South Korea’s popular President Moon Jae-in is currently on a three-day visit (from Nov. 8 to 10) to Jakarta to strengthen the fast growing strategic ties between Indonesia and South Korea.
Indonesia, a G20 economy, has always figured high in Korea’s foreign policy.
“Our president likes Indonesia and ASEAN very much. Since he became president of Korea on May 10, President Moon only visited the US in June. Now he is visiting Indonesia, the first country in Asia and the second country in the world to visit. This shows how Indonesia is important for us,” South Korean Ambassador to Indonesia Cho Tae-young said last week in Jakarta.
Echoing a similar view, a senior Korean official said in Seoul that Moon would be visiting Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines with the main aim of developing diplomatic ties with all 10 ASEAN member states on one side and partly garnering support for his country’s efforts to put pressure on North Korea over the issue of nuclear weapons.
“President Moon reaffirmed that his country would develop its relations with Indonesia and other ASEAN member countries to the level of relations with the four world powers,” presidential office press secretary Yoon Young-chan said in Seoul.
Yoon was referring to the United States, Japan, China and Russia as the world’s four major powers.
It will be, according to Ambassador Cho, Moon’s first visit to the ASEAN region.
During his historic visit to Indonesia, Moon held bilateral talks with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, several senior officials and businesspeople, and witnessed the signing of various memorandums of understanding to foster the friendship and economic cooperation between the two countries.
One might ask, why Indonesia first?
With its vast natural resources, a population of 260 million, Indonesia is a perfect place for Korean investment and products. Indonesia sees Korea as a reliable strategic partner because the latter does not have global geopolitical ambitions like China, Japan or the US. This goes down very well.
As a proof of this perception, Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia, and South Korea – one of Asia’s economic powerhouses – signed a joint declaration of strategic partnership in 2006.
According to the Export-Import Bank of Korea, Korea’s cumulative investments in Indonesia have reached almost US$15 billion since 1968.
During the last three decades, hundreds of Korean companies have flocked to Indonesia to establish labor-intensive companies.
“Now we have around 2,200 Korean companies operating in Indonesia. These companies are providing jobs to 1 million Indonesian workers,” Cho said.
Around 40,000 Indonesian workers are currently working in Korea.
In trade also, Korea is one of the top-10 trading partners, with bilateral trade between Korea and Indonesia hitting $14 billion in 2016.
Indonesia, usually, enjoys a large trade surplus with South Korea, thanks to the export of natural resources including gas, timber and coal.
In the defense sector also, Indonesia recently bought three diesel-electric attack submarines from Korea. Indonesia and Korea also have been working on jointly producing a new generation of KFX fighter jets.
There was an incident in August in which President Moon made a gesture that surprised many in both Indonesia and Korea.
“In August, our President was having a vacation in Jinhae At that time Indonesian Defense Minister Ryacudu Ramizard was visiting Jinhae. President Moon took a break from his vacation to meet Ryacudu in Jinhae,” Cho said.
Jinhae is a Korean naval base cum vacation spot, which is located 410 kilometers from Seoul.
A true friend thinks of you when all others are thinking of themselves. South Korea is not only a true friend of Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country, but also an important strategic partner.
In 1997-1998, when the Asian financial crisis devastated Indonesia’s economy and lacerated its sociopolitical set up, many foreign investors fled Indonesia in panic. As a true friend, South Korea — which was also a victim of the 1997 crisis — never left Indonesia and even increased its investments in labor- intensive industries during those difficult times.
Ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1966 — followed by ambassadorial level in 1973 — Indonesia and South Korea have enjoyed more than five decades of uninterrupted progress in their political, economic, security and cultural relationship.
In the people-to-people contacts, the relations between the two countries have been growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to Korea’s famous hallyu (K-Pop wave) and tourism.
For example, according to Cho, more than 316,000 Korean tourists visited Indonesia, mainly Bali, Lombok and Jakarta in 2016 while more than 30,000 Indonesians visited Korea at the same time.
Many Indonesian youngsters are crazy about K-Pop music, Korean dance, dramas, cuisine, cosmetics and movies. Now hundreds of Indonesians are currently learning the Korean language while there is big interest among Korean youngsters in the Indonesian language, culture, music and movies.
On the nuclear issue, Korea expects that Indonesia will play a major role in bringing nuclear North Korea to the negotiating table. Indonesia, the de facto leader of ASEAN, has good friendly ties with both Koreas. Indonesia is not very happy with North Korea’s recent behavior and its frequent nuclear tests. Recently, Indonesia, for the first time, changed its diplomatic language to condemn strongly North Korea’s deadly missile and nuclear tests.
As far as ASEAN is concerned, Korea sees ASEAN as having huge potential to emerge as the fourth-largest economy in the coming years.
Many scholars believe that Korea considers ASEAN an alternative to China. After the US deployment of THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) battery to Korea, China became angry at South Korea and put many restrictions on Chinese tourists visiting Korea. As a result, Korea’s fast-growing tourism industry was badly affected last year.
Korea is planning to look at tourists from Southeast Asia, especially Muslim tourists from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
Prior to this also, ASEAN had already become the second-biggest trading partner of Korea, with trade of $119 billion between Korea and ASEAN countries in 2016.
Korea invested a record $5.1 billion in Southeast Asia in 2016, a big jump from $3.8 billion in 2013.
Last year, 2.2 million ASEAN tourists visited Korea while more than 6 million Koreans visited ASEAN member states.
During his visit to Danang in Vietnam, and Clark and Manila in the Philippines, President Moon will attend APEC and ASEAN summit meetings and hold bilateral meetings with leaders from ASEAN as well as the Asia-Pacific regions.
Moon may request ASEAN leaders, especially President Jokowi, to play a mediator role between North and South Korea. Jokowi and other ASEAN leaders, who have a neutral position on the Korean crisis, can give friendly advice and also a strong warning to the rogue state if North Korea refuses to listen. North Korea’s actions pose a major threat to the peace and stability of Asia as well as the world.
Ambassador Cho says that his president and President Jokowi share many similarities. The policies of both presidents are people-oriented and they are humble persons. Both have a common chemistry. Both can work together bilaterally and regionally.