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Foreign Policy Analysis

South Korea-Laos diplomatic relations leading to new opportunities

During President Park’s time in Vientiane,
South Korea will be looking to boost relations with Laos, known also as a traditional ally
of North Korea. President Park will meet President Bounnhang
Vorachith later this week for one-one-one talks, and to give us a backgroud to that
summit, our Kwon Jang-ho takes a look at the history of South Korea-Laos ties. Celebrating 21 years of diplomatic relations
this year, South Korea and Laos have developed a strong relationship based on trade, aid
and cultural exchange. Trade between the two countries was at almost
at 200-million U.S. dollars in 2015, up almost 500-percent in 10 years. South Korea is Laos’ 4th largest import partner,
and also the 5th largest aid donor. “The national income is only about 15-hundred
U.S. dollars per capita, so it’s not a wealthy nation. However, Korean products have gained a lot
of popularity, especially in the thriving middle class. This stems from the rising popularity of Hallyu
content, such as K-dramas and K-pop music.” And with a new leadership taking the helm
of Vientiane, trade and investment are only expected to grow even further. “The new leadership in Laos is a Vietnam-friendly
one, and this is expected to help South Korean companies. That’s because,… after Vietnam went through
political reforms, many South Korean companies were able to enter the market, and this was
witnessed by the new Laos’ leadership when it visited the country. So Laos is likely to follow Vietnam’s example.” But even with a decades-long close relationship,
there has always been one issue standing between Seoul and Vientiane, and that’s Pyongyang. Laos, along with a few other states around
the world, still declares itself a communist nation, and has therefore been a traditional
ally to North Korea. Senior North Korean officials are often seen
making trips to Laos, where they are met with a red carpet welcome from the Laotian leadership. The extent of close ties between Pyongyang
and Vientiane became evident in 2013, when 9 teenage North Korean defectors were caught
by authorities in Laos. Laos is traditionally a country that many
North Koreans defectors pass through, as they travel from China to Thailand where they can
attain safer-passage to South Korea or other countries. Previously, defectors would have been quietly
moved to Thailand or handed over to Seoul, but on that instance, they were publicly sent
to China to be repatriated back to North Korea, against international outcry. “We knew North Korea had a close relationship
with Laos. But South Korea was also trying to grow relations
with Laos at the time, being one of the largest aid donor countries. Laos also knew how much of an important economic
partner South Korea was. So it was quite a surprise to see Laos officials
act that way, sending back those defectors.” The South Korean government is looking to
take President Park Geun-hye’s visit as an opportunity to strengthen ties with Laos,
while getting Vientiane to join the international community in condemning Pyongyang for its
recent provocations. But the North Korea-Laos ties will be difficult
to break completely, especially with Pyongyang also expecting to continue to vie for Laos’
allegiance. “Having reached an agreement with Laos during
this trip, doesn’t mean all future decisions its leadership makes will be favorable to
South Korea. Seoul must see this as a stepping stone, and
when the opportunity arises, it should be quikc to offer smarter and more effective
solutions that benefit Laos than North Korea.” Kwon Jang-ho, Arirang News.

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