PERHAPS it doesn’t have the same traction as “I Love New York” but the sign “I SEOUL YOU” is seen almost everywhere in the South Korean capital.
The slogan was picked three years ago by Seoul city officials to brand the city as a place that co-exists with the rest of the world; or as a “centre of relationships”. But with or without such a slogan, people-to-people exchanges are already thriving today, as shown in various official statistics.
The number of Asean citizens living in South Korea has gone up from 319,198 in 2013 to 518,309 last year. While the number of Korean students in Malaysia has not changed much in the past two years (hovering around 1,200), the rate of Korean tourists to Malaysia has grown about 52% within five years.
According to the Korea Tourism Organisation, 417,749 Koreans visited Malaysia this year, compared to 274,622 back in 2013. Overall, Asean is the most favoured holiday destination for Koreans. An estimated 7.6 million Koreans travelled to the Asean region last year.
The ties between Asean and Korea had been progressing smoothly, said Asean-Korea Centre (AKC) secretary-general Lee Hyuk.
“There is no major stumbling block in advancing the relationship,” he told a group of journalists from Asean countries who visited Seoul last week. Most of the journalists are from the Asia News Network of which The Star is a member.
AKC, which was set up in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Asean-Korea Dialogue Relations, is tasked with the job of promoting economic and socio-cultural coperation between Korea and Asean members. The AKC’s calendar will be even more packed next year when South Korea play host to the Asean-Korea Summit.
Among others, there will be an “Asean Train” in which representatives from each Asean country would be invited for a national tour of South Korea to meet with locals
and Asean nationals at every stop. There will also be an Asean Week which features performances and food to expose the Korean public to Asean cultures.
According to Lee, the Korean government had stepped up its efforts to invigorate people-to-people exchange between Asean and Korea.
“As part of this effort, the Asean Culture House opened in Busan last year, having served as a platform to showcase the diverse Asean cultures to the public in Korea.”
Such efforts fit into South Korea’s New Southern Policy which was unveiled by its president Moon Jae-in in November last year. The policy, with its three pillars emphasising on people, prosperity and peace, is targetted at enhancing ties with South-East Asia and lessening its dependence on traditional trading partners such as the United States.
Kim Hyun-chul, who is the advisor to the president on economic affairs, emphasised on the “people” part of the 3Ps at a separate special briefing for the Asean journalists.
“That’s what I have to say I am most proud of,” he said, adding that Korean people are warm hearted. “We want to make real relationships with Asean.”
Kim is also heading the Presidential Committee on New Southern Policy.
The committee, which was set up in August, comprises officials from 14 ministries and experts from the private sector. It will handle projects linked to the New Southern Policy.
When asked about Korea’s sentiments towards the new government of Malaysia, Kim promptly noted that “Malaysia is one of the countries that our president wants to visit the most.”
And as AKC’s Lee pointed out earlier, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s revisiting of the Look East Policy would be an advantage.
“The New Southern Policy may go hand in hand with the Look East Policy as it shares its common interests and understanding of reinforcing cooperation with the countries in the east Asia region.”
“It is high time for the two countries to build a stronger relationship,” he said.
He said the hallyu (Korean wave) is already deep rooted among Asean member states.
“We hope the Asean wave will also flow to the Korean shores.”