Seoul will find that states in the region are being aggressively courted by other players, including their counterparts in Pyongyang.

The Republic of Korea’s (ROK) President Park Geun-hye will visit Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya this week in an effort to bring the ROK’s economic engagement with African partners up to par with well-established China-Africa and India-Africa relations. As anti-ROK rhetoric from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) surges, stability on the Korean Peninsula will also be at the forefront of discussions as Seoul seeks to block burgeoning defence relationships between the DPRK and some African states. But securing political support in East Africa will be a more complicated affair as these states are willing to build relationships on both sides of the 38th parallel.

Mixed relations

With the exception of the participation of Ethiopian battalions in the Korean War, ROK’s shared history with Africa is thin. This stands in contrast to its regional competitors. China has a shared socialist history and the positive legacy of its early post-independence development initiatives in East Africa. India has built upon successful and long-established business relations between East Africa’s Indian communities and the sub-continent.  So the ROK’s push into East Africa is starting from a low base, and delays in mounting the 4th Korea-Africa Forum and the 5th Korea-Africa Economic Cooperation conference, now scheduled to take place in late 2016, indicate that African relations have, until recently, been far down Seoul’s agenda.

But the ROK has some advantages. Its ‘Miracle on the Han River’ development trajectory, the period of unprecedented export-oriented economic growth from the 1960s to the mid-1990s may appeal as a model to East African countries. In the early 1960s they had similar rates of GDP per capita to South Korea, and are all seeking to achieve the same kind of rapid transformation. The ROK has also demonstrated a degree of soft power through the dissemination of Korean development models such as the technologically-focused Knowledge Sharing Program and the rural infrastructure initiative Saemaul Undong. The country’s aid allocation to Africa is increasing and a new Korea Aid programme will be officially launched during Park’s visit, enhancing Seoul’s development footprint, though it will not compete with bigger aid partners.

However, recent serious missteps betray a lack of appreciation of the individuality and agency of African states. Korean complicity in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has cost African states billions of dollars, and has proven to be a serious black mark against ‘Brand Korea’, as have allegations of land-grabbing in Madagascar against the ROK company Daewoo Logistics that led to political instability. The decision of the national flag carrier, Korean Air, to scrap its Nairobi-Seoul route at the height of the Ebola crisis, despite Nairobi being more than 7,000 kilometres away from its epicentre, was met with scorn across the continent.

The shifting status of East Africa’s hegemons will prove an even greater diplomatic challenge during President Park’s visit. Uganda’s recent decision to route a lucrative oil pipeline through Tanzania has left Kenya seeking to shore up its long-held regional status as the most desirable location for business and investment. Ethiopia’s growing industrial base is partly inspired by the ROK’s model of rapid industrialization, and its population size offers an attractive market, but stringent government control over the sectors that are open to foreign investment mean that smaller but more capitalist-minded Kenya and Uganda pose real economic competition.

The ROK’s existing commercial footprint in Africa has seen mixed success. Overall bilateral trade remains very low, with Africa being the destination of just 1.4 per cent of ROK exports in 2015. The ROK’s economic growth rate fell to 2.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2016 and exports are also declining, increasing the importance of improving the ROK’s presence in new markets. Growth averaged 3.6 per cent over the past 10 years, compared to 9.3 per cent between 1985 and 1995. The powerful chaebol – large, frequently family-owned conglomerateshave secured numerous lucrative contracts in African countries’ heavy industrial sector, and the ROK’s technological expertise has helped to make brands like Samsung and LG household names in Africa.

However the failure of a consortium led by an ROK firm, SK Engineering and Construction, to win the tender for Uganda’s $4 billion oil refinery – losing out to a consortium led by the Russian RT Global Resources in 2015 − demonstrates that the ROK may lack the geopolitical clout to compete effectively with larger and more politically influential players; the national oil company has also largely seen its advances in Africa flounder. But energy will remain vital to the ROK’s relationship with East Africa. Korea Gas Corporation, the ROK’s public natural gas company, maintains interests off the coast of Mozambique, and solidifying engagement with Kenya and Uganda, ahead of the start of oil production in both states, will be a priority as Seoul seeks to reduce its dependence on unstable Middle Eastern production.

Korean competition

The economic imperative to Park’s visit is obvious, but there are also potentially significant political spoils on offer. Two of the three countries on Park’s Africa itinerary have been scrutinized for their links to the DPRK’s defence industry. Both Ethiopia and Uganda developed military relations with Pyongyang during the 1970s under the regimes of Mengistu Haile Mariam and Idi Amin. According to a February 2015 investigation by the UN Panel of Experts, these relations may have been maintained through DPRK involvement in Ethiopian ammunition manufacturing and in police training in Uganda.

East African states have demonstrated that they are happy to work with both sides. But they now face a similar choice to Iran, following President Park’s visit to Tehran in May − closer cooperation with Asia’s fourth-largest economy or an alliance with one of the world’s most isolated states. Ethiopia has purported links to the DPRK, but is also the primary recipient of Seoul’s ODA to Africa, while Uganda’s refusal to cease working with DPRK police trainers, despite warnings that this breaches UN sanctions, comes at the same time as Ugandan and ROK troops collaborate as part of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Still, East African states each have their own agenda, and may not react well to being dictated to on their choice of partners. They will expect President Park to show that the ROK’s interest is about genuine collaboration, not merely extracting political and economic concessions, as other emerging powers wait in the wings.