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South Korea eyes closer ties with Southeast Asia

ASEAN is a term that is not familiar to most South Koreans, but in recent years South Korea has strived to be closer to the ASEAN community. 

SEOUL: Ahn Jae-hyuek is one of South Korea's best baristas - having represented South Korea in the World Barista Championship in 2010.

He was recently at an exhibition in Seoul to showcase coffee from ASEAN member states including Indonesia, Vietnam and Laos.

Coffee is very popular among Koreans and it is impossible these days to walk one block down a street in Seoul without running into at least one cafe.

Currently South Korea imports the most coffee from Vietnam followed by Brazil and Columbia, which is why coffee producers from other ASEAN member states such as Laos want to jump into this huge market.

"Laos is a coffee-producing country since a long time ago,” said Khamsouay Keodavalong, ambassador of Laos In South Korea. “We export to European countries mostly - France, Belgium, Netherland, Germany. Korea is not our market but we expect to export to Korea soon."

And it is not just coffee, companies in Southeast Asia and South Korea are eager to do more business. ASEAN is South Korea's top travel destination and the second-largest trading partner. With the launch of the ASEAN Community, South Korea wants to do more.

ASEAN and South Korea first developed relations in 1989 when trade volume was around US$8 billion.

Since then it has increased to about US$135 billion, especially with the signing of a free trade agreement between the two sides in 2009. South Korea wants to grow that figure to about US$200 billion by 2020.

To help bridge the gap, the ASEAN-Korea Centre was set up in 2009 to bring the two sides closer and expand exchanges in trade, investment, tourism and culture.

"Basically, our programme relates to enhancing trade collaboration and investment collaboration as well also promoting ASEAN as a single destination and uniqueness of culture within the Korean cities and public," said Muhamad Daud, the head of the centre’s culture and tourism unit.

The centre also recently launched a moving tourism information centre to promote the ASEAN culture and tourism to South Koreans.

"ASEAN is a very important partner to us but actually many of Korean people are not so familiar with ASEAN and ASEAN history and culture so our centre specially organised this roadshow to get Korean people more familiar with ASEAN and ASEAN history and culture," said Kim Young-sun, secretary-general of the ASEAN-Korea centre.

Kim says he has many more plans for 2016 as this will be an important year for ties between ASEAN and South Korea.