Why South Korea wants a piece of Africa

Tuesday June 04 2024

South Korean and African leaders during the summit on June 4, 2024. POOL


South Korea is banking on its first summit with African leaders on Tuesday to raise its profile on the continent and boost economic ties, officials said ahead of the meeting in Seoul.

But in an Africa where China, the US, Russia, the European Union, Britain and India have already pitched their ideas, the South Koreans say the two-day event should also be a reflection of shared experiences and lessons learned.

Read: US must boost Africa ties to secure key minerals, report says

Chung Byung-won, Korea’s Deputy Minister for Political Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a group of journalists that his country was best placed to work with Africa because of a shared history of poverty.

“Among the countries who already held Summit with Africa, not a single country has such history that Korea and Africa share.  Korea overcame those obstacles and achieved remarkable growth not solely by itself but with the support of the international community,” Mr Chung said from Seoul ahead of the Summit.

But this is not an emotional attachment. South Korea is rushing to tap into Africa's vast mineral resources, which could power the country's transition to greener technology. It is also rushing to cement trade ties with Africa. Mr Chung spoke in general terms, saying that his country wanted to strengthen economic cooperation with Africa for development and growth.


“The Republic of Korea (ROK)’s expertise in development, coupled with its unwavering commitment to aid and advanced technologies, positions it to catalyse Africa's economic growth and sustainable development. Meanwhile, Africa's burgeoning market and ambitious development agendas offer avenues for the ROK’s own growth and supply chain diversification,” Chung said, referring to South Korea’s official name.

Then he turned to Ghana, and Zambia, specifically, to, to discuss the mineral potential there.

“Since Korea is a leader in electric vehicle production and possesses high competitiveness in advanced industrial sectors such as secondary batteries, the potential for cooperation with Zambia, which is rich in key minerals like copper, is tremendous. 

The summit, he said, was "the best opportunity for Korea to accompany Africa's proactive development path based on its own experience and expertise".

Some 25 African leaders had confirmed their attendance, according to a preliminary message sent to journalists, although Seoul said it had received confirmation that representatives of up to 48 African countries would attend. South Korea, by the way, has 25 embassies on the continent, a relationship that has grown over the past 30 years.

Leaders including President William Ruto of Kenya, Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania and Paul Kagame of Rwanda are among those in Seoul. South Korea has granted state visits to President Samia, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio. Tanzania, Kenya and Morocco are among the first to begin talks on Economic Partnership Agreements with South Korea, while Tanzania has already secured a $1 billion loan from the Korean Economic Development Cooperation Fund (ECDF).

Read: South Korea agrees to lend billions to Tanzania, Ethiopia

The meeting will take the form of bilateral and plenary sessions, as well as meetings with business leaders, giving African leaders the opportunity to pitch their investment environments directly.

But South Korea has marketed the whole meeting as being based on three pillars: enabling the Asian country to engage more with the Global South, building 'win-win' economic cooperation, and helping to address common global challenges such as climate change and peace and security.

As the last in the summit series, Seoul has adopted both a historical narrative of surviving colonialism and poverty, and a Western-centric view of freedom, democracy and the free market. 

Some booklets shared with the media show that Seoul plans to "engage in various development initiatives in Africa", including providing official development assistance (ODA), capacity-building programmes and "sharing best practices in areas such as education, health care and agriculture". It promises to continue its "positive reputation" in Africa and help fight stereotypes of poverty, disease and backwardness.

“These initiatives aim to support African countries in achieving their development goals and narrowing the development gap.”

 “Africa is a key partner for Korea in realising its foreign policy aspiration of becoming a 'Global Pivotal State,” says Cho Tae-yul, South Korea’s Foreign Minister, in a welcoming statement.

In return, Africa, according to Cho, “possesses abundant reserves of critical minerals essential for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Africa, he says, will offer a market for trade and direct investment in areas such as infrastructure, natural resources and environment, human capital, tourism destinations and cooperation in research and development.

Whether a good deal emerges from Seoul will depend on various factors. David Monday, Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York says it is good that Seoul is at least showing interest in addressing concerns around trading barriers.

“Time will tell. South Korea is trying to catch up with Asian rivals China, Japan, Russia and India in Africa. A lot will depend on the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade between Africa and South Korea,” Prof Monda told the Nation.

“In addition to this, human-to-human connections and networks will need to be developed via direct flights from Seoul to African capitals. At present, Korean Air only flies to Nairobi (suspended), Cairo, and Johannesburg. In addition to this, trade between Africa and South Korea should be a win-win, as much as the relationship is asymmetrical,” he argued.

South Korea is deemed to be one of those Asian countries with toughest non-tariff barriers and historians relate it to its state-supported history of pushing an export-oriented economy which may need reform to accommodate Africa’s produce.

“In addition standards requirements, state-trading operations and import prohibitions are areas that will need to be negotiated. It will be interesting to see if the Chair of the African Union (Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazounami), has a common African agenda related to trade with South Korea.

For some, however, the entire relationship should not be based on raw materials extracted from Africa, but African leaders should call for value addition.

“The best bet is to push for a collective African free trade agreement (FTA). The Republic of Korea has no free trade agreement (FTA) with Africa, which make African agricultural products uncompetitive,” observed Mr Ngovi Kitau, a former Kenyan Ambassador to South Korea.

“Keep in mind that Korean population is similar to that of Kenya, 50 million. That limits demand for consumables.” 

South Korea, however, says it has made good steps. It is an Observer state at the African Union and trade with Africa has risen 23-fold from $890 million in 1988 up to $20.5 billion in 2022, according to the Korea International Trade Association (It favours Seoul, however. In Kenya, they exported just Sh6 billion worth of goods but bought ten times more from South Korea, for example, in 2022). The amount is nearly a tenth of China’s trade volume.

Read: Ruto, Samia eye trade deals with South Korea

But during that time, Seoul says its investment in Africa rose from $63 million in 1988 to $700 in 2019. It sent $6 billion worth of direct financial support to Africa as loans or grants. Itis currently part of the $1 billion Lobito Corridor in Angola and says it spent $8 million on education support. It also received 57,000 African tourists and thousands of others on sponsored trainings.

Lately, Koreans also say they are playing on Africa’s side to help improve rice production. They are piloting the K-Rice production in Kenya, Uganda, Senegal and Cameroon, seeking to introduce a new type of rice that can yield more.  It is a “positive trajectory” they say should continue.