(News Focus) Park champions free trade, woos Southeast Asia in latest overseas trip
By Chang Jae-soon
JAKARTA, Oct. 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye focused on championing free trade and forging closer economic and other bonds with Southeast Asia as she stepped up her "sales diplomacy" drive during a trip to Indonesia and Brunei.
Free trade was the No. 1 theme running through Park's weeklong trip that took her to Indonesia's resort island of Bali for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, then to Brunei for a series of summits led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and lastly to Jakarta for a state visit.
Free trade is an important agenda for South Korea as it relies heavily on exports for growth.
In every stop of the way, she never failed to pitch for the cause, beginning with an appeal at the APEC summit that ensuring unfettered flow of goods and services is the most effective and least expensive way to speed up the global economic recovery.
Her appeal was reflected in two APEC statements where the leaders of the 21 Pacific-Rim economies urged progress in the long-stalled world trade talks and reaffirmed their commitment to freeze trade protectionist measures until 2016 and try to roll them back.
The free trade pitch came to tangible fruition when she agreed Saturday with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to conclude negotiations to forge a comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) with Southeast Asia's biggest economy before the end of the year.
CEPA is the equivalent of a free trade pact. If realized, the agreement would allow South Korean firms wider access to the fast-growing market of the world's fourth-populous nation rich in energy and other resources.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono shake hands during a joint news conference in Jakarta on Oct. 12. (Yonhap)
The trip to Southeast Asia came as regional powers, such as the United States, China and Japan, have been accelerating diplomatic efforts to reach out to the economically and strategically important region with vibrant economies and rich natural resources.
Park also sought to build trust and closer bonds with the region.
In Wednesday's summit with ASEAN, the two sides agreed to establish a security dialogue and upgrade a free trade agreement until 2015 by removing or cutting tariffs on additional items currently on the exclusion list. The Korea-ASEAN trade deal has been in place since 2009.
It was the first time that ASEAN has agreed to establish such a security dialogue mechanism with an individual nation. The dialogue will be at the deputy foreign minister-level, and its first meeting is expected to take place next year, officials said.
Park also held bilateral summits with four of the 10 ASEAN nations -- Brunei, Singapore, Australia and Myanmar. Economic cooperation was at the top of the agenda for those meetings, with Park asking for support for Korean firms trying to participate in construction and other projects in some of the nations, including a project to build a 30-kilometer bridge in Brunei.
On the sidelines of her visit to Jakarta, South Korea and Indonesia signed seven agreements on energy and resources cooperation, including a memorandum of understanding between Korea Gas Corporation and Indonesia's mining and energy firm SUGICO on joint research into "coalbed methane" development.
ASEAN has emerged as an increasingly important region to South Korea, with a combined population of 600 million and its GDP totaling about US$2.3 trillion. The region is South Korea's No. 1 investment destination and its second-largest trade partner, with two-way trade amounting to $131 billion last year.
The region is also the second-largest construction market for South Korea, with last year's construction orders from the region totaling $11 billion.
During the trip, Park also scored points on security issues, including North Korea, winning support from ASEAN for her two trademark foreign policies -- the "Korean Peninsula trust process" and "Northeast Asia peace and cooperation initiative."
The two policies call for promoting peace and cooperation on the Korean Peninsula and in the region by building trust in a step-by-step manner beginning with small projects.
In particular, ASEAN has expressed full support for Seoul's policy on the North.
In a chairman's statement issued after its summit with South Korea on Wednesday, ASEAN urged North Korea to "comply fully" with its obligations under all United Nations Security Council resolutions as well as its own denuclearization commitments.
"We reiterated our support for all efforts to achieve the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner," the statement said.
In one-on-one talks with Park, Chinese President Xi Jinping voiced strong opposition to North Korea going nuclear or conducting additional atomic tests, and pledged to vigorously carry out U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang, South Korean officials said.
Park also met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who stood in for President Barack at an East Asia Summit meeting, on Thursday. The top American diplomat praised Park for taking a "measured and careful approach" toward North Korea in the face of harsh threats from Pyongyang.
"Obviously nobody faces the challenge of North Korea more than you do," Kerry said. "We applaud your very measured and careful approach by which you've both been firm, but at the same time you've tried to reach out."
Park also met bilaterally with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and agreed to work together to facilitate the ongoing free trade negotiations between the two countries. They also agreed to cooperate closely to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff, the presidential office said.