The Fate of the New Southern Policy under the Yoon Administration: A Cambodian Perspective

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at U.N. headquarters on September 20, 2022 in New York City. Photo by Anna Moneymaker / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Relations between ASEAN and South Korea saw a new height during the administration of President Moon Jae-in with the New Southern Policy (NSP) and the New Southern Policy Plus (NSP Plus).

Moon completed his visit to Southeast Asia within the first two years of his presidency while raising Southeast Asia to the same level as the Republic of Korea’s major allies, revealing the ROK’s focus on the region during his administration.

However, the election victory of President Yoon Seok-yeol in March 2022 has spurred many to speculate about the continuity of the New Southern Policy and whether the initiatives would likely carry on its legacy into the Yoon administration.

There is no doubt that this speculation is circulating among scholars, as histories of many South Korean presidential administrations have shown different policy approaches towards Southeast Asia.

For instance, the former president Lee Myung-bak opted for the “Global Korea” and the “New Asian Initiative” when engaging with the region during his presidency from 2008 to 2013 while the former president Park Geun-hye engaged with Southeast Asia with the “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative” during her presidency from 2013 to 2017.

President Moon Jae-in, in addition, had formulated his own policy – the NSP and the NSP Plus. Therefore, the pattern of rebranding and reforming strategic engagement with Southeast Asia seems to be a prominent way to differentiate and distinguish the uniqueness of each presidency’s goal and commitment to Southeast Asia.

Secondly, North Korea has speeded up its missile test while pledging never to give up its nuclear program. The recent missile test that flew over Japan in the Pacific ignited condemnation from Japan, South Korea, and the United States with the promise of a resolute response.

The ongoing aggression of North Korea has led South Korea – under the Yoon administration – to place its top emphasis on protecting and ensuring the security of the Korean peninsula while tightening the ROK’s cooperation with security partners – namely the Western world.   

This explains the recent allowance of the USS Ronald Regan to conduct a joint military exercise with the South Korean military, the pledge to strengthen ROK – US security alliance, and Yoon’s visit to Canada and the United Kingdom. South Korea needs reliable security partners to deter North Korea’s growing aggression.

ASEAN has superb economic and people-to-people relations with South Korea. In fact, according to the ASEAN – Korea Center’s report on the mutual perception of ASEAN and South Korean youth, the percentage of Southeast Asians who view the relations between ROK – ASEAN positively increased from 76% from 2017 to over 94% in 2021.

Moreover, ASEAN is Korea’s second-largest trading partner, with a trade of over $176 billion in 2021, while being the second largest investment destination of over $6 billion in 2021.

Despite that, in the current setting, ASEAN could not offer adequate security cooperation towards South Korea that can deter North Korea’s current provocative aggression at the same level the United States can. In spite of this, the region still plays a huge role in South Korea’s economic growth, the extension of South Korea’s soft power, and geopolitical cooperation.   

With this in mind, the Yoon administration will likely reform and rebrand the current New Southern Policy’s agenda and establish his own signature policy toward the region which has already started to see its emergence with the “ABCD  HYPERLINK ""Strategy”. Moreover, the administration will likely pinpoint security at its center while cooperating more intensively with the United States to ensure its security on the peninsula that is currently in need of immediate focus.

However, it is an asset for Seoul to maintain its current good relations with Southeast Asia, especially in the midst of the US-China competition and its desire to reduce its dependency on China, as the region holds an important economic offset to the country. Despite that, the NSP and NSP Plus will see re-calibration from the Yoon administration to fit his agenda of boosting security, human capital, health, culture, and infrastructure development within the region.

Mr. Bunly Ek is a research fellow, at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), in Cambodia, and one of the 2022 Global Korea Scholarship (GKS) Master’s Degree scholar in International Cooperation at Yonsei University, South Korea. The views expressed in the above article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of Cambodianess.

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