Can Seoul become an influential player in Africa?



Seoul hosted the first multilateral summit between the Republic of Korea and African countries. It was held to deepen and develop partnership relations.

On this occasion, 48 African leaders, as well as about twenty heads of state and government arrived in the capital of South Korea. This is a very important event that demonstrates the new South Korean ambitions on the African continent.

So what was the purpose of organizing such a high-level event? As the website of the South Korean Foreign Ministry explains, its purpose is to “lay the foundations for global cooperation”. In particular, the South Korean leadership has identified a key sector — minerals. As you know, African countries have significant reserves of natural resources needed for the South Korean semiconductor and battery industries.

But let’s go in order.

Despite historical ties, especially with Ethiopia, which participated in the Korean War, Asia’s fourth-largest economy lags far behind its Chinese and Japanese neighbors on the African track. But historical experience shows that South Korea is a quick learner. So, Seoul has chosen an interesting strategy; it plans to appeal to its own unique history — a formerly colonized country that has achieved astonishing economic growth. Isn’t that an example to encourage African leaders to cooperate?

But what can Korea and Africa offer each other? The Republic of Korea, for example, could offer countless developments, from artificial intelligence and robotics to small modular nuclear reactors. Connecting with Africa, especially with its very capable young people and resources, will pay dividends for Korea for decades to come. Overall, the prospects for success are good — South Korean companies have the technology but lack their own raw material base.

In general, historically, until the early 1990s, South Korea’s ties with the African continent were mainly motivated by its struggle for influence with its northern neighbor. Africa was then perceived as a field of diplomatic confrontation in the context of the Cold War. Which, in fact, is still noticeable today.

Against this backdrop, the summit is crucial for South Korea, especially for President Yoon, who has suffered a series of political setbacks over the past few months. Among them: the failure of Busan’s candidacy for the right to host the world exhibition EXPO-2030, the serious success of the opposition in the interim parliamentary elections, the absence of the almost traditional invitation to the G7 summit as an observer, the closure of the Nicaraguan embassy in South Korea, etc. The South Korean leader needs to rebuild his reputation both domestically and internationally. The success of the summit could contribute to this.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, the forum resulted in the signing of nearly 50 preliminary agreements (letters of intent) and memoranda of understanding to promote cooperation in trade, energy, mining, and the development of cooperation on a wide range of other economic issues.

President Yoon also reaffirmed the Republic of Korea’s decision to increase its financial support for Africa’s development to $10 billion by 2030 and to provide $14 billion in export financing to South Korean companies. In addition, Yoon said that South Korea will help facilitate intra-continental trade through the African Continental Free Trade Area to create a single market for goods and services.

It would seem that the outcome of the summit is impressive. But there is one “but”.

At the summit, the Asian country shied away from issues relating to the actual transfer of technology to African countries. And this is exactly what the leaders gathered there asked directly. Africans identified three main positions among those critical to the continent’s economy: technological cooperation, balanced trade and work on debt reduction through multilateral creditors.

The Koreans, however, did not plan to transfer technology per se. They pledged to support the Tech4Africa initiative to promote education and training for African youth, as well as to expand cooperation in science and digital technologies and human resources training, which, in their opinion, is useful for the overall productivity of the economies.

One of the most interesting outcomes was voiced by Korean President Yoon. At the end of the summit, he said that South Korea and African countries will work together to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula by abiding by UN Security Council resolutions and the international sanctions regime against North Korea. For its part, South Korea will continue to work to ensure peace and security on the African continent, including through participation in operations in Somali waters by the South Korean Navy’s Cheonghae and the Hanbit Unit, a peacekeeping force that has been in South Sudan since 2013 to rebuild social infrastructure.

However, let us look at the situation from another angle. First, it is known that the US is behind South Korea, and in this duo, all of Seoul’s actions are coordinated with Washington. Moreover, logic suggests: it is the United States that dictated Seoul’s strategy of action based on its interests.

Secondly, by cooperating with Africa, South Korea is reorienting its market and technological expertise to gain access to African countries, joining the list of global powers for one purpose only — to get a part of the continent’s resources.

In essence, it is still the same pro-Western, slightly disguised approach to Africa and its potential. Korea, like any other developed country, wants a base from Africa — resources (whether natural or human). Nothing more and nothing less. This is a political game that is now unfolding within the Global South group of countries as well.