Time to Upgrade ASEAN-ROK Ties With Greater Focus on Myanmar

By Lee Sang-hwa  16 November 2020

As the recent elections in Myanmar opened a new chapter for Myanmar’s development plan, Korea’s New Southern Policy has gained renewed momentum for upgrading its relationship with ASEAN partners. The ASEAN related leaders’ meeting, including the ASEAN-Korea summit meeting, was held last week. The leaders could not meet face-to-face amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the coronavirus could not deter the leaders’ resolve to bring our relationship ever closer.

At the meeting, President Moon Jae-in put forward the blueprint for upgrading the “New Southern Policy”, our diplomatic flagship initiative, to the next stage. It is branded as “New Southern Policy PLUS”. In fact, our government’s commitment to elevate Korea-ASEAN ties to a higher level was anticipated. It was around this time last year, that the leaders from the ASEAN region, including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, State gathered in Busan for the special summit meeting between our two countries. Among other things, for the first time, we upgraded the Mekong-Korea meeting to the summit level. This was clear evidence of the importance we attach to the ASEAN region. The “New Southern Policy PLUS” is designed to expedite the commitments made at the ASEAN-ROK special summit and Korea-Mekong summit meeting, respectively, and further expand the horizon of our cooperation.

More importantly, the blueprint lays out detailed strategies in seven areas. These are: 1) comprehensive cooperation in the health sector in the post-COVID era; 2) education and human resource development; 3) culture and creative industries; 4) win-win partnership in investment and trade; 5) rural community and smart city development; 6) joint cooperation in ICT-driven future industries; and 7) strengthened cooperation in non-traditional security areas.

For Myanmar, a number of actions in these key areas are already under way. In responding to COVID-19, Myanmar is the only country in which the Korean government provided both Real Time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test kits and Antigen, or quick, test kits. Moreover, our COVID-related cooperation is not limited to medical supplies. On the institutional side, Myanmar health authorities are eager to introduce Korea’s advanced health care coverage (UHC) system. As every cloud has a silver lining, COVID-19 has notably expanded our cooperation on control and prevention of infectious diseases.

Education is a newly added agenda to the basket of KOICA (Korea International Cooperation Agency)’s priority development cooperation programs in Myanmar. The State Counselor stated at the Invest Myanmar Summit in early 2019 that “the greatest and smartest investment in Myanmar is in its people, particularly in education and health.” Korea is regarded as a success model for its stellar achievement of economic development through excellence in education. Following the state visit last year, President Moon Jae-in decided to further invest in Myanmar’s education development. As Myanmar’s prestigious Yangon University marks its centennial year, Myanmar and Korea are working together for the University’s capacity building. Moreover, TVET Teacher’s Training Institute, which will be the largest and most modern TVET center, is scheduled to open in early 2021.

Cooperation in the education sector is not only focused on institutional partnership; Korea is also determined to enhance exchanges of members of the younger generation in the creative industries, such as movies, dramas, K-pop and food. The State Counselor, the only ASEAN leader who took part in the Culture Innovation Forum on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Korea special summit, resonated strongly with young Koreans. She aptly opined that it is our duty to nurture our succeeding generation’s creative and innovative minds.

As our two countries work hard to build a brighter future, Korea is eager to work together with Myanmar in future-oriented industries, including bio-health, future vehicles, and system semi-conductors, which will be key driving forces in the coming years. The Korean government is committed to making a mammoth investment in these fields. In this regard, it is notable that the Korea-Myanmar Industrial Complex, which is slated to break ground in December, is expected to draw as many as 200 Korean companies. In Korea, Myanmar has been considered as the last frontier market in the ASEAN region. In the aftermath of COVID-19, there is growing recognition of the need to restructure global supply chains and diversify investment strategies. As such, Myanmar’s geo-strategic location has been gaining more traction.

For Myanmar, Korea’s New Southern Policy PLUS comes at the most auspicious time. At the recent elections, the people of Myanmar demonstrated an overwhelming support for the incumbent NLD government. The people’s support will certainly encourage the Myanmar government to solidify and speed up its “Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan.” Perhaps it may even be branded as “MSDP Plus”. It is inspiring that both MSDP and New Southern Policy PLUS look to the same direction with a particular focus on the “three Ps”- people and planet, peace and prosperity. As the saying goes, “If you take the same boat, you go the same destination.” This is what President Moon said in his remarks during his state visit last year. As a lotus looks more graceful as the water level rises, so does our two countries’ relationship, especially as we celebrate the 45th anniversary of our diplomatic relationship.

Lee Sang-hwa is ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Myanmar. 

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