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International relations

Kim's snub overshadows South Korea's big ASEAN meeting

Moon Jae-in keen to stage successful summit as part of South East Asia push

South Korea's Moon Jae-in attends last year's South Korea-ASEAN summit in Singapore   © Reuters

BUSAN -- South Korea is hosting a special two-day summit from Monday with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in its southern coastal city of Busan, as President Moon Jae-in seeks to elevate the region's economic and diplomatic standing.

However, anticipation for the multinational meeting was overshadowed by North Korea's snubbing of the event. Leader Kim Jong Un declined Moon's invitation on Thursday, saying it was not an appropriate time for him to attend the event. Moon had wanted to help Kim debut on the international diplomatic stage at the occasion, but Kim turned down his offer, preferring direct talks with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Analysts say it is not surprising that Kim refused to attend the ASEAN summit, because Pyongyang wants money rather than a political show.

"North Korea now considers summits without payment for cooperation as empty diplomacy that merely helps Moon and Trump raise domestic political support," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "It is time for Washington and Seoul to make clear to Pyongyang that if it rejects denuclearization negotiations, it will miss the opportunity for proportional benefits."

Moon said he was very sorry that Kim had turned down the chance to meet ASEAN leaders, but vowed that the country would host the event as successfully as possible. ASEAN is a key plank of his New Southern Policy, which aims to diversify Seoul's diplomatic focus.

At the summit, Moon will ask for further economic cooperation with ASEAN, which is growing fast on the back of expanding industrialization and a rising middle class. Moon will also seek the support of leaders for his Korean Peninsula peace process, as there has been little progress in talks between the U.S. and North Korea.

The leaders will discuss bilateral free trade agreements, cooperation in the finance industry, connectivity and startups. South Korea also wants to sign free trade agreements with the Philippines and Malaysia during the meeting.

"President Moon Jae-in will discuss [with ASEAN leaders] how to lift the already vibrant level of cooperation in many areas such as trade, infrastructure, national defense, agriculture, health, development cooperation and culture," said Blue House spokesperson Ko Min-jung. "In addition, the summit will be a chance to reaffirm ASEAN countries' support for our government's Korean Peninsula peace process."

The summit comes as the Washington-Beijing trade war hurts the export-orientated economy. Exports in October fell by the most in nearly four years, with shipments to China tumbling 16.9%. A dispute with Japan that ranges from security to exports controls and historical issues, is also negatively impacting both economies.

ASEAN is South Korea's second-largest trading partner, accounting for 14% of the nation's trade volume last year. In particular, trade with Vietnam jumped to $68.3 billion in 2018 from $2 billion in 2010. Major South Korean conglomerates, including Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics, produce smartphones and home appliances in Vietnam, benefiting from the country's cheap labor costs and skilled workers.

Analysts say that South Korea should transplant its success in Vietnam to other ASEAN countries with big growth potential if it wants to expand its influence in the region.

"South Korea needs to have Indonesia and the Philippines as its new strategic partners, considering their economic size and populations," said Jeong Young-shik, a senior researcher at Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. "It will help the country establish a production network connecting Vietnam, India and Indonesia."

Indonesia has a huge domestic market with a population of 265 million, the fourth-largest in the world. During his stay in South Korea, Indonesian President Joko Widodo plans to visit Hyundai Motor's Ulsan plant, and is expected to sign a deal with the automaker for its investment in the country.

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