The Koreas

South Korea-Africa Summit: A Disappointing Outcome?

Recent Features

The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

South Korea-Africa Summit: A Disappointing Outcome?

While South Korea’s interests were clear, what was evident from the summit was the lack of clarity on African governments’ joint, specific position on engagement with Seoul.

South Korea-Africa Summit: A Disappointing Outcome?

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ghazouani (left), currently the African Union chair, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol attend a joint press briefing on the 2024 Korea-Africa Summit in Kintex, Goyang-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea, June 4, 2024.

Credit: ROK Office of the President/ Kang Min Seok

On June 4-5, South Korea joined the trend of inviting leaders of African governments for a summit intended to boost cooperation and diplomacy. With the theme “The Future We Make Together: Shared Growth, Sustainability, and Solidarity,” the inaugural Korea-Africa Summit was attended by 25 African heads of state and government, and up to 48 African countries were represented by a top official. This summit built on previous platforms, most notably the Korea-Africa Forum (KAF) and the biennial Korea-Africa Forum on Economic Cooperation (KOAFEC), which started in 2006.

However, given these existing platforms, some questioned the need for a separate summit. Indeed, several African leaders were chastised for attending the summit by citizens and opposition parties. Was it worth it?

In the lead up to the summit, the first deputy director of South Korea’s national security office said, “South Korea’s [strategic] collaboration with Africa is not an option but is a must, in that South Korea is striving to become a global pivotal state.” The Yoon government clearly believes that a Korea-Africa summit fits the profile of South Korea’s ambition to become a “global pivotal state.” 

The first day of the summit saw Mauritanian President Mohamed Ghazouani, chairperson of the African Union, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol issue a joint statement outlining key areas of cooperation. Per the Joint Declaration, Seoul pledged $14 billion in export credits to Korean firms to enter African markets and made a further pledge of $10 billion of Official Development Assistance to Africa by 2030. 

From Seoul’s vantage point, the need for a summit and these pledges were clear, and boiled down to two key overarching objectives: ensuring access to critical minerals and seeking support over North Korea issues.

Diversify Sources and Increase Stockpiles of Critical Minerals

Being home to the likes of Samsung, LG, and other giants in the semiconductor and EV battery industries, Seoul needs a stable and predictable supply of key commodities. In February 2023, the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy announced a strategy to guarantee a steady and secure supply of critical minerals. The ministry identified 33 crucial minerals; among these, 10 (including lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite) were designated as “strategic” for semiconductor and electric vehicle (EV) battery production.

Currently, South Korea meets around 95 percent of its mineral demand through imports. African countries have long been major sources of the commodities that go into South Korea’s supply chain. But until now, Seoul had not seen the need to prioritize cooperation with Africa, because China has been the middleman processing and refining these commodities to industry grade. As a result, China is by far the country South Korea is most directly dependent on. 

Last year, China was one of the three primary suppliers for 25 of the 33 imported strategic minerals. South Korea imported 97.7 percent of its natural graphite and 94.3 percent of its synthetic graphite from China as of September 2023. South Korea also relies on China for significant amounts of other critical minerals, including 84 percent of its lithium oxide, 83.3 percent of cobalt oxide, 77.6 percent of manganese and cobalt sulfate, and 69 percent of cobalt hydroxide imports. 

However, this dependence is now seen as too risky due to intensifying geopolitical tension, and competition among advance economies to dominate the fourth industrial age. In this context, Seoul aims to secure its supply chain to build industry resilience, and it sees maintaining favorable relations with African countries as crucial. 

Hence, on the sidelines of the summit Tanzania and Korea inked a $2.5 billion concessional loan deal over five years. It will allow South Korea access to Tanzania’s ocean resources and minerals such as nickel, lithium, and graphite. Ethiopia on the other hand secured a $1 billion financing deal aimed at infrastructure, science and technology, and urban development, to be made available over four years. 

A South Korea-Africa critical minerals dialogue is scheduled to be inaugurated later this year, where Seoul is likely to pursue further direct deals.

The North Korea Question

The second priority for Seoul was gaining support amid tensions on the Korean Peninsula and rising geopolitical anxiety more broadly. 

Hence, the joint declaration also restated the need to implement all United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions aimed at the “irreversible” de-nuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula – a move clearly aimed at defanging North Korea. Seoul intends to coordinate with the three African non-permanent members of the UNSC to pressure Pyongyang on security matters in the Korean Peninsula.

Pyongyang seems to have read the writing on the wall. Ahead of the summit, the Foreign Ministry of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) said in a statement that relations with Africa will continue developing. 

In a speech during the summit, Seoul urged African countries to take firmer steps in an international pressure campaign against North Korea. “Along with our friends in Africa, South Korea will fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions and work to safeguard peace on the Korean Peninsula and the international community,” Yoon said

Pyongyang has long been a key player in providing African countries with arms as well as military services like training and equipment maintenance. Tanzania, for instance, has engaged North Korean engineers to maintain its fighter planes. In 2017, a U.N. report accused Tanzania of engaging a North Korean company in fixing and improving its surface-to-air missile systems. So it came as no surprise that Seoul is keen to deepen ties with Tanzania. 

There is a consensus among experts that the Seoul summit, along with its trade and investment opportunities, was intended to rally African support against North Korea. Last year, Pyongyang seemed to be on the backfoot on the diplomatic front following the closure of some of its embassies across the world, including in Angola and Uganda. However, Seoul has good reason to make a bilateral push.

Back in March, Russia vetoed the United Nations’ renewal of a panel of U.N. experts monitoring North Korea’s compliance with international sanctions. The panel of experts’ reports at times accused African countries violating U.N. sanctions in their dealings with North Korea. No U.N. oversight means plausible deniability for the African side moving forward; this paves the way for North Korea to stage a comeback. 

The Gap in African Positioning

While South Korea’s interests were clear, what was evident from the summit was the lack of clarity on African governments’ joint, specific position on engagement with Seoul. When African leaders were questioned by journalists on what they wanted from the summit, there was little of a unifying narrative.

This is not for a lack of potential unifying objectives that would also meet domestic, bilateral objectives for specific African countries, in both the areas highlighted above and beyond. 

Take critical minerals. To capitalize on global competition for critical minerals, producing countries with forward-thinking governments are increasingly demanding better deals with an emphasis on value addition. Indonesia is an excellent case in point with nickel. From the African side, in fact, there already exists a blueprint for this – the African Mining Vision, which prioritizes value addition, environmental protection, skills transfer, and sustainable growth and development of countries with the valued resources.

Already, countries are showing it is doable. Chinese investments into lithium extraction in Zimbabwe and Nigeria both include some level of refining. Botswana has long been a success story in diamond refining. 

The Joint Declaration issued in Seoul stated, “We emphasize the importance of Korea’s efforts to support Africa’s industrialization, and the need to foster mutually beneficial trade and investment and strengthen Korean-African business partnership.” To put that into practice, the agreements South Korea reached with specific countries should deliver on value addition. Right now, it is unclear whether they do. 

Furthermore, African countries could have followed South Korea’s (and China’s) own path many years ago and sought stronger language around the type of investment supported by export credits for Korean firms, or even language around joint ventures or local content or employment provisions that might enable job creation and technology transfer through such investments. But none of this language was to be seen.

Similarly, while African governments proved willing to engage with Seoul on the North Korea question, there appeared to be little sign of a quid-pro-quo. Yet, again when it comes to the U.N. Security Council, Africa’s priorities are clear: the Ezulwini Consensus, which demands African representation on the United Nations’ top body. Even a nod toward this in the declaration would have been helpful.

There are also other collective objectives African governments had, which either were not advanced in time to make it into the declaration or were rejected by South Korea. Take the 10 billion ODA commitment, for instance. This could have been linked to an early commitment by Seoul to contribute to the World Bank’s only concessional financing instrument – IDA – which is due for replenishment. In fact, Seoul is scheduled to be host the IDA’s final pledging and replenishment meeting from December 10-11. 

A fallback to that would have been for South Korea to back a proposal made by Kenya’s President William literally a few weeks ago when hosting the IDA Africa Summit in Nairobi for the IDA to increase to $120 billon. While my firm, Development Reimagined, has published analysis demonstrating that $120 billion is not particularly high in a historical or needs-based context, the fact that no number was mentioned in the declaration is a sign of low ambition from an African perspective.


Overall, while the inaugural Korea-Africa summit laid some groundwork for a boost in capital commitment from South Korea toward infrastructure, investment, and development projects in Africa, the summit indicates that either African leaders need to shout louder about their priorities, or countries like South Korea must put more effort into listening to African demands. It is likely both are necessary.

Indeed, it is not the presence of African leaders at such meetings that journalists or citizens should be concerned about. It is the outcomes they achieve – which should not be limited to just domestic objectives. Most capitals like Seoul now have a cohort of African ambassadors or high-commissioners, and many have African Union representative offices. With the proliferation of Africa-plus-one summits, it is time for African capitals to organize and take these summits seriously, using the cohorts and offices to plan ahead and coordinate ambitious positions. 

Meanwhile, countries like South Korea should make more serious efforts to co-create declarations, making them truly “joint,” while making side-deals that emphasize their commitments to transformative, mutually beneficial relationships.