South Korea – The Renewal of an Alternative?

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frauke.eckl's picture

The attraction of South Korea as an emerging donor and a new partner for African countries stems from its own development experience. African countries like Ghana and Kenya focus not only on China, but also on East Asian and South Korean investors for their infrastructure projects and foreign investments, trying to conduct their  ‚Looking East‘-policies. Other countries like Ethiopia try to model their own country after the idea of the development-led state as seen in South Korea.

In the 1960s and 1970s Korea lay the foundation for a nominal GDP per capita growth that is unique in its rapidness; from $103.88 in 1962 to $5,438.24 in 1989 and reaching the $20,000 milestone in 2007. South Korea went from a developing country to an emerging donor, which is now part of the G20. This rapid process of modernization is the special appeal for many African countries.

The well-known factors for the success of this approach in the South Korean case are mostly economic and focus on a change in industrial policy; in the first place there is a focus on strengthening the light industries, gaining more foreign investments and re-invest this money. This led for example in the South Korean case to the development of the now well-known High Tech sector, where one of the traditional corporations, Samsung, is leading in the world today. But also other factors played a role like the geo-political strategies during the Cold War, receiving huge investments from America as South Korea was at the last defense line against communism, and the competition with the (at first) economically strong North Korea. Or more internal reasons like the heritage of the emperors which created a strong public administration and hierarchy which layed the fundament for the modernization process. And of course Park Chung Hee as the President of South Korea through the 1960s and 70s led an oppressive system that embodied the idea of a development-led state in its pure form. Already in the buzz created by the publication of the ‘East Asian Miracle’ by the World Bank in 1993 was another factor: The role of the so-called ‘Asian Values’ in the rise of the ‘Tiger States’. These values, like favoring security, stability, paternalism and collectivism over ‘Western’ ideals like individualism, pluralism, liberal democracy and human rights were said to be the important difference from other developing regions, helping the ‘Asian Dragons’ Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea to develop their countries in this short period of time, though heavily relying on dictatorial systems. With the start of the financial crisis in 1997 in Asia, the first round of this discussion declined.

Photo 1: Old and new structures combined - The fundament for development? (Photo: FKE 2013, Seoul)

The question was and now still is, how does one export an experience like South Korea had to Africa? And which role can South Korea play today as an actively engaged partner with a new economic strength?

Now, after many of these East Asian countries seem to re-gain their economic strength and Africa looks East, it is yet to see if this discussion will be revived. Especially South Korea is now seen as being an emerging middle-power and yet has to find its role. Now part of the G20 and hosting important international meetings like the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011, South Korea tries to sharpen its profile on the stage of international politics. With entering the Development Assistance Group (DAC) of the OECD in 2010 South Korea promised to increase its annual aid from 0.09 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 0.15 per cent of GDP in 2012; furthermore South Korea promised to increase the amount even more in the long run, at least to a 0.25 per cent by 2015. With this commitment, there will be a more clear view which path South Korea as an emerging donor will take in the future, how it will use its own legacy of the South Korean development experience and how this will influence the new African-Asian partnerships.


 Photo 2: Today's view of Seoul, the capital of South Korea (FKE 2013, Seoul)




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