2020 marked the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) and Myanmar (Burma). In less than half a century, bilateral ties went from strained by geopolitical competition and terrorism to a strengthening partnership with economic, development, and diplomatic cooperation.[i]
The February 2021 coup in Myanmar—in which the military forcefully overturned the elected government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD)—presents South Korea with challenges for both its relationship with Myanmar and its regional strategy in Asia. While Seoul’s immediate focus will be to protect its citizens and economic interests, South Korea also has an opportunity to burnish its middle-power credentials via policy coordination with the new Biden administration.
The coup on February 1, 2021 presents immediate concerns for the South Korean government as Myanmar’s domestic environment contends with political and civil unrest. The first concern for Seoul will be guaranteeing the safety of its citizens living there and repatriating them, if necessary. Travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19 and the coup may complicate these efforts. The Tatmadaw armed forces of Myanmar are also unlikely to allow foreign visitors into the country to assess the domestic situation and Myanmar’s human rights practices.
Another area of concern is protecting South Korea’s business and investment interests within Myanmar. Over the last few decades, ROK-Myanmar relations notably improved based on trade and development cooperation. South Korea values Myanmar for its cost-effective labor force in the manufacturing and textile industries, as well as for infrastructure needs and natural resources. Myanmar’s political transition in 2011 hence served as an important turning point for the bilateral relations; this saw Naypyidaw open the country to more development assistance, trade, and investment to support the political transition.
By August 2020, South Korea became Myanmar’s sixth-largest foreign investor with Seoul reportedly accounting for more than $4 billion. After South Korean president Moon Jae-in visited Myanmar in September 2019, Seoul launched the Joint Commission for Trade and Industrial Cooperation to further bilateral trade. Similarly, the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) opened a “Korea Desk” to increase business opportunities. South Korean businesses have numerous large-scale joint economic projects underway supporting the development of energy and other critical infrastructure, such as the Korea-Myanmar Industrial Complex (KMIC).
While South Korean development assistance provides tangible benefits for Myanmar’s infrastructure and economy, Myanmar’s leadership may find even greater value in closer ties with Seoul for non-material benefits. Namely, Myanmar finds inspiration from South Korea’s economic development and democratization experience. The Myanmar government demonstrated this in 2014 in establishing the Myanmar Development Institute (MDI) as a government think tank modeled after the Korea Development Institute (KDI). The stated goal is that MDI will “be at the heart” of Naypyidaw’s developmental trajectory as KDI has been for Seoul.
The Moon administration supported these economic efforts with diplomatic outreach through the New Southern Policy. This approach demonstrates that South Korea’s efforts in the region are not mercantilist but multidimensional, including soft power connectivity throughout South and Southeast Asia. Seoul upgraded these diplomatic efforts last November to also address new demands for cooperation with ASEAN primarily related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regarding Myanmar and New Southern Policy Plus, Seoul’s foreign ministry voiced hope that this new policy approach could be further aligned with the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP), which would have been accelerated had Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD retained state power following the November 2020 election.
The political turmoil emerging from the February 1st coup will prompt investors and business leaders to discuss viable options for their activities moving forward. Also, South Korea’s interest in upholding the New Southern Policy will motivate close attention to Myanmar’s political developments.
Geopolitically, the coup is both a challenge and an opportunity for South Korea in reassessing its role as a functioning middle power and regional actor. First, the coup will test Seoul’s ability to thread the needle of the U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry. While China espouses a position of non-interference in Myanmar’s political situation, the U.S. has already imposed sanctions on the military and its related entities. The coup also comes at a time when Washington is further urging Seoul to contribute more to the region and its Indo-Pacific Strategy, with President Joe Biden calling for a “coalition of democracies,” among U.S. allies and partners in Asia.
Despite having to deal with this delicate balancing act, South Korea also has an opportunity to play a more influential role in supporting Myanmar’s elected civilian government. South Korea, as well as Japan, can help enforce international sanctions on Myanmar as Seoul and Tokyo have deeper business and investment ties than the U.S. and other Western nations that have been more circumspect due to Myanmar’s human rights crises. Coordination between the U.S. and its key Asian allies will hence generate greater pressure on the military as compared to if the U.S. acts alone.
An important element for South Korea in its decision-making will be managing time. In the case that South Korea decides to support U.S. sanctions, the allies would need to coordinate enforcement actions quickly to have a meaningful impact. This is because it would be more effective to push the Myanmar military within a shorter time frame—while it faces domestic protests and walk-outs—so that it does not grow accustomed to surviving under international financial constraints that can be largely offset by Beijing. Most importantly, President Moon Jae-in only has a year left in office and maintains focus on peacebuilding on the Korean Peninsula. For his administration to maintain momentum for the New Southern Policy’s objectives and set the U.S.-ROK alliance on solid footing, addressing the Myanmar coup could help South Korea position itself better as an active middle power and regional ally.
Sea Young (Sarah) Kim recently completed her research associateship at the East Asia Institute (EAI) in Seoul. The views expressed here are her own.
Photo from Cheong Wa Dae.
[i] Myanmar had closer ties to North Korea during the 1960’s due to shared socialist values. Following the 1983 Rangoon bombing—in which North Korean agents attempted to assassinate South Korea’s then-president Chun Doo-hwan during his visit to Yangon—Burma was left in an increasingly conflicted position between the two Koreas, even after severing its diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. Since 2011, however, Seoul and Naypyidaw have largely reconciled.