[Viewpoint] Engage African resources responsiblyKorean President Lee Myung-bak returned from a stimulating 10-day expedition to Africa. His maiden visit - the second by a Korean president - took the enterprising leader to South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. It comes at a time when Korea is exploring new avenues to consolidate its rapid economic growth and enhance its image overseas, not only as a new friend, but also as a new heavyweight in international affairs.
It is significant that the president confessed to seeing Africa differently. It holds more potential and promise for Korea than it ever has. “Forget all the myths and preconceptions about the old Africa and prepare for the emerging continent,” he is reported to have said.
Korea’s relatively new economic contact with Africa can be substantially rewarding if properly structured to tap its booming primary industries.
Possessing in abundance some of the most valuable resources in the world, such as petroleum, bauxite, iron ore, timber, hydropower, nickel, cobalt, gold, diamonds, liquefied gas, uranium, livestock, forestry, marine and agricultural products, cocoa, coffee, rubber, cotton, banana, grains and root starches, Africa appears to be the most attractive source for shared economic engagement.
Korea’s engagement with Africa, initiated under the banner of “resource diplomacy” could be more strategic and mutually productive if structured differently from that of other states that have had longer contact with Africa. For one thing, Korea’s development experience remains inspirational to many African states that were on the same economic level or even richer than Korea in the 1950s.
Now a member of the trillion-dollar club of world economies with a GDP per capita of $20,000, Korea has emerged as the newest central player in international economic affairs. It now needs substantial investments in Africa’s primary products to sustain its economic growth and maintain competitiveness.
Africa has extensive reserves, but it needs substantial development in infrastructure to exploit them. Vast areas of the continent are relatively unexplored, meaning meager efforts are bound to lead to significant gains that could be mutually shared. For example, it took Kim Won-sa, a celebrated Korean geologist at Chungnam University in Gangwon, and his small research team only a few months to discover massive diamond deposits in Cameroon, said to be five times the world’s annual production.
To take advantage of these, Korea would, however, need to show responsibility. Korea should avoid pushing the continent down the same ugly natural resource road that has already plunged a number of its countries into serious political and social unrest.
Responsible engagement means encouraging the principles of sustainable development and promoting transparent management.
Many Africans have often faulted their government’s involvement with foreign corporations and governments for their woes. Deals with them have often been shrouded in secrecy, leaving the public with little or no room for understanding and assessing their legitimacy.
Korea needs to approach Africa with the core values that guided it to economic glory. These include discipline, accountability, fairness, mutual support and sacrifice.
It should not follow the exploitative trade policies of other nations that undervalue resources and pay less for labor, while mesmerizing locals with bogus claims of the value of the product or service they bring to the negotiation table.
Korea should seek to set exemplary corporate conduct by sharing its waste management, recycling techniques, health services, transportation, traffic engineering, industrial machines and IT know-how with African nations for fair mutual growth. It must desist from conspiring with political elites and corrupt leaders, who are often found to siphon aid for trade for their self aggrandizement.
Much has to be done to promote in Africa the “soft power base of development,” which is ethical hard work and professionalism. The natural first step towards any successful engagement must be proper research and accurate knowledge of a country. There are many African students in Korea that could be an important resource to be tapped to this end.
Though Africa is made up of a mosaic of nations, they exhibit diverse characteristics that would warrant different engagement policies. The most critical need of the Democratic Republic of Congo could be peace and political stability, for example, while that of Nigeria might be industrialization. Tanzania might place more value on agriculture modernization and social cohesion might be South Africa’s priority.
Tailoring an engagement policy that uniquely reflects the specific development needs of each African country and that is intensely people-oriented is most desirable for retaining Korea’s integrity as a responsible player in international development. It will be the surest path towards its continuous economic climb.
*The writer received his Ph.D. in International Studies from Sogang University.
By Tandia T. Vernasius