Baek Seong Taek—South Korean Ambassador to ASEAN
There is no question that Southeast Asia is taking on increasing importance,not only for its thriving economy but also for its geopolitical position. The 10 countries of this region,forming themselves into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN in 1967,are on their way to becoming a regional community,globally recognized for their economic potential. This recognition is proven by the increasing trade and investment activities both intra-ASEAN,as well as with partners in the neighboring regions and beyond.
One of these long-time economic partners is South Korea,who joined other countries in officially recognizing ASEAN by sending an ambassador to represent its interests at the secretariat in Jakarta,following the 14th ASEAN-Korea summit in Bali in November 2011. ASEAN is now South Korea's second largest trading partner (US$124.9 billion) after China and its second major investment target region after the USA.
Baek Seong Taek,the first Korean Ambassador to ASEAN took up his three-year assignment last October. Ambassador Baek,a career diplomat who has served in Malaysia and Vietnam,recently spoke to Tempo reporter Seulki Lee,on his mission in and vision of ASEAN. Excerpts:You are the first Korean ambassador to ASEAN. What exactly is your mission?
This is the product of our government's neo-Asian diplomacy,which is being emphasized today. The establishment of a Korean mission in ASEAN is to stress the cooperation and strategic partnership between South Korea and ASEAN. That is our main mission to ASEAN,so we can observe how fast and where ASEAN builds its economic community by 2015. Then,when ASEAN actually realizes its targets,we should be prepared with the strategy on how the Korean government and companies will respond to it accordingly and quickly. Then there the various consultative bodies within ASEAN [that must be monitored]. There are hundreds of meetings in a year,at the technical,official and academic levels to discuss ASEAN integration. We would like to participate and observe in those meetings to grasp the trend of its movements. How will South Korea and ASEAN maintain relations?
The South Korean government has special funds for the 10 ASEAN member countries,about US$5 million a year. What we do with this fund is to help human resources networking. More specifically,we provide training for technicians and civil servants on the film industry and IT sector. Today,Korea has shown outstanding appearances in the film and visual industries,such as the K-pop performances. So we invite people in the fields of film or cinema from ASEAN countries to come to Korea and provide them with training. This includes introducing them to the advanced Korean film industry. We will also send Koreans from the drama and film industry to the ASEAN member countries to give training and introduction [on innovative ideas]. This is how we spend that US$5 million every year in ASEAN. This fund was started back in 1989 but with smaller amounts,and now has grown to US$5 million. If the relationship between South Korea and ASEAN can be strengthened,the figure could be increased to US$10-20 million.
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak once mentioned 'economic expansion' referring to the strengthening relationship with ASEAN. How important is ASEAN to South Korea today?
The situation today is that we cannot help but build mutual-assistance and cooperation with ASEAN. ASEAN is one body. As we deal with Australia as one body,South Korea deals with 10 ASEAN member countries as one body. ASEAN is bulky. It has a population of 600 million people with a combined GDP of more than US$2 trillion. It is a huge territory with a wealth of resources and raw materials. The 600 million population is truly a point that cannot be missed. It is a big consumer market. So,for us this is an attractive market in which to sell our products and gain the resources. How do you see ASEAN's role? Can ASEAN really build a regional community like the EU?
There is pessimism and optimism,but I think ASEAN is different from the EU in terms of its members' backgrounds. The [countries of the] EU share the same historical,religious,political and economic roots for the last hundreds and thousands of years,such as with Christianity,democratization and the growth of a market economy,except for Eastern Europe. Their living conditions are more or less at a similar level. So to those countries sharing democratic market economy,human rights and universal human values,it's easy to band together. But ASEAN is totally different. In one country,a couple gets married with a diamond ring while in another country,they use a copper ring. This is the bloc that has both rich and poor nations. The religion,politics and economic systems are all different. That's why they need to meet often. When there is so much difference,there must be a lot of give and take. In ASEAN,one either has money or advanced brains like Singapore,or one has a big labor force like Myanmar. Then they can merge their specialties [with their needs].How do you see the prospects and the challenges of an ASEAN economic community by 2015?
There can be many arguments on whether ASEAN can reach the target of an economic community by 2015 and what kind of community it will be. But certainly it is an inevitable progress of ASEAN and it will be much more concentrated and coherent. It will definitely head in that direction. Nobody can be sure when ASEAN integration can be achieved but the form will be much more concentrated than ever. I think next year will be much more integrated than this year. Along the way,the year 2020 would be more integrated than 2015. ASEAN will face many problems similar to the financial crisis but I don't think it will happen for a while,because what they can benefit from an integrated community will be greater synergy with regards to their differences and gaps,as I mentioned earlier. But there is one condition,this is possible only when there is free flow of human resources and money within ASEAN.How do you value Indonesia's role within ASEAN?
The ASEAN Secretariat is located in Jakarta,and this is a natural sequence. Indonesia has 40-50 percent of ASEAN's population,area and economic capacity. Indonesia's 250 million population is half of ASEAN's,the Indonesian GDP is about US$800 billion which is 40 percent of ASEAN's GDP of US$2 trillion. Also what shapes ASEAN today is according to the Indonesian way of thinking and way of life. What do you mean by 'Indonesia shapes ASEAN today?'
This is a very significant expression. The Indonesian style is not off-based,its power and volume embrace others,no matter what. It's quite difficult to let poorer nations into a group to be on an equal status with richer nations where the economy and money rules. Korea can't do that well and neither can the EU. If the former Indonesian president Suharto,Sukarno or the current President Yudhoyono takes coercive attitude when they talk with other countries,they wouldn't join the group. So far,Indonesia role's in ASEAN is what is called the 'first among equals,' not ranking number 1,2 or 3. Instead they claim that we are all equal,but we need to choose number one among equal members. I personally think Indonesia's leading role in ASEAN came from their experience in the Bandung conference of the Non-Aligned Movement. The non-interference and neutral policy has come down for the past 50 years,which has survived many shaky international incidents. But in the South Korean case,we took the American side and totally relied on them,while ASEAN remains very cool-headed,not taking any sides but balancing it so that it can benefit from being in between. I think that historical Bandung 'DNA' made ASEAN what it is today.TempoNo. 13/13, November 20, 2012