South Korea strengthens its economic presence in Africa

As the struggle for multipolarity and resources in Europe and Asia continues, another field of strategic confrontation between world powers is gradually taking shape. The fragmented African continent, with sensitive hotbeds of simmering and re-emerging conflicts, but rich in natural resources, is increasingly attracting investors from all over the world.

Leading Asian economies have been building foreign economic ties with African countries for decades. The Republic of Korea, following China, is increasing its influence in Sub-Saharan Africa with its investment projects, actively applying its experience in implementing sustainable development goals.

The Republic of Korea is strengthening its position in Africa for a number of specific reasons. First, South Korea’s experience in building a sustainable economic model is a positive role model for developing and poor countries around the world. African states are no exception: they are keen to cooperate with the ROK and to improve their social and economic indicators. In analyzing the economic policy of the Republic of Korea, African economists point to the importance of reforms in the education system and the development of capital-intensive industry, following South Korea’s example. Second, an increased economic partnership with Africa is in line with President Yoon Suk-yeol’s plans to tap into new markets and diversify South Korea’s economic ties. Third, the Republic of Korea’s increased engagement with African countries is also in concert with the US and its partners, which aim to limit China’s cooperation with the African continent.

At the moment, the following countries are primarily of interest to the Republic of Korea in Africa: Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Zambia and Burundi. Of course, the list of African countries with new projects from South Korea will only grow.

Bilateral meetings between the South Korean establishment and several African countries intensified in fall 2022. For the first time in 10 years, President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari visited South Korea on October 26, 2022 to meet President Yoon. At the end of their meeting, the two leaders praised the strengthening of economic cooperation, ways to strengthen corporate security, especially against piracy in the Persian Gulf, and cooperation in the defense industry. In 2022, trade between the two states reached $1.1 billion in the first two quarters, up 20% from the same period in 2021. In addition, Nigeria became the Republic of Korea’s largest trading partner among Dark African countries last year, overtaking South Africa.

In early November the Vice Chairman of SK Innovation Kim Jun travelled to Africa as a special envoy of the ROK Foreign Ministry to participate in a business forum to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations between South Korea and South Africa. Then Vice Chairman Kim Jun visited the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The purpose of the visit was to invite African countries to actively participate in the Busan Expo in 2030. The ROK representative also noted that he would actively seek cooperation opportunities with the two countries in the Saemaul Undong (New Community Movement) and SK businesses in the fields of energy, semiconductors, ICT, biomedicine and healthcare.

One of the important tools used by the Republic of Korea in South East Asia and now in Africa has been the Sustainable Development Goals, for example in sustainable agriculture projects. Scientists and officials from South Korea and Africa met in early November 2022 on Jeju Island, Republic of Korea, during the IEVE Expo: The 1st Electric and Autonomous Agriculture.  Representatives from different fields discussed measures to stimulate sustainable agricultural development in Africa. The Ambassadors of Tanzania and Rwanda reported high expectations of a shift from traditional labor-intensive methods of cultivation to mechanization of agriculture. For their part, South Korean business representatives stressed that the ROK should understand the capabilities and needs of African farmers and then sell them small cultivators. Lee Seok-jin, CEO of Leehwa Industry, also said Korean companies should target small and medium-sized agricultural machinery companies in Africa, as the US and other countries dominate the market for large tractors.

In addition, the Republic of Korea plans to actively develop green energy projects in Africa and increase cooperation in the exploration and extraction of minerals for hydrogen and nuclear power generation.

Thus, the trend towards an increased presence of the Republic of Korea in Africa is becoming increasingly pronounced.  Having made economic success its trademark, South Korea actively promotes its interests in the world, including through cooperation with poor countries.  The growing number of investment projects in Africa is not only an opportunity for economic gain in the long term, but also a huge field for green technology pilot projects whose effectiveness is still in question.

If President Yoon Suk-yeol’s foreign economic policy continues, the role of African countries in the Republic of Korea’s trade turnover will only grow. This, according to South Korean experts, will not only reduce South Korea’s own dependence on China, but will also allow it to compete with China in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Aleksandra Zueva, PhD in History, junior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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