It will double the number of students from ASEAN countries studying in Korea on government scholarships by the year 2012 under the “Global Korea Scholarship” program, according to Yu Myung-hwan, Seoul's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The South Korean government will also support hard-working immigrant workers in Korean industries to obtain legal permanent residency. Many of these workers and their spouses are from Southeast Asia and live in so-called "bicultural families". This immigrant-friendly measure is in sharp contrast to Japan's harsher immigration policy. Many in Southeast Asia have fresh memory of how a Filipino couple, Arlan and Sarah Calderon, who entered Japan illegally in the early 1990s, had to leave their Japan-born daughter Noriko behind and return to the Philippines earlier this year.

North Korea
Most significantly, the New Asia Initiative will possibly have a positive impact on North Korea. The 10 ASEAN member nations have diplomatic ties with both South and North Korea. The ASEAN Regional Forum is the only regional consultative body for security dialogue in Asia that counts North Korea as a participant. Seoul hopes that ASEAN members can play an active role in achieving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula amid the stalemate in inter-Korean relations. The ASEAN Regional Forum could also become an additional channel for resolving North Korea's nuclear dilemma.

Lee is also reaching out to overseas Koreans to help break the North Korea impasse. In a welcoming speech given at the 10th World Korean Community Leaders Convention held in Seoul on June 23, Lee urged North Korea to halt its provocative military threats and to work with South Korea.

"Every country in the world is interested in helping North Korea, but there is no other country except South Korea that is interested in helping North Korea stand on its own and be able to survive international competition." Calling on the 7 million Koreans living abroad to strengthen their ties with the motherland and contribute to the opening up of North Korea, Lee remarked, perhaps a bit too confidently, "I believe North Korea can catch up with China in a very short period of time if we put in the necessary infrastructure, build factories there and train their workers."

Global powerhouse
To build an advanced nation is a common aspiration of the Korean people. Korea wants to become a global powerhouse not just in economy and technology, but also in institutions, culture and even sports. Like other small and medium powers with a great ambition in international political economy, Korea has to overcome some major hurdles on its road to becoming an advanced society, the biggest of which remains the division of the nation. With an unresolved North Korean nuclear issue and continuation of the state of war on the Korean Peninsula, the potential of the great Korean nation cannot be fully developed.

Whether the highly ambitious New Asia Initiative will work is unknown. Lee has already been criticized for being too unrealistic and self-confident. Frankly speaking, without consolidating democracy domestically and winning support from countries in the region and the big four powers, Lee faces an uphill journey to achieve his new foreign policy objective. Korea's dream to become a leading player in international affairs will also likely be wishful thinking if the nation remains divided. Nevertheless, Lee, just like Roh, is commendable for his attempts to enhance South Korea's international profile and to contribute to peace and development in Asia.  
Contact: Division of Communications

Posted June 30, 2009