Diplomacy first, business later
The Cameroon diamond mining deal was controversial from the beginning. About a year ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the origin of this scandal, issued the notorious press release about the deal, and I met a few ministry officials shortly after the announcement. Their responses were lukewarm. The officials said that diamonds were not energy resources or strategic materials like rare earth metals. They also complained that it was unnecessary for the ministry to support a private firm’s project.
One of them cynically said, “There is an old saying that we should treat gold as if it were a stone.” It appeared to make sense. Another official had a different view. “There is no need to differentiate between precious stones and resources because they can both bring money,” he said. “What matters is the mining, and it doesn’t matter whether the project is for a civilian firm. When it gains a large profit, it will be beneficial for the economy.”
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once said “I don’t care if it’s a white cat or a black cat. It’s a good cat as long as it catches mice.” The diamond deal was perhaps justified by this idea in Korea’s energy diplomacy. The ministry officials were perhaps joking, but their jokes hit the nail on the head. When the deal was first announced, no one knew that the government and the developer had exaggerated the size of the mine’s diamond reserves. It was also well hidden that relatives of the public servant in charge of the project had invested in the developer. The controversy, at the time, was about whether it was appropriate for the ministry to support a diamond development project run by a private firm.
Criticism of the diamond deal fit into a larger pattern of strong disapproval of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s energy diplomacy. Although the administration’s various agencies have always said their deals were solid, their grand memoranda of understanding rarely evolved into actual contracts. When actual deals did come into effect, officials faced criticism for ineffectiveness during price negotiations. Some deals were announced prematurely, before energy-rich companies grew comfortable with signing over exclusive rights to Korean companies.
There were also criticisms that top officials in the government paid too little attention to the projects underway in Africa, despite the importance the continent’s resources. Africa is the largest treasure chest of resources, but President Lee’s planned visit was long delayed. It eventually took place in July last year. But even then, the primary goal was winning the bid to host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. In comparison, China has a decades-long tradition in which its president and prime minister make annual visits to Africa.
In comparison, Korea’s diplomatic infrastructure in Africa is extremely poor. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, eight officials in a single division are in charge of 46 African countries south of the Sahara. Although the ministry had once thought about increasing its focus on Africa ahead of Lee’s trip last year, the plan was scrapped after the tour ended. China, in contrast, has eight divisions that are in charge of the same region.
Without the accumulated trust and friendship that is the cornerstone of diplomatic relationships, African nations have no reason to accept resource development deals with Korean firms. And even when we ink deals with African nations, we must recognize that relationships based on profits alone cannot last long, whether on the ground between companies or at a higher level between constituent countries. When we decide to spend time and energy building diplomatic relationships, resources will become much more accessible. That should be the basic principle of our energy diplomacy.