According to the WTO, in 2018 there are 459 regional trade agreements, the most in the institution’s recorded history.1 Countries are now more actively engaged in regional trade agreements as a policy option to achieve their outward growth strategy. In addition to efforts to build up trade and investment links, regional integration is expected to spill over to more complicated socioeconomic issues, covering a wide range of areas such as gender, environment, labor, and cultural exchanges. Given this upsurge, policy coordination within the framework of regional agreements has attracted considerable attention from policymakers and other stakeholders. This is certainly the case in Korea, where the promise of such agreements is widely recognized, and recent challenges are actively discussed in the hope of overcoming them.
Regionalism is a relatively new concept for most East Asian countries.2 Through most of the 1990s, East Asian countries generally engaged in regional integration discussions as a pathway to eventual multilateral trade liberalization under the auspices of the ASEAN and ASEAN+ processes. The subsequent proliferation of FTAs was the result of a number of economic and political factors, which had much in common with similar processes in other world regions, but advanced with particular intensity in East Asia and states closely connected to it. Today, all Asia-Pacific economies are involved in the regional economic process and are active participants in the establishment of multilayered FTAs.
The growing interdependence and interconnectedness of the global economy has intensified the need for most East Asian countries, including Korea, to engage in regional economic cooperation and integration. Korea’s high dependency on trade explains its preference for the rapid expansion of regional trade agreements. This chapter begins with a review of the trends, key characteristics, and implications of East Asian economic integration, followed by an examination of potential opportunities and challenges facing regional integration. Korea’s FTA strategies are then reviewed, and its expected role in advancing the regional trade agenda is addressed.