Hankyoreh, March 9, 2009: S. Korea’s diplomatic focus to shift to Asian nations

President promises South Korea will play a bigger role in the financial crisis, climate change and other global issues

President Lee Myung-bak yesterday announced his “New Asia Initiative,” pledging to improve relations with other Asian countries and intensify cooperation in the region during his visit to Jakarta.

“Cooperation among the three nations of South Korea, Australia and Indonesia will help us raise our profile and increase our influence in the international community,” Lee said in a meeting with South Koreans who work as diplomats in Asian countries. “It will be important for us to improve relations with neighboring Asian countries this year,” he said.

“Last year was a successful year for us. We improved ties with the four superpowers by mending ties with the U.S. and Japan, signing a currency swap deal with China and cooperating with Russia in the natural gas and railway sectors,” he added.

Lee’s remarks indicate that South Korea’s diplomatic focus will shift from the four nations with a significant ties to Korea—the United States, China, Japan and Russia—to other Asian nations in the region.

As part of the new initiative, Lee promised that South Korea would play a bigger role in such global issues as the deepening financial crisis and climate change, based on its cooperation with Australia and Indonesia, while working to improve economic ties with individual Asian countries. To turn South Korea into a free trade hub, Lee said that the nation would sign free trade deals with all Asian countries as soon as possible.

Lee was in Jakarta, the last stop of his three-nation tour to New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia. Last week, Lee started negotiations with New Zealand and Australia on trade deals with both countries.

Promising expanded leadership in the region, Lee said that South Korea would increase its official development assistance to developing countries and would exchange technology with them more frequently. Lee also plans to attend more regional meetings, including the ASEAN plus three summit to be held in Thailand next month, while having more talks with their leaders. Meanwhile, a presidential official said that the government would consider expanding the amount of official development assistance after economic conditions improve, causing some observers to worry that the Asian initiative could end up being reduced to rhetoric.

Earlier, Lee had attended a meeting of Korean and Indonesian business leaders in Jakarta, delivering a keynote speech in which he called for cooperation between the two nations in the environmental sector. “Combining South Korea’s green technology with Indonesia’s green resources, will contribute greatly not just to economic development in each nation but also to global efforts to fight climate change,” he said. Lee proposed a “three green cooperation initiative,” under which South Korean and Indonesian companies would work together to develop forests and eco-friendly energy sources and increase exchanges in the IT and cultural sectors.

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