New Leaders Forum

South Korea’s Arab Spring Role?

South Korea has more to offer transitioning Arab Spring countries than aid – it has plenty of experience.

By Troy Stangarone for

With the death of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya will shortly turn to the difficult task of reconstruction and political transition that Egypt and Tunisia are now undertaking. One of the great challenges facing these nations is that there’s no ready template for reform to follow that’s analogous to the process the nations of Eastern Europe benefited from with their accessions into NATO and the European Union. It’s this knowledge gap that South Korea might have a unique opportunity to fill.

As Libya, Egypt, Tunisia – and perhaps Syria and Yemen in the future – move from dictatorships to free market democracies, they will need to tap into the knowledge gained from other nations over the last half century that have made similar transitions. While we often think of aid in terms of financial commitments, in the case of many countries in the Middle East, being able to tap into a range of experts on issues as complex as market liberalization to seemingly mundane issues such as ensuring that workers skills match the needs of the private sector will be significantly more valuable in the long run than pledges of financial aid.

South Korea’s own experience not only provides insights into the challenges that will be faced, but has allowed it to make an effort to develop a means for sharing the lessons it has learned through a similar transition. Since 2004, the Korean government has supported the Korea Knowledge Sharing Program (KPS). The KSP brings together a collection of government officials and academics that can provide technical assistance to foreign countries and conduct research on the challenges of economic development. The programme’s expertise covers a wide range of issues such as structural reform, economic development, industrial growth and export promotion. As of 2010, the programme had been involved in research and consultations with approximately 20 countries on 200 topics and counts among its successes the Kuwait Five-Year Economic Development Plan, the establishment of the Vietnam Development Bank and the Navoi Free Economic Zone of Uzbekistan.

Beyond its own efforts, South Korea has worked to make knowledge sharing a global effort. During its leadership of the G-20, it sought to become a ‘bridge’ between the developed and developing world and to put the issue of development firmly on the G-20 agenda. While not what was envisioned at the time, marrying Korea’s efforts through its Knowledge Sharing Program with an augmented version of the G-20 development agenda agreed to in Seoul might be an ideal means to provide and coordinate technical economic assistance from Korea and other G-20 nations. Since the G-20 includes both advanced and developing nations, it may be viewed in a positive light in the region and have more practical experience to draw on than Korea or developed nations alone.

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At the same time, much like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, South Korea has experienced a transition from dictatorship to democracy. Each of these nations would benefit from technical assistance with the transition as they build democratic institutions and organize free elections. This may especially be the case in Egypt, where concerns over backsliding by the military in the transition to democracy have already surfaced. South Korea could share its lessons from this difficult process.

A successful transition and stability in the Middle East also matter to South Korea. Many of these markets have seen significant increases in exports from Korea over the last decade before the Arab Spring took hold. Taken as a whole, the Middle East and North Africa now import roughly two-thirds of what the United States does from Korea. The region is also a key source of energy for the South Korean economy – it currently imports nearly three quarters of its oil from the Middle East, as well as a significant portion of its natural gas.

More importantly for South Korea, though, is that it might provide a unique opportunity to gain a broader understanding of the challenges it could face during any future reunification with North Korea. Each economic and political transition has its own characteristics and challenges, as well as the means of addressing them. Should reunification occur, having a broader understanding of how other nations have successfully integrated the elites of the former regime, or handled the reform a non-market economy, might provide South Korea a knowledge advantage for reunification.

The road ahead for many of the nations of the Middle East and North Africa will be challenging. However, ensuring that the transition is a successful one that provides greater stability to the region in the long run is important for both South Korea and the broader global community. While South Korea may not be the first nation many think of when it comes to providing aid to the region, it may have a very valuable contribution to make. At the same time, South Korea may have a great deal to learn from the transitions in the Middle East for when reunification finally takes place.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.