Asean-Korea-U.S. youth forum highlights need for flexibility and friendship
The prime ministers and presidents of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Korea and the United States may not see eye-to-eye on a number of issues in the Indo-Pacific region but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t gather as often as they can to try to narrow those differences, said dozens of participants of an Asean-Korea-U.S. youth forum recently hosted by the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.
“We live in a world where people have very distinct and different cultures and opinions,” said Constance Wei Qi Luk, speaking with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Sept. 6. “Rather than trying to stop people from having certain opinions, what we need is a safe platform where we can share our ideas.”
Luk, a graduate of Monash University Malaysia working for PwC Malaysia, was among 39 participants at the Youth Camp for Asean and Friends’ Engagement (Ycafe), a week-long forum from Aug. 22 organized by the Foreign Ministry and supported by the Asia Exchange Association in Seoul for college students or recent graduates from Korea, the United States and Asean member states.
Participants drafted a joint statement on common objectives for a free, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, calling for long-term youth engagement plans in the region, as well as a need to establish international frameworks free of major power rivalry.
“Emphasizing the fact that most of the previous frameworks work as a tool splitting the world into two sides, we urge youths to lead a new flexible framework where member states gather freely by issues and don’t define any countries as enemies as a means of collaborating with both big powers,” reads the statement issued by the Ycafe participants upon the conclusion of the forum on Aug. 26.
The process of putting their heads together to draft the nearly 3,000-word statement was in itself eye-opening for some participants, especially those who began their freshman year in college in the midst of the pandemic.
“I am of those group of people whose first semester in university coincided with the onset of the pandemic in 2020,” said Kim Chae-young, a 21-year-old studying international politics at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul.
Teamed up with students from Thailand and Indonesia, as well as from Korea, Kim said their days-long effort to agree on the most important common objectives of the region was a sure way to understand the different policy outlooks of each country.
“For instance, a fellow Korean member of the team and I said security is one of the top priority issues for the region, which is not a surprise given that we grew up with North Korea at our border and superpowers like China as our neighbor,” Kim said. “Other members of the team, coming from the Asean region, disagreed, stating that socio-cultural issues were one of the most important ones that should be addressed by our manifesto.”
The youth forum was the first of its kind organized by the ministry to promote U.S.-Korea-Asean youth exchanges. Officials of the Korean Foreign Ministry, the U.S. State Department, the Asean Secretariat and several experts attended the forum to give lectures on the region’s recent geopolitical dynamics.
Arianna Aguayo Luz, a 25-year-old American studying international relations at a graduate school of Korea University, said there is definitely room for improvement in the general American public’s awareness and interest in Asean and the rest of the Indo-Pacific.
“I wish there were more U.S. participants in the program because I think it’s very important for U.S. interests to be represented at forums such as these,” said Luz, speaking with the Korean JoongAng Daily on Sept. 8. “Even in today’s news in the U.S., we hardly ever hear about the relations with Asean. That was part of the motive for me to join the program, as I wanted to be more informed about the region.”
The program included trips to Hyundai Motorstudio and Hybe Insight, much-welcomed visits among K-culture fans in the group like Septi Khairullah, a 19-year-old Indonesian participant of Ycafe.
“I’d say it was ‘Descendants of the Sun,’ starring Song Joong-ki and Song Hye-kyo,” said Khairullah, when asked about his favorite Korean dramas of all time, in an interview on Sept. 6.
Participants like Khairullah, one of 23 participants of the program from Asean member states, have remained in Korea after the program concluded to continue their education.
Taking Korean classes at Sunmoon University in South Chungcheong this semester, with a plan to attend Seoul National University next year to study environmental engineering, Khairullah said exchange programs like Ycafe have helped break stereotypes he had about Korea.
“I came to Korea with hopes to gain new perspectives on environmental engineering, and Korea especially was a good destination because it has already developed its technology to handle environmental disasters,” he said.
“But I had also heard about instances of racism in Korea,” he continued. “I was surprised through, because at Ycafe I made a lot of Korean friends, who didn’t seem to care about my skin color. We’re getting together again tomorrow to grab some food.”
Song Da-yeong, a Ycafe participant from Korea, says she is still friends with an Indonesian participant of another youth exchange program last year.
“When it comes to inter-regional or inter-cultural cooperation, on any level, I think trust is one of the most important factors,” she told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview on Sept. 8. “But building that trust takes time, and over time as you develop a friendship with that person of another nationality, you really come to understand their perspectives on issues a lot better.”
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]