South Korea’s Evolving Role in sub-Saharan Africa

South Korea wants a seat at the table in sub-Saharan Africa. It is seeking to define its policies toward the region and assess how it might fit into Africa’s pre-existing network of traditional partners and new entrants. In December, I had the honor of representing CSIS at the second Seoul Dialogue on Africa, the theme of which was “Africa’s Integration: Legacies and New Horizons.” The event was hosted by the Korea-Africa Foundation, an arm of the Korean Foreign Ministry, which promotes cooperation between Korean and African private sectors. It brought together experts from around the world to provide insight into African demographic, economic, and security trends to a diverse audience of academics, practitioners, and diplomats. The conference showcased Seoul’s commitment to increasing its engagement and assisting its African counterparts in developing their economies, as well as to signal potential opportunities to deepen collaboration with the United States.

The very theme of this conference hints to where Seoul is on its journey to African partnership. Let’s start with “legacies.” Under President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), South Korea started to renew its ties with the continent. His government announced Korea’s Initiative for African Development in 2006, and he embarked on the first presidential trip to the region in 24 years. His immediate successors, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, followed suit with their own travels to Africa. The final panel at the event featured presentations on UK, U.S., Chinese, and Turkish partnership strategies with Africa, suggesting Korean policymakers see value in these historical and current examples to inform their own path.

Now let’s look at “new horizons,” the true centerpiece of this dialogue. Current President Moon Jae-in has been slow to develop his own policy toward the region, although his foreign minister recently visited Ghana, Ethiopia, and South Africa. If the Seoul Dialogue on Africa is any indication, Moon wants to approach Africa with a fresh perspective focusing on youth, technology, and entrepreneurship. The Korea-Africa Foundation hosted the Korea-Africa Youth Forum just prior to the conference, which provided panel discussions on African start-ups and an opportunity for young African and Korean entrepreneurs to network. The GSMA trade association reports that there are more than 442 active tech hubs in Africa as of 2018, and that Amazon, Facebook, and Google are already investing in some of these companies, making support to tech entrepreneurs a potentially important partnership strategy. The Korea-Africa Foundation also provided African graduate students an afternoon to present their research to experts and peers for feedback, again highlighting Seoul’s intention to support African youth and build early relationships with people who could emerge as Africa’s industry and political leaders.

The policy question is whether Africa’s established partners help—or hinder—Korea’s growing presence in African circles. Will they invite this new kid to sit at the table, or will they throw their backpack on the empty chair? The continent is receiving more attention because foreign counterparts see new openings for trade and investment, as well as growing threats from terrorism, criminality, epidemics, and irregular migration. The surge in foreign interest is an opportunity and challenge for African governments and traditional partners such as the United States. In the case of South Korea, however, there is considerable alignment with U.S. objectives, including youth and entrepreneurship. The United States should see South Korea as a natural ally and potential partner to share responsibilities and work toward mutual goals. Specifically, Washington could team up with Seoul on the following issues:

  1. Support Entrepreneurs. South Korea and the United States, both through government and private sector channels, could collaborate to address youth unemployment while helping the relevant African agencies develop policies to support greater entrepreneurship. The African Development Bank estimates that up to 12 million young Africans finish school and join the job market each year, at the same time that only 3.1 million new jobs are created, making entrepreneurship, particularly in the tech industry, an appealing alternative to unemployment or underemployment. At the same time, most African governments have not yet devoted the necessary resources to support research and development or provide a safety net for these intrepid youth as they work to get their businesses off the ground. Both Seoul and Washington have made private sector engagement a defining feature of their strategies toward the region.

  2. Bring Technology to Youth. The United States and South Korea have private sector leaders who are well positioned to work with nongovernmental organizations and burgeoning African tech companies to expand access to the internet and increase tech literacy. As African young adults embrace technology and seek funding for start-ups, young children should not be left behind. These future leaders—and industry giants alike—would benefit from learning coding languages early in their education, which would require both support to teachers and the technological tools to bring instruction wherever these children may be. In November 2019, the State Department announced plans to strengthen U.S.-African university partnerships. It tends to tap U.S. universities’ expertise in working with the private sector, emphasizing the importance of research, commercialization, technology transfer, and job creation.

  3. Create Infrastructure. South Korea can work in tandem with U.S. partners on such endeavors, leveraging its own experiences in digital economy to help find the best way forward in creating the necessary infrastructure to support this industry. In July 2018, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) launched its “Connect Africa” initiative, which will invest more than $1 billion to projects that support transportation, communications, and value chains in Africa. In October 2018, Congress passed the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, which forms a U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (USIDFC) with a spending cap of $60 billion for emerging market infrastructure projects in low- to middle-income countries. Last June, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) announced its “Access Africa” initiative to support the development of quality Information and Communication Technology infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa. These efforts are ripe for collaboration with South Korean government and industry.

As the United States looks for partners and collaborators in sub-Saharan Africa, it should consider teaming up with the newest member of the policy team, South Korea. Aligning goals, resources, and projects will enable Washington, Seoul, and African counterparts to push forward fresh policies in the upcoming decade.

Emilia Columbo is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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