Seoul trains its sights on African relations

South Korea is strengthening its diplomatic missions to Africa. How can it go on to increase trade with the continent?


Image : AfCFTA Secretariat

The South Korean government on 7 November announced plans to open 10 new embassies around the world – the first time in 16 years that Seoul has expanded its diplomatic presence this much in a single year.

While South Korea is looking to expand its relationships across different continents, there appears to be a strong focus on developing ties with African countries. The continent is already home to over 20 diplomatic missions and new embassies are now to be opened in Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, with a smaller office planned for Botswana.

These developments come at a time when many major powers – including the United States, Europe, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, and China – are committing more resources to a continent that is widely seen as home to some of the world’s fastest-growing markets, as well as natural resources that will be critical to the world’s transition to a greener economy.

But what is South Korea looking to achieve as it takes steps to expand its relationships in Africa?

Edward Howell, a lecturer in Korean politics at the University of Oxford, explains that the South Korean government’s main strategic aim in Africa has traditionally been to counter the influence of its main adversary, North Korea, which developed strong relations with several African countries in the Cold War period.

These diplomatic and trading relationships, such as those with Egypt, have allowed North Korea in the recent past to subvert UN sanctions and thus to fund its nuclear and military programmes, that Seoul sees as a major security threat. South Korea’s economic prowess is, however, prompting some of these countries to reconsider their ties to Pyongyang in favour of a closer relationship with Seoul.

Fruitful financial benefits

“During the Cold War, several African states historically forged strong economic and military ties with North Korea, including Ethiopia and Uganda,” Howell says. “Yet post-Cold War, even these states have decided to strengthen their economies ties with Seoul, not least owing to the more fruitful financial benefits, but also as they sought inspirations from South Korea’s economic model, given the country’s transformation from rags to riches following the end of the Korean War.”

He adds that South Korea has been proactive in encouraging this shift by “committing to providing aid to African states, supporting economic development and growth, and also political stabilisation”. North Korea’s own diplomatic retreat – it has recently closed embassies in Angola and Uganda – and its serious economic struggles have also helped leave a void for Seoul to fill.

Emilia Columbo, a non-resident senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Programme in Washington, DC, further notes that the South Korean government’s approach to the continent has traditionally varied depending on whether liberal or conservative parties are in power in Seoul.

Liberals have tended to focus on developing economic and development relationships with Africa, while conservatives are more focused on trying to break up the ties formed by North Korea, she argues. Columbo believes, however, that the incumbent president, the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol, is now attempting to merge these two approaches.

“Korean-African relations have historically been driven by Korea’s need for political clout, access to resources, and promotion of soft power. More politically conservative Korean presidential administrations have focused on building ties to Africa with an eye towards countering or isolating North Korea, both in international fora and on the African continent,” she says.

“More liberal governments have focused on serving as an economic development partner, offering South Korea’s own experience as a potential model to African partners.”

“The current South Korean president, elected last year and more politically conservative than his predecessor, has promised to get tough on North Korea, to increase Korean exports, and to partner more closely with the United States, setting the stage for a combination of the approaches that have historically characterised conservative and liberal approaches to African relations,” Columbo adds.

Trading on a history of cheap labour

As both Howell and Columbo noted, it is certainly the case that South Korea has frequently tried to leverage its own history as a former poor country that managed to grow rapidly. Following the end of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea’s economy was almost entirely dependent on foreign aid; the majority of citizens lived in poverty; and the country’s GDP per capita was lower than that of Somalia, the poorest country in Africa.

In the early 1960s successive South Korean governments pursued a policy of using the cheap labour available in the country as a competitive advantage for producing cheap goods for export. With the assistance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the “Miracle on the Han River” helped South Korea become a global hub for electronics, technology, and other high-value exports.

South Korean officials have often suggested that the Miracle on the Han River could serve as an inspiration for African countries. Kim Byoung-Hwan, the country’s first vice finance minister, said at the Korea-Africa Economic Cooperation Ministerial Conference in September that Seoul wishes to share the lessons learned from its own experience of economic development with Africa.

While many policymakers believe this rhetoric to be symbolically powerful – if nothing else – Matthew Minsoo Kim, a researcher into Korean-African relations based in Seoul, tells African Business that this narrative is superficial.

“One of the South Korean government’s favourite bits of discourse is to preach the country’s model of rapid economic development to different African countries – but this is absolute nonsense,” he says.

“This model was state-led – by a dictator [Park Chung-Hee] who managed to cooperate with Korean businesses. But this cooperation was only possible because South Korea is a very small, unified country. For Africa, where there are many different ethnicities and religions across many different huge countries, that model simply does not work,” Kim argues. “There is a discourse mismatch.”

Partly because of this, Kim fears that the emerging relationships between South Korea and Africa are “very superficial – we are yet to see much that is qualitative or substantial”.

Investment goes deeper

“When you look at the news, it is all about the president visiting different African countries, or making gestures like sending rice. Diplomatic relations are nice, but they are not very deep. Look at China’s activity in Africa – they have been building infrastructure, railroads, and they have a naval base in Djibouti. Japan has had the Africa-Tokyo Conference (TICAD) for the last 30 years. South Korea’s relationships are much more on the surface,” he says.

One way to translate South Korea’s ambitious rhetoric into more substantive results in Africa would be to deepen economic cooperation with the continent. Howell notes that there could be a significant opportunity for both South Korea and African countries to become critical markets in the production of new technologies such as rechargeable batteries – not least because one of East Asia’s other major economies, China, is becoming more protectionist.

“A new opportunity could be on the horizon for South Korea and Africa states, particularly as China tightens export controls on graphite – a key material for rechargeable batteries, in the production of which South Korea is a global leader. African countries rich in graphite, such as Mozambique and Tanzania, could therefore offer useful export markets to Seoul,” Howell argues.

Columbo similarly notes that “the South Korean government does seem to recognise the benefits of deepening economic and trade ties to the continent – President Yoon has been active in holding high-level dialogue with partner states and his planned 2024 Korea-Africa Summit has a strong economic angle.”

In July 2023 South Korea’s trade minister, Ahn Duk-geun, held talks with Wamkele Mene, secretary-general of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat, on a possible trade deal or economic partnership agreement. While South Korea’s trade with Africa remains relatively small in absolute terms, the volume has already risen by over 150% since 2015, with both sides clearly seeing potential for further growth.

Perception of risk

Like Howell, Kim believes there is some room for development in coordinating Korean-African supply chains for technologies such as rechargeable batteries. However, he is sceptical as to whether South Korean businesses at large are interested in investing in the continent because of the perception that it is too high-risk. This is partly because of the recent experiences global South Korean companies, such as LG, have had in Africa.

“A lot of businesses in South Korea are very reluctant about investing in Africa at the moment,” he says. “Take South Africa for example – the LG factory in Durban was attacked and looted a couple of years ago, as part of political protests.

“Corruption is also a big issue in South Africa and elsewhere. There is also the issue of geography – South Korean businesses are very interested in investing in Southeast Asia, for example, but not so much Africa simply because it is so far away.”

The benefits of having a clean slate

As Kim identifies, there are clearly challenges for both South Korea and Africa to consider if they are serious about strengthening this new, developing relationship. Seoul will need to find ways to encourage its businesses to take advantage of the opportunities available in African markets, while African countries eager to establish economic ties with South Korea would do well to reassure potential investors that their capital and assets will be safe.

However, Columbo believes that South Korea is well positioned to work through these challenges and emerge as an important partner for African countries across the continent.

“South Korea has a great advantage in having a ‘clean slate’. It is a non-Western state that does not bring with it the historical baggage that the US and other Western states in particular bring to the table.

“South Korea has a tremendous opportunity to present itself as a partner – a state that has similarly suffered war and poverty but found a way out and is willing to share that expertise to everyone’s benefit.”

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Harry Clynch

Harry is Finance Reporter at African Business.