South Korean consumer products aren’t hard to find in Bahrain, one of the fastest-growing markets in the Persian Gulf for conglomerate Samsung Electronics. But more than two years into anti-government protests in the Gulf state, it is South Korean tear gas – rather than smartphones or flat-screen TVs – that is attracting international scrutiny for its role in an unfinished chapter of the Arab Spring.
Since October, human rights activists have been urging Seoul to block a local firm’s planned shipment of tear gas to the country, which has been using the agent in huge quantities to quell Shia Muslim discontent with the minority Sunni royal family.
The order, revealed in a tender document released by U.K.-based advocacy group Bahrain Watch, calls for the shipment of 1.6 million canisters of tear gas to a country of just 1.3 million people. South Korea’s connection to the unrest goes back to 2011,when the Shia majority took to the streets in their thousands to demand a greater say in government. In that and the following year alone, two Korean firms, Daekwang Chemical and CNO Tech, exported more than 1.5 million canisters to the country, according to the advocacy group. The group believes Daekwang is the sole supplier of the latest order, an assertion the firm declined to confirm to The Diplomat.
Korea’s role is controversial because of what Bahrain Watch founding member Bill Marczak, calls the “unprecedented misuse” of the agent by the Bahraini authorities.
“The police don’t fire it at violent demonstrations; they mostly fire it in villages at night time. And the rationale behind this is to punish people who are in areas that support the protest,” Marczak said.
Physicians for Human Rights, a New York-based non-profit, has blamed such tactics for 39 deaths in the country. The Bahraini government has insisted its use of tear gas has been in accordance with international norms.
The use of South Korean tear gas on Bahraini streets is one of countless examples of the growing global presence of a country that in several decades transformed itself into a wealthy democracy out of the devastation of the Korean War.
(It also eerily parallels a period of Korea’s own recent history: PHR similarly condemned the Seoul government’s “unprecedented” use of tear gas against civilians in 1987.)
Long self-deprecatingly described as a “shrimp among whales” for its proximity to Japan, China and Russia, South Korea has been eager in recent years to exert a greater influence in international affairs.
Asia’s fourth-largest economy became the first non-G7 country to host the G20 summit in 2010, a milestone proclaimed by then President Lee Myung-bak as a sign the country had “moved to the center of the world.” Last year, Korea became the host of the Global Green Growth Institute, the fruit of efforts to position itself as a leader in renewable energy and the first international body to be headquartered in the country. Seoul hosted the Nuclear Security Summit the same March. Then, this year, the country took a seat as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council for the second time. Upon South Korea’s selection months previously, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hailed the opportunity to take a “leading part in the U.N.’s efforts for world peace and security.”
But activists like Marczak see a contradiction between Korea’s desire to be a respected and influential member of the international community and any potential contribution to oppression elsewhere.
“It is not just Bahrain, it is this pattern of being the world’s supplier of tear gas in some sense,” said Marczak, who noted that tear gas used in suppressing protests in Turkey earlier this year was also revealed to have come from Korea. “Whenever there is a protest, Korea is there – just buy tear gas. And I definitively think it is not a good image to have associated with (the country).”
At least some Korean officials appear concerned about the risk of negative perceptions abroad. An official from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, the body that has to approve the shipment, told The Diplomat on Monday (Dec. 16th) that loss of life in Bahrain would have to be taken into consideration in its decision, as well as international arms protocol and South Korea’s relations with the country.
DAPA spokesman Baek Youn-hyeong said that there was a “low probability” that permission would be granted for the export but that no decision had been made.
“If more loss of life results after South Korea exports tear gas to Bahrain, even though tear gas is not a lethal weapons system, would that hurt South Korea’s image in the international community? That would certainly hurt. That is why there is a low probability. But we have not made that decision at this time,” he said.
He said there was no timeline for when a conclusion would be reached.
For now, the export remains in the balance, with the impact on Korea’s image as yet unclear. Generally, though, the art of managing its national image abroad remains underdeveloped in Korea, according to Byung Jong Lee, a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University and expert on nation branding.
“This realization, this need of Korea, is a relatively new concept. For a long (time), Korea didn’t care too much about its outside reputation. We were too busy building our economy and our own economic system,” said Lee. “But now, gradually, Korea is realizing the importance of this and learning from its experiences. In that regard, I don’t think that at the moment Korea is doing enough to achieve this, but in the near future (it will), Korea is a fast learner. In the near future, Korea will be able to meet international expectations.”
Korea’s role in global affairs should be considered in terms beyond just nation branding, according to Carl Joergen Saxer, a political science professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. He said Korea’s foreign policy itself is in its relative infancy.
“Korea is rather new to being a middle power and Korean foreign policy has never really had a moral or ethical kind of element to it. It is just in the last few years that the whole idea about potential blowback, for instance, has arisen in Korea,” said Saxer.
“And in particular in what regards to what Korean corporations either sell or do overseas, it is only in recent years again – and mostly driven by what Korean companies have been doing in low labor-cost countries like China, for instance, where there has been a lot of controversy with how they have acted there. So it is only in the last few years that the realization that how Korean acts overseas, be that in a private or in a government function, has consequences, potentially.”
Saxer added that Korea’s stance on the Bahrain issue should also be seen in the context of its business interests in the region.
“If it starts having consequences for the reputation of Korea, then the Korean government will also start noticing. But you’ve got to realize that Korea… has a strong interest in having good relations with the Middle East because a lot of Korean constructions companies have very big orders in the Middle East. But that good relationship has of course focused on state to state relations, meaning the South Korean government is mostly concerned about its relationship to the Bahrain government and of course it is the Bahrain government that buys the tear gas canisters in question.”
South Korea, of course, is far from the first democracy to be criticized for its conduct abroad.
Park Sang-seek, a former foreign affairs ministry official and previously the rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies at Kyung Hee University, said sometimes questionable arms trading was a simple reality worldwide.
“As you know, all countries condemn the export of military weapons to ‘rogue states, failed states, or evil states,’ but they make money by selling any kind of weapons to such countries,” said Park, while stressing that he did not have adequate knowledge of the situation in Bahrain to comment specifically on Korea’s involvement there.
“Some of them say that they do not officially sell weapons and that it is impossible to prevent private groups to engage in illegal weapons sales. As you know, many developed countries make a lot of money out of this business. Even some developing countries engage in such a business. Tear gas may not be a military weapon, but is used by many states to suppress riots or anti-government demonstrations. Intellectuals of the world are condemning such acts, but of no avail. We live in a brutal world. If you find any solution to solve the inhumane behavior of nations, please tell me.”