Features | Diplomacy | East Asia

South Korea’s Africa Outreach

Tracing South Korea’s approach to the continent under 4 presidents.

By R. Maxwell Bone and Matthew Minsoo Kim for
South Korea’s Africa Outreach

People view a billboard advertising then-President Park’s trip to Ethiopia, May 27, 2016, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Credit: Flickr/ Republic of Korea

During the 1960s, South Korea commenced a diplomatic offensive with countries that had remained neutral during the Korean War. This was done to cement alliances with countries so they would back South Korea should conflict break out again. One of the main regions where South Korea attempted to build diplomatic alliances was across Africa, as a significant number of African countries had gained their independence in the preceding decades.

This strategy saw success when, in 1961, South Korea formalized diplomatic relations with Chad, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, and Niger. In the coming decades, South Korea would form relations with many countries across the continent. In effect, South Korea created relations with the aim of gaining the support of African countries in international forums. During this period South Korea would largely engage in such activity in collaboration with the United States and Europe. For all intents and purposes, the relations of South Korea with Africa largely played into the Cold War.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was assumed that South Korea would decrease involvement in Africa. To an extent this was correct, as made evident by the decreased levels of political, economic, and security assistance provided to Africa by South Korea. However, this shift reversed itself in the 21st century, as seen by the fact the South Korea now engages with Africa more than it did during the Cold War. Furthermore, such engagement is largely diverse, as evidenced by analyzing the engagement that has occurred under the four presidents that have led South Korea since 2003.

Roh Moo-hyun

Roh Moo-hyun was elected president of South Korea in 2003. Previously a democracy advocate during the country’s dictatorship, he was left-wing and dedicated to reaching an agreement with North Korea through dialogue. Roh had played a role in seeing South Korea transform into a democracy with unprecedented economic growth.

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South Korea’s success encouraged Roh to work with other countries to implement the economic model that had allowed his own country to prosper, as seen in a trip Roh took to Egypt, Nigeria, and Algeria in 2006 when he announced the South Korea’s Africa Development Initiative.  He expressed hope that the initiative would lead to more frequent collaboration between Seoul and countries across Africa.

In November 2006 Roh convened the South-Korea Africa forum, where he announced that South Korea would triple its assistance to Africa through the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). Roh expressed his desire to assist African countries in the fields of health, education, development, and infrastructure. One result of this was the establishment of a capacity building program that would see nearly 2,000 African civil servants trained in South Korea. Further, it resulted in Korean companies increasing investment in Africa, and the KOICA financing infrastructure projects in countries such as Ghana and Tanzania.

Throughout Roh’s presidency there was a cornerstone he used when communicating and developing the policy of South Korea toward Africa: that South Korea had seen a massive economic transformation over the preceding decades and it wished to assist African countries to achieve similar progress. Evidently, there were efforts to assist South Korean companies to enter African markets but this was also done in line with assisting African countries to develop.

The legacy of Roh’s policy in Africa is the creation of the South Korea-Africa Forum. It is noteworthy that during his presidency the focus of South Korea’s cooperation with Africa was exclusively focused on commercial linkages and development assistance.

Lee Myung-bak

In 2007  Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) won South Korea’s presidential election. Lee made it clear that his presidency would see a dramatic shift from Roh on domestic issues, but even more so on foreign policy.

The change in foreign policy led many to believe that Africa may not be a focus for the Lee administration. Yet this concern was debunked when the second South Korea-Africa forum was convened in 2009, attended not only by African states but African Union representatives as well. At the conclusion of the summit, South Korea applauded the efforts of the African Union and pledged to further cooperate with the regional body in the years to come. Lee also promised to double 2008’s official development aid to $200 million by 2012.

The priority that Lee placed on Africa in foreign policy was underlined during his 2010 New Year’s address, where he stated that during the coming year the consolidation of diplomatic relations with the continent was a priority. This was followed by his visit to Africa in 2011, during which Lee visited South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia, making him the first South Korean president to visit all three countries. During this visit a significant shift in South Korea’s foreign policy was made clear: Africa would play a larger role in the East Asian republic’s foreign policy both at a regional and global level. During Lee’s visit to South Africa, for example, he placed emphasis on the two G-20 members developing mechanisms through which economic and political cooperation could be strengthened.

However, it was during Lee’s visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo that the new point of contention in South Korea’s relationship with Africa became clear: the relationships between African states and North Korea. During Lee’s visit to the DRC, he spoke with President Joseph Kabila about the North Korean test of ballistic missiles in 2009. Lee expressed his interest in expanding commercial ties with the central African country in what was seen as an attempt to gain influence where North Korea had been involved for decades.

This continued in Ethiopia where Lee pointed to the country’s participation in the Korean War as a baseline for deepening political cooperation.  Lee visited a memorial to the Ethiopian soldiers who fought in the Korean War. He also promised to invite the descendants of Ethiopian veterans to South Korea and educate them about Korean economic development. By visiting the DRC and Ethiopia, which historically had cooperation with North Korea, Lee made clear that in addition to economies, geopolitics was now an element of South Korea’s policy in Africa.

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In short, under Lee, relations between South Korea and Africa shifted from mainly economic cooperation to international politics. This was specifically the case regarding the relationships that African states had with North Korea.

Park Geun-hye

Conservative rule of South Korea continued with the election of Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party (a rebranding of the Grand National Party) in December 2012. When Park was elected, she stated that the country would continue to play a substantial role in international affairs focusing on three main pillars. Notably, she insisted that all foreign policy would be conducted in a manner that secures the national interests of South Korea, which was seen as a reference to countering North Korea.

At the outset of her time in office, the already conservative Park was forced to drastically alter her foreign policy to address North Korea, thanks to Pyongyang’s December 2012 missile tests. This was followed by nuclear tests, which led to efforts at the United Nations to isolate North Korea. Park also sought to weaken relations that North Korea had enjoyed with many countries, including those in Africa. While this had been a priority of the preceding administration, Park approached it with more political will.

Park’s approach included hosting African heads of state and raising the issue of North Korea. In March of 2013 Park hosted Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Seoul. Uganda had long cooperated with North Korea and Museveni visited Pyongyang multiple times. During his visit to South Korea, expanding commercial ties, security cooperation, and assistance in fields such as education were discussed. Notably, all these fields are areas in which North Korea and Uganda had been cooperating. Similar visits were made by the presidents of Mozambique and the Ivory Coast .

Park’s Africa policy became even clearer during a visit she made to the continent in the spring of 2015, during which she visited Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Notably, while assistance and economic cooperation were mentioned, the overwhelming focus of her visit was attempting to gain the support of African states in isolating North Korea.  For instance, during her historic speech at the African Union (AU) Park asked African countries to urge the North to give up its nuclear arsenal. In Uganda she directly offered military security assistance, an area in which Kampala had previously cooperated with Pyongyang. During this trip she also sought to strengthen people-to-people ties between South Korea and Africa in an array of fields. However, Park received domestic criticism for her Korea Aid initiative in Africa. This aid was criticized as overly optimistic and short sighted.

The Africa policy of Park can be characterized by fighting the presence of North Korea on the continent. Her administration sought to elevate the issue at senior levels such as in bilateral meetings and in international bodies. Additionally, it sought to support this aim using soft power, including foreign assistance.

Moon Jae In

Park’s presidency ended when she was removed from office on corruption charges in 2017. Moon Jae-in, a member of the liberal Democratic Party, succeeded Park in May of that same year. Moon came from a liberal background and his presidency marked the first time in nearly a decade that the Blue House was not held by a conservative. This saw a notable shift in the foreign policy of South Korea.

While Moon’s policy toward Africa is still in its infancy, several key characteristics of it are clear. The Moon administration does not view Africa as a venue for competition with its northern neighbor. This has led to the administration shifting its policies to focus exclusively on economic development and commercial linkages. This was made clear in the visit of South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha to Ghana, South Africa, and Ethiopia and in other initiatives, including the Korea-Africa youth forum in Seoul.

The policy of Moon toward Africa is still in its nascent stages, largely because his administration’s priorities are centered on reconciliation with North Korea. The small indicators of the Moon administration’s policy on Africa we do have show that his approach is largely centered on commercial linkages and economic development.

R. Maxwell Bone is Vice President for Political Affairs, Democracy, and Governance at the International Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development. He lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on twitter @maxbone55.

Matthew Minsoo Kim is a Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. He previously served as a member of the artillery forces in the South Korean army. He  is based between Seoul and Washington, D.C.