Africa-Korea partnership: Why it matters for the future

Korea possesses valuable expertise in enhancing human and social capital, which is essential for the economic development and sustainable growth of African countries, says Park Jong-dae, a former South Korean ambassador to South Africa and Uganda.

Ji Da-gyum

Ji Da-gyum

The Korea Herald


Park Jong-dae (third from left, second row from the front), in his capacity as ambassador to Uganda, attends the annual workshop in December 2016 in Uganda aimed at transferring South Korea's Saemaul Undong model—a community-driven development program from the 1970s—to the African nation. PHOTO: PARK JONG-DAE/THE KOREA HERALD

May 24, 2024

SEOUL – South Korea has the “potential to be the most trustworthy partner for African countries” by leveraging its unique experience of rapidly transitioning from a developing to an advanced country overcoming historical challenges akin to those faced by the African continent, said Park Jong-dae, a former South Korean ambassador to South Africa and Uganda.

“Korea has no history of colonial rule over other countries, and it has navigated a development path similar to what many African nations are currently pursuing within a comparable historical context,” Park said in an interview with The Korea Herald this month at the Graduate School of International Studies of Yonsei University in Seoul, where he serves as a visiting professor.

“What sets us apart from other major countries that have hosted African summits is our ability to truly understand African villages, making us a genuine and empathetic partner for Africa.”

Park emphasized a need for Korea to adopt a “differentiated strategy” to mitigate the challenges of being a latecomer in engaging with African countries as South Korea is set to hold the first-ever Korea-Africa summit on June 4 and 5.

Other countries, such as Japan and China, have established long-standing dialogue platforms, respectively, dedicated to strengthening their ties with Africa. Noteworthy initiatives include summit-level meetings between countries like the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Turkey, India and Russia with their African counterparts.

Park explained that diplomatic initiatives underscore the urgency for Korea to expedite its efforts in establishing significant partnerships with the continent.

“To enhance diplomatic power while differentiating from major countries, it is crucial to thoroughly understand and effectively utilize Korea’s soft power assets,” Park said.

Park emphasized that Korea “must fully leverage its unique development experiences and know-how, which offer distinctive strength” for the country to engage with Africa.

“Unlike China and Japan, which often rely on hard power-oriented strategies such as economic cooperation and large-scale aid, Korea should focus on soft power elements like the exchange of knowledge and expertise,” he said.

Korea possesses valuable expertise in enhancing human and social capital, which is essential for the economic development and sustainable growth of African countries, according to Park.

The development of social and human capital in Africa is crucial as it cultivates a skilled and healthy workforce, driving economic growth and mitigating poverty. Additionally, fostering social cohesion and effective governance through investment in human and social capital ensures sustainable and inclusive development across the continent.

“We should pursue partnerships focused on enhancing human capital and social capital know-how, such as strengthening governance through public service, civil service management, e-government expertise, and other areas where we excel,” Park said.

Park believes that Korea has the capability to offer the most tailored strategy to address the continent’s developmental goals.

For example, he suggested that the Saemaul Undong model from Korea could be highly suitable for African countries aiming to enhance their human and social capital.

The Saemaul Undong, also known as the New Community Movement, was a community-driven development program introduced in South Korea during the 1970s. Its primary aim was to improve the quality of life in rural areas through grassroots, bottom-up initiatives rooted in the values of diligence, self-help and cooperation.

Therefore, Saemaul Undong recognized the critical role of social and human capital in fostering sustainable rural development, implementing strategies to strengthen these elements within rural communities, according to Park.

Park also highlighted that another key way to differentiate Korea’s Africa strategy is to “form a cultural and emotional resonance in utilizing its advantage as a non-Western, Asian country and highlighting the historical experience of being a developing country.”

Africa’s significance

Park underscored that Africa bears considerable salience for South Korea, embracing its immense economic potential, growing working-age population, rich natural resources and diplomatic presence on the global stage, beckoning attention and engagement.

“First and foremost, Africa remains a vast untapped market, often referred to as the final frontier,” Park said.

Africa is the second-largest continent globally, surpassed only by Asia, and its significance is underscored by the landmark launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area in 2021. The AfCFTA boasts a staggering population of 1.4 billion and a formidable gross domestic product of $3.4 trillion, making it a colossal market.

“Furthermore, Africa’s demographic dynamics are noteworthy,” said Park, adding the African continent “presents abundant labor resources and a dynamic population structure.”

While many developed countries, including South Korea, are grappling with declining birth rates and aging populations, Africa boasts the world’s highest population growth rate.

By 2050, it is projected to reach around 2.5 billion people, making up over a quarter of the global population, with an average age of 19, significantly younger than the global average of 30.

Park said that thirdly, Africa was rich in vital mineral resources. Approximately 30 percent of the world’s reserves of essential minerals for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and manganese are found in Africa.

Park underscored that due to their underdevelopment, these resources hold even greater scarcity value. Moreover, Africa is a significant producer of oil and natural gas, with oil accounting for about 9.5 percent and natural gas for around 8 percent of production.

“Amid the uncertainties in global supply chains, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led countries to prioritize their domestic markets, the importance of securing resources steadily has become paramount,” remarked Park. “Africa has consequently emerged as a pivotal destination for resource security.”

Park went on to say, “The reliable supply of essential minerals carries substantial strategic importance, as it profoundly impacts the prosperity and success of both individual companies and countries.”

In terms of diplomatic influence, Africa comprises 54 countries, making up nearly 30 percent of the United Nations member states, which total 193.

“Africa is an integral part of the global South and is valued as such by other key members, such as BRICS countries including China and Brazil. The African Union also has gained membership in the G20, further bolstering its diplomatic clout,” Park said.

“Africa, therefore, serves as a foundation for us to gain entry into international organizations and uphold our standing on the global stage.”

Future we make together

Park emphasized that South Korea has a well-established discourse indicating the potential for partnership with Africa. However, he stressed that it is now crucial to move beyond mere discourse and image-building to achieve a higher level of cooperation with Africa.

Park called for concrete actions and steps leading to visible and substantial cooperation at the first Korea-Africa summit.

“Both Korea and Africa acknowledge each other as crucial partners in realizing their respective visions. What is now imperative is to translate this awareness into action,” Park emphasized.

“The Korea-Africa summit will mark a significant milestone turning the awareness into action, grounded in the special solidarity between the two.”

Furthermore, Park said the Korea-Africa summit will “significantly contribute to enhancing mutual strategic partnership” by aligning South Korea’s “global pivotal state” diplomatic vision with Africa’s Agenda 2063, which serves as a development blueprint that aims for a prosperous continent based on inclusive growth and sustainable development.

Park pointed out that the goal of the summit is encapsulated in the slogan “The Future We Make Together: Shared Growth, Sustainability, and Solidarity.”

Park also highlighted that the Korea-Africa summit will serve as a litmus test for whether the Yoon Suk Yeol government can fulfill its core foreign policy vision of becoming a “global pivotal state.”

Up to this point, South Korean diplomatic endeavors have predominantly centered on the United States, the Korean Peninsula, Japan, China and Russia within Northeast Asia and other Asian nations, Park explained.

“However, to truly pursue global pivotal state diplomacy, it’s crucial that we showcase our capability to engage effectively with Africa. This inaugural meeting holds immense importance in that regard,” Park said.

“Hence, the summit now carries profound symbolism in our journey toward realizing global pivotal state diplomacy, serving as a significant gauge of our ability to excel in this arena.”

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