Enhancing Trust-Building In Asean-Korea Relations

Introduction: The stateof the world we are living in now

If one was to describe today’s world in one word, it would arguably be: paradox. On the one hand, numerous events and activities can be witnessed, aimed at enhancing our understanding of one another. These include the many youth exchanges and interfaith dialogues taking place. Yet unfortunately, the world is also witnessing more and more hate crimes, racism, and discrimination. Furthermore, as the world makes significant progress in a concerted effort to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to slow down climate change, and to uphold human rights, we are also seeing more and more countries resorting to ultra-nationalism and populism. Examples include countries closing their borders to free trade and refugees, and falling prey to prejudices against foreigners and certain religious or racial groups.

The lack of trust among people seems to be on the rise these days and it leads to the many problems we currently face, such as the refugee crisis and violent extremism. We need not look far for examples such as when U.S. President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order on January 27, 2017 to limit the entry of immigrants and refugees – as well as green card and valid U.S. visa holders – from several majority Muslim countries from entering the country; supposedly to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the  U.S. In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom (PVV) is expected to lead the polls. The Party’s leader and founder Geert Wilders, who is notorious for his anti-immigration and anti-Islam stance, recently stated that mosques are akin to Nazi camps and hence he will close all mosques in the Netherlands should he be voted into power.

Even in our very own region, there are still issues with trust among communities. Last year, some conservative Christian groups in South Korea protested in response to the government’s intention to issue more Islamic-friendly policies, such as building halal food facilities, in order to cater to the increasing number of Muslim tourists in South Korea. Chun Shin-young, an immigration lawyer, also stated that prejudice towards outsiders results in the very low acceptance rate of non-Korean refugees even though South Korea is a signatory of the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Elsewhere, the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine State, Myanmar are still struggling to get along and Jakarta’s recent local election on February 15, 2017 – tinted by religious and ethnic sentiments – has been labeled as “a test of tolerance” and shall remain so as a second round is scheduled for April 19, 2017.

In light of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, ASEAN Plus Three’s 20th anniversary, and this year’s ASEAN-Korea Cultural Exchange Year, the author is of the view that building trust could and should be prioritized in ASEAN-Korea relations, as a response to the increasing distrust that poses a challenge to global governance. Additionally, both ASEAN and South Korea wield soft power influence in the world, hence in the future, they could and should lead by example in fostering understanding among communities. Before discussing some ideas on how to foster that trust, it would be useful to start off by looking at the history of ASEAN-Korea relations.

ASEAN-Korea relations throughout the years

Relations between South Korea and the Southeast Asian region have, over the years, been cordial. In fact, diplomatic relations between South Korea and a number of Southeast Asian countries were established even before ASEAN was founded in 1967. For example, diplomatic relations between South Korea and the Philippines were established in 1949 while the Philippines was the fifth country to recognize South Korea. Furthermore, South Korea-Thailand and South Korea-Malaysia diplomatic ties were established in 1958 and 1960 respectively.

Political and Diplomatic Relations

Meanwhile, the relationship between South Korea and ASEAN as a regional organization was established as early as 1989 with the initiation of sectoral dialogue relations. Two years later, South Korea became a full dialogue partner of ASEAN. Since then, ASEAN-Korea relations have flourished. In 1994, South Korea joined the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ten years later, it acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) – which sets up the rules of the game in conducting relations in the Southeast Asian region.

ASEAN-Korea relations have significantly flourished since 2009 when President Lee Myung-bak launched his “New Asia Initiative” (NAI) that aimed to intensify South Korea’s relations with its regional neighbors in the Asia Pacific – beyond East Asia, Europe, and the United States, and beyond economic cooperation. Other frameworks of cooperation between ASEAN and South Korea include the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Plus Three Meetings, the ASEAN-ROK Forum (2014), and the ASEAN-Korea Center (2014).

Trade and Investment

Trade relations between South Korea and ASEAN have also increased significantly over the years. In 1990, two-way trade between South Korea and ASEAN reached USD 10.34 billion from a meager USD 2.62 billion in 1980. By 2015, ASEAN-Korea trade amounted to USD 119.9 billion, which means ASEAN ranked as South Korea’s second largest trading partner after China. This positive development led the two sides to agree to a two-way trade target of USD 200 billion for 2020. In terms of FDI, South Korea has invested USD 4.2 billion in ASEAN (from South Korea’s total of USD 27 billion in FDI), which places ASEAN second after the U.S.as an FDI destination.

Tourism and People-to-People Contacts

In 2014, 31.2% of a total of 16.1 million Korean overseas visitors travelled to Southeast Asia – placing Southeast Asia as the top travel destination for Koreans. Moreover, the fourth largest group of foreign visitors in ASEAN is from South Korea. Also, more and more Southeast Asians are visiting South Korea and in 2014, 1.79 million ASEAN people travelled to South Korea – the third largest group of people visiting the country after the Chinese and Japanese.

People-to-people contacts between ASEAN and South Korea have been increasing as well. Many scholarships have been offered by the Korean government for ASEAN students and more Korean students can be found studying in Southeast Asia as well. Additionally, there is an ASEAN-ROK Cooperation Fund that amounts to USD 67 million in 2014 for people-to-people exchanges, trade, investment, technology transfer, and human resource development. In light of the ASEAN-Korea Cultural Exchange Year that will be marked this year, efforts have also been made to simplify the visa process for Southeast Asian nationals as well as to increase the number of scholarships, promoting student and faculty exchanges, and joint research in higher education between South Korea and ASEAN. The future of ASEAN-Korea relations looks reassuring. Some plans that are soon to be realized include, among others: ASEAN-ROK Next-generation Opinion Leaders’ Programme, ASEAN-ROK Culture House Busan 2017, and an ASEAN-ROK Cyber University.

The friendly and robust cooperation between ASEAN and Korea can be attributed to South Korea’s favorable position in Southeast Asia, especially in comparison to China and Japan. Not only are Korean cultural products (K-POP, Korean dramas and Korean movies) renowned and well-accepted across Southeast Asia, but South Korea’s historical trait as a pacifist nation that has never invaded another country has also served as an upper hand in strengthening relations. Therefore, enhanced cooperation between South Korea and ASEAN is not only feasible, but also preferable.

South Korea and ASEAN cooperation in building trust in the East Asian Region

It should be acknowledged that it would be too idealistic - not to mention unrealistic and unfeasible – to claim that ASEAN and South Korea can tackle global governance challenges along with the complexities they entail. However, the combined forces of ASEAN and South Korea should not be underestimated. The population of South Korea and ASEAN, when combined, amounts to 680.88 million people, which would be the third largest in the world, after China and India. At the same time, the combined GDP of South Korea and ASEAN amounts to US$ 3,820.45 billion, which would make it the fourth largest economy (after the United States, China, and Japan) in 2015.

ASEAN and South Korea are also renowned actors when it comes to soft power. The Korean Wave phenomenon (hallyu) is spreading worldwide and non-Korean speakers are now singing Korean songs and watching Korean movies. The familiarity with Korean culture not only leads to more people watching Korean movies but also to more people buying Korean products, eating Korean food, and travelling to South Korea. Complementing this with South Korea’s economic prowess and important role on the international stage as a member of large international organizations, such as the G-20, OECD, and MIKTA, in addition to having had a Korean serving as the UN’s Secretary General, we can imagine the scope of influence that South Korea has on the global stage.

On the other hand, ASEAN is also a very active player on the world stage. ASEAN has not only worked hard on its internal consolidation, but it has also contributed to the setting of regional norms, as can be seen from the ASEAN Declaration on Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality in 1971 and the TAC in 1976, in which 31 countries have acceded to, including the United States, China, Russia and the European Union. Many ASEAN-led initiatives such as the East Asia Summit (that now includes the United States, Russia, and China) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (in which both South and North Korea are members of) serve as platforms for many global and regional powers to meet and discuss matters of common interests as well as to solve regional and global problems. Therefore, a strong cooperation between ASEAN and South Korea in fostering understanding could hopefully influence other countries and contribute to better global governance. In this regard, there are three aspects that need to be strengthened in ASEAN-Korea relations in order to increase mutual trust between the two societies: awareness, education, and inclusiveness.

An Indonesian proverb says “tak kenal maka tak sayang” (you cannot love someone you are not familiar with). Being acquainted is the essence of trust since it is easier to trust someone you have met before. Therefore, raising awareness and increasing people-to-people contacts among the peoples of ASEAN and South Korea is vital. ASEAN needs to promote more of its ASEAN branding to South Korea and export more cultural products (such as movies, television programs, and songs). The objective is to raise awareness about Southeast Asia, not only on the different countries that constitute it but also on the region as a whole along with ASEAN as the established regional organization. While hallyu has become a worldwide phenomenon, ASEAN does not yet have the luxury that South Korea has. Even within Southeast Asia, the level of ASEAN awareness is still low. Even though Southeast Asian culture is becoming more and more popular in South Korea, the level of awareness and knowledge on Southeast Asian countries, as well as news from the region, and ASEAN as an organization is still relatively low. Nichkhun’s membership in the famous Korean boyband “2PM” has generated more interest towards Thailand among Koreans. In addition, Sandara Park’s previous work in the Philippines has also raised people’s awareness about the Philippines, and the recent trend of Vietnamese brides in South Korea has also made Koreans more familiar with Viet Nam. However, knowledge of other ASEAN countries such as Lao PDR and Brunei Darussalam, as well as the works of ASEAN needs to be increased. It is therefore ASEAN’s opportunity to promote Southeast Asia and the regional organization in South Korea more through various events and cultural showcases, including possibly an ASEAN-Korea pen pal program.

Second, education plays a very important role in widening people’s horizon and scope of knowledge. Hence, on top of more student and researcher exchanges – such as the ASEAN-ROK Academic Exchange Programme that has been ongoing since 1999 as part of the ASEAN University Network (AUN) program with ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners – there needs to be more subjects on ASEAN and South Korea in schools. In the Chairman’s Statement of the 17th ASEAN-Republic of Korea Summit in 2015, the exchange programs and curriculum development cooperation on gender and women’s studies between ASEAN and South Korea were acknowledged by the Leaders. However, it would be laudable to expand the scope of the studies. Also, an AUN-Korea cooperation that entails joint regional research projects among researchers, professors, and students in ASEAN and South Korea, as well as credit transfers among universities in South Korea and ASEAN, are expansions of cooperation that could be further explored.

Last, incentivizing the people of ASEAN and South Korea to contribute to a more cordial relationship between the two parties would lead to more trust by the people because they know that their voices are heard. Last year, the ASEAN-Korea Centre organized the first ASEAN-Korea Academic Essay Contest that intended to highlight the youth perspective on ASEAN-Korea partnership. A common thread in the papers written by ASEAN and Korean youths is the important role that the society in general and the youth in particular play in fostering a stronger and sustainable relationship between and among countries. Other competitions that have positive multiplier effects could also be convened and at least two competitions come to mind. First, a short movie competition that aims at promoting mutual understanding and cultivating a sense of shared consciousness. The entertainment and culture industries exert a strong influence in the society. Many people’s first exposure to the United States, for example, is through Hollywood movies or television shows. We have also witnessed how Korean movies and songs have enticed people to go to South Korea and learn anout Korean culture. Therefore, movies could be a means to convey messages of love and trust between ASEAN and South Korea. Second, a project competition targeted at resolving issues in the region. Unlike the Academic Essay Contest that is more conceptual and theoretic, this competition would focus on concrete projects with concrete results that could be implemented to solve socio-economic issues in ASEAN and South Korea. Since the ideas would come from the society, there woulf be a greater sense of ownership when implemented. The winners with the chosen ideas would then have the opportunity to collaborate with other stakeholders, such as the academia and policy-makers to actualize their projects.

Tackling the challenges of global governance requires a combined effort from every nation on earth, and it is too big an issue to elaborate and solve in a single article. However, one can always start from oneself. Littering can be a case in point. We cannot expect a clean earth if only some of us stop littering, but it does not mean that we should litter just because everyone else does it. ASEAN- South Korea relations have always been cordial but it does not mean that there are no rooms for improvement. South Korea still needs to learn a lot about ASEAN and vice versa, especially with regards to enhancing familiarity and trust. There is more to South Korea than just K-Pop and way more to ASEAN than just its geostrategic position on the map. It is time to make the relationship and the level of awareness more balanced. Until the day we can face each other with sincere smiles and without negative stereotypes, then our task is not yet done.





ASEAN-Korea Centre. 2016. The Future of ASEAN-Korea Partnership. Seoul: ASEAN-Korea Centre and The Korea Herald.

Hong, Euny. 2014. The Birth of the Korean Cool. New York: Picador.


ASEAN-ROK Joint Statement 2016

ASEAN Secretariat Information Paper (February 2016).


Shim, Doobo. 2011. “Korean Wave in Southeast Asia.” Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 11 (March 2011). https://kyotoreview.org/issue-11/korean-wave-in-southeast-asia/.

Suh, Chung-Sok, Cho Young-Dal, and Kwon Seung-Ho. “The Korean Wave in Southeast Asia: An Analysis of Cultural Proximity and the Globalization of the Korean Cultural Products.” http://congress.aks.ac.kr/korean/files/2_1358476377.pdf.


ASEAN-Korea Centre Website

ASEAN Tourism Statistics

ASEAN Trade Statistics



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