6 June 2024

Chung Eui-yong, a young South Korean diplomat who served in Thailand 30 years ago, had always dreamed of returning to the country of which he had grown fond. Last week, Chung visited Thailand as the foreign minister of South Korea. He received a warm welcome from his counterpart, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.

The visit came in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the fast-shifting regional and international environment, with both countries wanting to ensure that these external developments will not impact negatively on regional peace and stability. Chung and Don agreed that both nations must do more to strengthen their bilateral cooperation in all areas.

Judging from the lengthy joint press statement of their discussion and agreements, both countries complement each other’s desire for new models of economic development. Their relations have become closer during the pandemic due to the increased cooperation to protect their citizens stranded in their respective countries.

South Korea has earned high marks for its cooperation and schemes to take care of migrant workers from Thailand and other countries. South Korea currently hosts 200,000 such workers.

At the top of the agenda of Chung’s visit was future support and assistance in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The two countries see eye to eye that in the post-pandemic world, their cooperation must incorporate a sustainable socio-economic recovery through a strengthened partnership for (1) future industries, (2) green economy, and (3) health.

As Thailand is trying to overcome its middle-income trap, it is necessary to improve the all-around environment to create balanced development of industry and infrastructure, especially between urban and rural areas. During the discussions, Don encouraged South Korea to increase investment in high-tech industries and intensify cooperation in technology, innovation, and the digital economy, as well as in human resource development to upgrade the workforce.

These new industries include next-generation automobiles, smart electronics especially semiconductors, robotics and automation, and bio-health, digital and medical. Both countries recognize that Thailand’s Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) Economy model and South Korea’s Green New Deal can go hand in hand and will now explore synergies between the two models to promote green investment and green technologies for sustainable development.

Another new area is the cooperation related to health. Here again, the two sides are determined to enhance cooperation on emerging infectious diseases and public health threats and explore collaboration in vaccine research, development, production, and distribution. Both are producing the AstraZeneca vaccine for local uses and export. In the near future, there will be a so-called ‘2+2 dialogue’ on health between the foreign ministries and the health security agencies of the two countries.

On regional and international cooperation, Thailand very much appreciates South Korea’s proactive role in sub-regional and regional frameworks. Seoul was among the first to become a development partner in the sub-regional framework known as ACMECS (Ayewaddy-Chaophraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy). In addition, South Korea also has a comprehensive framework of its own that engages lower Mekong members, known as Mekong-ROK Cooperation.

In addition, South Korea is a strong supporter of ASEAN centrality. Under the leadership of President Moon Jae-in, Seoul has encouraged the bloc to take a higher profile in facilitating the peace process in the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s denuclearization program. ASEAN has also been elevated to a major player under the New Southern Policy initiated by this administration.

Regarding the crisis in Myanmar, South Korea and ASEAN are on the same page in searching for a durable solution. Both sides agreed that the five-point consensus is the way to go. At the moment, the ASEAN special envoy, Erywan Yusof, is planning to visit Myanmar to work out a comprehensive framework to implement the five-point consensus, especially the humanitarian aid to cope with the upticks in Covid infections and a growing number of internally displaced persons.

One important feature that emerged from this meeting was the new cooperation in the area of cybersecurity. In other words, their relations are becoming more strategic. In the past, both sides were reluctant to cooperate in areas of intelligence-sharing due to a lack of mutual trust. However, in the past five years, the bilateral ties have progressed and matured. The signing of General Security of Military Information Agreement last year between the two countries after almost a decade’s delay was an indicator that their mutual trust on security has reached a high plateau.

South Korea has very good experience in handling hostile cyberattacks. Having to live next to North Korea, which has been using digital technology to undermine the country’s security environment, South Korea can offer good advice on how to cope with foreign cyberattacks.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn