This is easily explained by geography and the fact that both entities, and both at least until the 1950s incidentally, were dominated by colonisers and that in subsequent years,South Korea prioritised its alliance with the US in pursuit of economic growth and military security – thereby going from one of the most economically disadvantaged countries in the world to being among the most wealthy (currently ranking 11th in the world in terms of GDP). And in the Cold War climate that characterised these subsequent post-World War II, post-colonial years, there were high levels of indifference between African states and South Korea as many post-colonial African states honed relations with the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China (the PRC) and communist North Korea. And so the rest of the twentieth century was characterised by relatively little contact between the two entities, going no further than the opening up of formal diplomatic ties and consulates.
But things have changed as of recent. Particularly in the past decade or so, South Korea has increasingly looked at Africa as a viable economic partner. Attracting over 7,000 delegates in the year 2015, the Korea-Africa Forum (KAF), which was formulated in 2006 as a forum for African heads of state and their South Korean counterparts to hold discussions and negotiations, has been largely understood as the two parties’ attempt to catalyse and harness the relationship between themselves in trade, investment and aid terms. Having held just four summits in over ten years, however, the Forum is especially important and will need to hold its sessions more regularly, and will also need to be more ambitious in the goals it sets for itself.
South Korean investment and trade with Africa: trends and patterns – and ways forward
According to a 2014 Chatham House report entitled ‘South Korea’s Engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa: Fortune, Fuel and Frontier Markets’, South Korea’s increasing presence in sub-Saharan Africa is motivated by three factors: “the pursuit of food and energy security; the establishment of new markets for its manufactured goods; and the enhancement of its credentials as a prominent global power, particularly in order to counter the diplomacy of North Korea.” South Korean exports to Africa rose fivefold between 2000 and 2011 and, although South Korea-Africa bilateral trade remains low (being a portion of only two per cent of South Korea’s global trade), South Korean chaebols (multinational corporations/conglomerates) such as Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai are incrementally making a presence in the face of some serious competition in the form of the more established players on the African market such as the US, the European Union (EU), China and Japan. South Korea has also been an active donor to the continent. Tanzania, Egypt, Kenya and Ethiopia have been major recipients of South Korean aid. The aid has been aimed at funding measures for achieving the millennium development goals (MDGs) and the latter-day sustainable development goals (SDGs) by providing much-needed assistance to health and medical services, education, and rural development in sub-Saharan countries and responding to climate change and improving governance in North Africa. In sum, prioritising education (30%), health (20%), and governance (6%) the continent receives more than 55 percent of South Korea’s allotted foreign aid budget.
While difficult to ascertain for sure (a time-honoured custom in international affairs), it can be generally said that in its few years of activity on the continent, South Korea has had a largely positive impact on the continent. Perhaps the best example is Rwanda. In 2013 the Rwandan government announced that an agreement had been reached with KT Corporation, which is South Korea’s largest telecommunications provider, to roll out high-speed 4G internet service to 95 per cent of the population of Rwanda by 2017. With only 8.3 per cent of Rwandans currently online, such an increase in connectivity could mean a 10–13 per cent rise in the rate of GDP growth. The PPP was made possible by the integration of Rwanda’s pre-existing fiber optic network with KT Corporation’s financial resources, as the latter provided around $140 million for the initiative. This partnership has the potential to transform the Rwandan economy, and is likely to become an integral part of the country’s Vision 2020 development programme.
South Korea’s positive impact in Rwanda is largely a result of the Korea International Cooperation Agency’s involvement there. The Chatham House report further adds that “as well as being involved in the planning stages of the 4G scheme, the agency is also currently financing a $5.6 million ICT innovation centre in Kigali. KOICA’s commitment to Rwanda is further evident in its agricultural development programmes, police training and its partnership with UNICEF Rwanda, which uses SMS technology to reduce maternal and new-born deaths in the country.”
But there have been setbacks in the relationship; including most infamously the controversial and blatantly unfair land-lease deal with Madagascar wherein 50% of that island-nation’s arable rice land was to be leased to South Korea for some 90 years in exchange for ambiguously defined infrastructural improvements by South Korea to the island; the unpopular deal was arguably seen as corrupt by the citizenry of that country and led to the toppling of the government of Marc Ravalomanana in 2009 – upon which it was scrapped when Andry Rajoelina came into power. South Korea’s involvement in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on African shores has also been a serious blot on the country’s relations with the continent as it has taken away potential jobs in West Africa and even threatened relations with the EU (which gave South Korea a “yellow card”).
One of the key responsibilities of African leaders in the Korea-Africa Forum should be to convey and relay public opinion so as to avoid similar pitfalls from occurring again in the future. Clearly, for a South Korean presence and interchange to continue to receive popular support African leaders and South Korean leaders will need to work hard to shape the relations along the lines of a moral and legal framework that does not compromise adherence to domestic and international laws and protocols because this will hurt business and relations in the long-run.
And this speaks to another matter: good governance. While not necessarily being intrusive, South Korea may need to harness the Agenda 2063 goal of good governance in the continent – South Korea itself stands to benefit most from this. For example, South Korea may prioritise those African states that are leaning towards democracy. It is more prudent to do so not only for the moral stance but also because those regimes that are democratic are also more likely to be stable and have a good investment climate. The Arab Spring in North Africa, the civil riots and general dissatisfaction in the undemocratic states of Burundi, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Uganda in recent years over presidents who wanted unwarranted, unconstitutional additional terms in office is a prime example of this. To what extent can South Korea risk the chances of having their investments and infrastructure tarnished and destroyed in a civil riot? Or of a sudden regime change revoking previous agreements (as was the case with a Nigerian deal)? Or of having its name associated with the malpractices of undemocratic regimes?
Naturally, among of the key discussion points in any upcoming Korea-Africa Forum summit are the security threats that currently plague the continent. As a country that has had to live with the threat of attack by an unpredictable government in its neighbourhood in the form of North Korea, South Korea is uniquely placed among the nations of the world in terms of speaking from experience in offering counsel and advices on dealing with force at the hands of unscrupulous, ideologue leaders. Africa itself is currently faced with a number of these. The Central African Republic has for a long time been torn asunder by rebel forces that use religion as a benchmark for their violence; likewise Somalia cannot be brought to a state of functionality due to much the same problem in the form of al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, which has also terrorised Kenya (most notably in its 2013 attack on Westgate mall in Nairobi). Nigeria has only recently rendered Boko Haram ineffective but that is no assurance that they will not rise up again. Likewise the government of Mozambique had previously believed RENAMO to be neutralised when they invited them into the government but since 2014/15 the right-wing group has “gone back to the bush”. The same can be said of South Sudan which is torn along lines of ethnicity; the result being a dysfunctional, failed state born just 6 years ago. In light of South Korea’s own experiences, the East Asian republic has a lot to offer in way of mediation and strategy formation.
The question of good governance speaks to another issue of institutional arrangement on the African continent. In spite of the many movements for balkanisation worldwide (Brexit, the Catalan, Quebec, and Kashmiri questions to mention a few) by 2030, the African continent wants to have carved out a form of unity in line with its vision of a pan-African arrangement of the continent’s political interface. South Korea must therefore be supportive of African integration movements and policies for practical reasons as it will be easier and less demanding to deal with a single political entity than a constellation of them. Also, active and close involvement in the process of structuring of alternatives of what a “united Africa” may look like will be a learning experience for South Korean statesmen and stateswomen who may use this accumulated expertise to work out possible ways in which Greater Korea itself may be re-unified after being divided some seven decades ago. In other words, Africa may become for Korea a ‘petri dish’ in which political unison is experimented with.
South Korea and Africa’s exchange of ideas and experience can go further. An avenue which would allow the fulfilling of both the cultural and economic aspirations of the relations could be the formation of sister-cities; pairing each of South Korea’s major cities’ governments with those of Africa and forging a kind of ‘Mayoral Korea-Africa Forum’ as well accompanying that with population exchange programmes. As the author suggested to the South Korean and South African delegation in a meeting with students in 2016 in Pretoria, while heads of state who attend the Korea-Africa Forum summits do connect with their nations, this lower-level platform would allow not only for a more meaningful, grassroots kindling of cultural promotion for both sides but would also allow for a more precise intelligence-gathering tactic for investment opportunities. Increasing the number of direct airports would also be beneficial as that could allow for South Korean goods to reach specific African metros easier – especially those which are land-locked, of which Africa has a high number.
Among others, the African Union Foundation describes one of its 2060 goals as “developing Africa’s youth to take their rightful place on the global stage, by promoting science and technology education among young people”. This goal may well have been written with South Korea in mind. The extent of access to technology and science in South Korea – where almost every household is computer literate and connected to the internet – is the world’s envy, whereas there is an incredible paucity of even a fraction of this in Africa. South Korea’s niche as a technology hub in the world should, in its relationship with Africa, mean that it could be able to form technology apprenticeships as well as sci-tech scholarships for African students. In the long-run, this will pay for itself as computer literate citizens are likely to purchase more and recent innovations from South Korean producers. In the very least, nonetheless, the model applied in Rwanda should be replicated elsewhere on the continent.
While having taken steps to relatively solve the rural-urban divide in the Saemaul Undong movement (whose policy methods, in 2008, the Economic Commission for Africa selected as the model for its own Sustainable Modernization of Agriculture and Rural Transformation program) of the 1970s, South Korea is increasingly running out of land in which to produce its food. While the deal with Madagascar may have failed, it would be possible to carve out newer ones with African countries, one of whose Vision 2063 goals is to “[work] with women and youth in agriculture towards modernised agriculture and food production.” South Korea has agricultural expertise, with each South Korean farmer producing on average 40 times more than their Chinese counterpart, Africa has both land and human capital (and also, a low human density thanks to the sheer geographic size of the continent). Bringing in the South Korean expertise would bring about larger quantities of produce; enough for South Korea to import and ultimately resolve the food insecurity threat for both parties.
As both South Korea and many African states are part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a free trade deal between the two entities will also be ideal for some, if not all, goods and services as has already been being done with the Korea Southern African Customs Union Free Trade Agreement (KSACUFTA). South Korea has shown the benefits to be reaped from a free market engagement with its own development trajectory. And frankly, Africa can benefit from the realisation of true multilateral free trade. But so far, while African countries have a number of bilateral free trade agreements with the US and the EU, these are almost rendered meaningless by the number of constraints and preconditions posed – and in many instances the continent opens up to these partners but they close their own markets in turn. Indeed, the EU has such high regulatory measures that Africa cannot access the European market. And Africa’s agricultural produce is blockaded by the common tariff that is imposed by the EU on agricultural produce in order to protect failing, subsidised EU farmers – the WTO Doha Round only managed to get a tariff-free agreement on a single agricultural produce: the banana. Meanwhile, potential niche goods such as coffee have such high tariffs placed on them that there is almost no incentive to produce them on a large scale.
Both South Korea and Africa have a lot to gain from one another, and must look to do just that without denying the other fairness. And so, coming onto every negotiation table, each entity’s representative must come in good faith and with willingness to carve out a truly mutually beneficial relationship. South Korea has the opportunity to get it right; to be Africa’s first true friend in a non-exploitative, fair relationship. And in the long-run, Korea will be immensely rewarded for this. As the first major economic entity to willingly and openly seek to sit down and co-plan and co-strategize a way forward together with African leaders and African citizens beforehand, South Korea, if nothing else, grasps that there are moral, legal and institutional implications to international relations and trade. It is up to Africa now to make the most of this.