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5O Years of Indonesia-ROK Relations:
Challenges and Opportunities

Indonesia and the Republic of Korea(ROK) welcome their 50th  bilateral anniversary this year. The history of their relations dates back to 1968, when Indonesia opened its consular services in Seoul, followed by the establishment of the Indonesia Embassy in 1973. The relationship was generally on a low profile. In 2006 Roh Moo Hyun and SBY agreed to establish a strategic partnership status.

However, it was only after Moon Jae In's presidency, that relations progressed rapidly. In 2017 Moon brought up a delegation of 200 businessmen to Indonesia and announced its New Southern Policy emphasizing the three pillars, prosperity, peace, and people. The initiative clearly articulated Seoul's focus on its Southern neighbours by elevating ASEAN Member State status, including Indonesia. Indonesia welcomed the initiative. Jokowi and Moon upgraded the relationship into Special Strategic Partnership in 2017. This partnership focused on cooperation, including defense and foreign affairs, bilateral trade and infrastructure development, people-to-people exchanges, and regional & global cooperation. 

With the opposition winning the election, there is scepticism about President Yoon Suk Yeol's policy towards ASEAN, particularly Indonesia, as Seoul's important partner. A shift to ROK's traditional partner, the United States is the highlight of the ROK conservatives party. with increasing provocation from North Korea, Seoul has redrawn its focus on the security of the Korean Peninsula. 

Despite the presence of doubts, Indonesia-ROK relations are set to be stronger. Economics is undoubtedly leading the bilateral relationship. Trade trends between the two countries rose. Quite Uninhibted by Covid, trade continues to grow from 16,3 million USD in 2017 to 20.5 million USD in 2022. Making the ROK the 7th largest trading partner of Indonesia. Furthermore, it is expected that the trade quota will further rise along with the commencement of IK CEPA (Indonesia – Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement). Similarly, the investment trend with regard to  Indonesia has also increased. In 2017 investment accounted for 2 million USD, however in 2022 after a meeting with President Yoon in Seoul, President Jokowi managed to secure an investment commitment of up to 6.7 million USD focusing on Electric Vehicle production and its subsidiary

However, for Jakarta, the picture does not seem very bright. Indonesia has much homework left. Based on the ASEAN-Korea Figure 2021 data, in comparison to other Southeast Asian member states, the trade volume of the ROK with Indonesia in 2021 stood 4th at 11% , behind Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. The gap with Vietnam is high with almost half of ROK's total trade at 46% done with Vietnam. On investment, within the last three years average, Indonesia ranks third behind Vietnam and Singapore. Hence, Indonesia needs to seek niche sectors. One way is to shift cooperation from manufacturing to high technology field in which Seoul has the competitive advantage. Especially in sectors related to smart cities, electric vehicles, batteries, and digital trade cooperation. Another way, is to utilize public-private partnerships in investment projects, making use Korean companies and SMEs subsidiaries in the aforementioned sectors.

Politically, during the ASEAN-ROK Meeting in Cambodia, President Yoon launched KASI (Korea ASEAN Solidarity Initiative) that further highlights ASEAN Centrality and supporting the ASEAN Outlook of Indo-Pacific. President Yoon's meeting with President Jokowi in July 2022 was his first official summit with ASEAN Leaders. Importantly, Indonesia assumes the ASEAN presidency in 2023 and plays an important role within ROK’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Yet a concrete roadmap of KASI remains to be unveiled. Since KASI is argued as a product of ROK’s US-centric government, its compatibility with AOIP is in question. Will KASI support ASEAN Centrality as promised when the tension between China and the US is heightened? 

An honest assessment must be applied to the security front. Indonesia has the capacity to provide a good office. In July 2023, the top nuclear envoys of the ROK and the US met in Indonesia to coordinate their responses to the North Korea missile threat. However, its position as an external party in the Korean peninsula issue is awkward. Indonesia might offer its help through the ASEAN platform. ARF has been offering its venue for negotiation on the North Korea issue but its effectiveness is limited. Instead of on traditional security issues, Indonesia and ROK should spend their energy on non-traditional issues.

In line with Indonesia's G20 goal to focus on global health architecture, both countries should work more on health security management. Efforts to address the global pandemic was successful in that Indonesia received 7 million USD on KOICA's Covid-19 responses program. Indonesia also played a co-chair of COVAX AMC, a vaccine-sharing facility to ensure regional resiliencies. This platform can be a base for Indonesia-ROK health management and later duplicated to prepare for future health threats.

The people-to-people exchange is often heralded as the “crème de la crème” sector due to Hallyu popularity in Southeast Asia. K-wave is a one-sided love. ASEAN Youth's interest in Hallyu goes beyond the entertainment industry. Despite the pandemic, the ASEAN Korea Figure 2022 shows that throughout the year, inbound tourism from ASEAN to Korea is increasing. However, the ASEAN brand is limited. The lack of an “ASEAN Wave” is apparent. Last year, the ASEAN Korea Center conducted a Survey on Mutual Perception of ASEAN and Korean Youth. The survey shows that more than 90% of Korean youth experienced Korean arts and culture, and only 55% of Korean youth said that they have experienced ASEAN arts and culture. 

A similar trend can be seen in the Korean perception about Indonesia. Indonesia is famous as a global tourism destination. However, a comparison with other ASEAN countries shows this is not the case for Korean nationals. Korean visitors to Indonesia in 2019 were 388 thousand, in comparison to Vietnam (4.291), Thailand (1888), the Philippines (1783), Singapore (646), and Malaysia (508). In 2020 the overall tourism rate dropped and Indonesia ranked 5th as Korea's destination place. Increasing the number of Korean visitors to Indonesia is important to strengthen the people-pillar between Indonesia and ROK.

Tourism is one obvious sector but the often neglected one is educational exchange. The overall score on the exchange program between Korean youth and ASEAN, including Indonesia, is very low. Although Southeast Asian students contribute as the second largest foreign students in Korea, Indonesian students only contribute 3% of the total. Furthermore, the number of Korean students in Indonesia are far smaller than other nationalities. 

Welcoming the 50th year of partnership, Indonesia and ROK face unprecedented challenges. There are some key issues that need attention. Firstly, health security and its impact on the economy need to be examined. Indonesia- ROK partnership must be the foundational pillar of regional resilience to mitigate risks. Secondly, the adoption of technology is crucial to address societal challenges and create prosperous cities, with the use of electric vehicles and sustainable technology. Thirdly, though traditional security matters amidst great power rivalry, yet regional peace is more important. Indonesia and ROK must remain strong in its standing for a peaceful region. Fourthly, cooperation must spill over to the grassroots level. Both countries should not be satisfied with elite level mutual understanding. Investment in youth is needed to create stronger people-to-people cooperation between Indonesia and ROK.


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