Guest Column

ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit

By Lee Sang-hwa  11 April 2019

The Government of the Republic of Korea (ROK) recently announced that the ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit will take place in Busan from Nov. 25-27 2019. This will mark the culmination of the New Southern Policy initiated by ROK President Moon Jae-in, which aims at furthering and deepening the ASEAN-ROK Strategic Partnership based on the three pillars of “People, Prosperity and Peace”.

What makes this upcoming commemorative summit even more special is the fact that there will be back-to-back summit meetings between Korea and the five Mekong nations, including Myanmar. This is unprecedented and, as such, it attests to our government’s firm commitment to elevating its relationship with our friends in the Mekong region to a whole new level. In fact, there has been growing recognition of the potential that the Mekong region holds. And as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counselor, underscored in her recent speeches, Myanmar is regarded by many as the last frontier market in this region.

The fact that Busan is the host city for the commemorative summit is also meaningful. Busan is a sister city of Yangon, the largest city and No. 1 economic and cultural hub in Myanmar. U Phyo Min Thein, Chief Minister of the Yangon Region Government, has played a key role in enhancing the cooperation in trade, investment and culture between our two countries. Among key foreign business communities in Yangon, Korean investors were his first choice for the business talk series he newly embarked on this year. More recently, the Chief Minister and I visited a garment factory in Yangon to have a first-hand interaction with the workers and management. It is reported that in 2018, the garment industry ranked as the No. 1 export for Myanmar. Korean garment factories account for more than 15 percent of that export. Considering the labor-intensive nature of the garment sector, it significantly contributes to job opportunities in the local community. There is another welcome development in this regard. In the wake of the Rakhine State Investment Fair in February, preparatory work is under way between a Korean garment investor and the relevant authorities in Myanmar. This will be the first ever foreign garment factory in Rakhine.

Korea’s interest in investing in Myanmar has been growing fast. Among others, its investment in the industrial complex and urban development sector stands out.

The Korea-Myanmar Industrial Complex in Nyaung Hnitpin, Yangon is expected to become a smart and eco-friendly industrial park, which will draw as many as 200 Korean companies. This marks the first foreign direct investment by Korea Land & Housing Corporation, the largest government-owned infrastructure development agency in Korea. The ground-breaking ceremony for the Dala Bridge, better known as the Korea-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, was held last December, which, in turn, raised expectations for development in the Dala area. Relevant parties have been brainstorming to further develop the Dala area, which is compared to the Gangnam area in Seoul.

Investments in high-tech industries and massive infrastructure are also on the rise. This year, Hyundai Motors, the world’s fifth-largest car maker, and Daewoo Bus have respectively set up assembly factories in Myanmar. The CEO of POSCO Group, Korea’s largest investor in Myanmar, recently visited Myanmar to spearhead the second stage gas exploration after its successful operation of the Shwe gas field. Many Korean investors are also eyeing projects related to railways and highways.

KOICA (the Korean government’s development assistance agency) and EXIM Bank are working in lockstep with private business partners to identify suitable projects. Myanmar is one of the top priority countries when it comes to development assistance by KOICA. On the part of EXIM Bank, a new loan agreement topping US$1 billion (1.5 trillion kyats) is soon expected to be sealed.

To chime with these encouraging developments, the two countries also strive hard to create a more business-friendly atmosphere. The Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement went into effect last November and a Korea Desk designed to provide a single-window service to Korean investors is in progress. Given Korea’s standing as the 6th largest investor in Myanmar, these legal and institutional measures will help further boost confidence in their business in Myanmar.

As far as Korean investment in Myanmar is concerned, I would be remiss if I did not highlight the ever increasing number of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. For most Korean investors in Myanmar, CSR programs are becoming an integral part of their business. A number of CSR and volunteer programs have been done in such sectors as education, vocational training and health. This resonates well with what State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stated at the Invest Myanmar Summit in January: that the smartest and great investment in Myanmar is in its people.

Our New Southern Policy is according particular focus to winning hearts and minds of the people in ASEAN. As the Korean Ambassador in Myanmar, it is most rewarding to see ever growing passion and love for Korean dramas and movies among Myanmar people. The Korea-Myanmar K-pop Friendship Concert in March, where a video message of the State Counselor was shown, made a splash among the young generation. Tourism and cultural exchanges should be two-way traffic. Ever since the visa exemption last October, Korean tourists have significantly increased. According to the recent survey by the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, the number of Korean visitors to Myanmar rose more than 60 percent from October 2018 to February 2019 compared to the same months of 2017 and 2018.

Already having a lot in common, historically and emotionally, the complicated strategic locations of Korea and Myanmar are another striking resemblance. There have been positive developments on the Korean peninsula and the ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit will serve as another momentum in that direction. For its part, Korea is a staunch supporter of Myanmar’s noble endeavors for its 21st century union peace process.

People, peace and co-prosperity, the three pillars of Korea’s New Southern Policy, are also key elements of Myanmar’s Sustainable Development Plan. In this context, the commemorative summit in November will offer a golden opportunity for Myanmar and Korea to nurture its win-win partnership. Therefore, both sides should redouble their efforts to seize the moment.

Lee Sang-hwa is ambassador of the Republic of Korea. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author only.