The Mekong countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar have had ties with regional powers such as China and India since the 1990s and have also maintained close relations with the U.S. and Japan.
South Korea has taken a bit longer to start working with the five Mekong countries. In 2011, they first held a foreign ministers' meeting in Seoul and announced the so-called Han River declaration detailing cooperative measures for mutual prosperity.
The declaration selected six priority areas of cooperation including infrastructure, ICT, water resources and agriculture development.
Since then, trade between Korea and the Mekong countries has gradually increased. Last year, the total trade volume was 84.5 billion U.S. dollars. Exports from Korea to the Mekong region were worth 58.4 billion dollars and imports to Korea came to 26.1 billion dollars.
The five Mekong countries are considered a core partner in President Moon Jae-in's 'New Southern Policy' for their development potential that can bring mutual benefits.
"South Korea is heavily dependent on China in terms of trade. To reduce its reliance on a particular country, the Mekong region is the best alternative. Korea's economic growth outlook is rapidly falling due to its low growth rate and aging population. We can expect to find new growth engines in these regions."
Korea is one of the countries with the most recent experience of economic development and expertise in infrastructure development. Experts say there are many ways that South Korea can step into the Mekong's underdeveloped areas and help them reach their huge potential.
"Hydropower capacity in the Mekong region is estimated to be 250-thousand megawatts but only 19.8 percent is being utilized. Korea is bringing its construction experience and skills along with advanced ICT technology to the region. Hydro-resource development improves both the quality of life and economic conditions."
People to people exchanges between the two regions have also seen huge growth. The number of travelers between the two regions in 2018 jumped three times from 2011. Last year, 5.7 million Koreans visited the Mekong countries with 1.1 million from the region visiting South Korea.
Stronger ties with the Mekong countries could also advance inter-Korean relations and build lasting peace on the Korean peninsula, as the five countries hold diplomatic relations with both South and North Korea.
Lee Min-sun Arirang News.