Summit in Busan promises new prosperity
In recent decades, South Korea has relied on the United States, Japan and China for its economic growth.
More recently, it has been especially aggressive in improving cooperative relationships with Latin America, Europe and Oceania.
What is interesting is that our growing ties with Southeast Asian countries have not really been highlighted, despite an increase in trade and cultural exchanges.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with its 10 member countries has a population of 640 million and a combined gross national product of $3 trillion. Trade between Korea and ASEAN increased to $135 billion last year from a meager $8.2 billion in 1989, when the two first established a "formal" relationship.
During the same period, the exchange of visitors rose from just 260,000 to 6.5 million, testifying to the dynamic ties between Korea and ASEAN.
And it is along this line that there is significance to the two-day Korea-ASEAN Commemorative Summit that opened on Thursday at the Busan Exhibition Center (BEXCO) in the southern port city with the members countries' leaders in attendance, plus 3,000 accompanying officials.
This is a commemorative summit because it marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of a comprehensive relationship between the two sides, both of which have grown impressively over the past quarter-century.
The summit is more than a simple event with Korea and Vietnam signing a free trade agreement. Vietnam was not even an ASEAN member in 1989. President Park Geun-hye and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung were on hand at the signing ceremony on Wednesday, making Vietnam the 15th country to complete a free trade deal with Korea.
The agreement does not stop there. Vietnam is in the process of joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that links 16 countries, including China. These 16 countries ― including Australia and New Zealand ― will have 45 percent of the world's population and 30 percent of the global GDP.
There is still work to be done. While ASEAN is Korea's second-largest trading partner and the second-biggest destination for investment, the reverse is not the case. Even considering the imbalance in population, Korea remains only the fifth-largest trading partner for ASEAN, indicating that much more promotional efforts need to be made.
This should not be difficult because, unlike the Americas and Europe, Korea and ASEAN members share similar cultures and work ethics. An increasing number of people from ASEAN ― about 370,000 at the last count ― have resettled in Korea and this is expected to continue increasing.
This is exciting for Korea as these new residents overall are very young ― statistics show that 60 percent of the ASEAN population is under 35 ― which could help the employment pothole created by Korea's aging society.
Eventually, it is all about Korea adopting the right policies in partnerships with regional organizations like ASEAN to revive its economy and set the path to dynamic growth for the next 25 years.