First Korea-Africa Summit: Another Missed Opportunity For Africa – Analysis


By Peter Fabricius 

Kenyan President William Ruto is taking some ribbing in the media. About a year ago he was publicly lamenting how demeaning it was that African leaders all had to go off to foreign countries to attend their summits with Africa. The African Union (AU) and regional economic community heads should be enough to represent the continent, he said.

Last week he was apparently quite happy to traipse off to Seoul though. He attended the first South Korea-Africa Summit with some 24 other African heads of state and government, representatives of 23 other African nations, and AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. Earlier this year Ruto attended the first Italy-Africa summit – in Italy.

The Seoul summit induced a sense of déjà vu for other reasons besides the familiar complaint Ruto raised. It was clear that South Korea had initiated the event, and appeared to have a well-thought-out strategy for it.

President Yoon Suk Yeol pledged US$14 billion in export credits to South Korean firms to enter African markets and made a further US$10 billion pledge in official development assistance to Africa by 2030. He clarified what his country wanted out of the relationship – cooperation on developing Africa’s critical minerals, which his country needs to make electric vehicles and other advanced technologies. Also, African support in Seoul’s efforts to rein in its aggressive northern neighbour, particularly to try to persuade it to curb its nuclear weapons and missile development programmes.

South Korea seeks Africa’s cooperation on critical minerals it needs for its advanced technologies

Yoon urged African countries to take firmer steps in an international pressure campaign against Pyongyang. The latter recently accelerated its tests of nuclear-capable weapons systems and flew hundreds of balloons to drop tonnes of trash and manure on South Korea as relations between the two worsened.

In return, his country would continue working to ensure peace and security in Africa in line with the South Korean Navy Cheonghae Unit’s operations on Somali waters, and the United Nations (UN) peacekeeper force Hanbit Unit’s reconstruction assistance in South Sudan.

His appeals were evidently heard as his and the African countries announced they would start high-level talks aimed at improving cooperation over minerals. Africa is a major source of nickel, cobalt, graphite and lithium – crucial for technology industries such as semiconductors, batteries and electric vehicles. These are major export items for South Korea.

And in the joint declaration, South Korea and the African nations reaffirmed their commitment to fully implementing UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea. They highlighted the ‘importance of the efforts of the international community to achieve a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.’

New industrialising countries are showing increased interest in summiteering with Africa

For Seoul, as for other industrialised countries, Africa has clearly become more important recently, and the need for critical minerals has become sharper. Not only because of the increasing global pressure to accelerate de-carbonisation to curb global warming, but because the world has become tenser over the past two years, access to critical and strategic minerals has become more urgent. South Korea has hitherto accessed most of those through China, which has been doing its best to corner the market on them.

But as China shifts further from the Western camp and closer to Russia, which is getting weapons and ammunition from North Korea to attack Ukraine, Seoul clearly seeks more direct and secure access to those critical minerals.

And so it signed deals to that effect with both Tanzania and Madagascar, according to its industry ministry, which said these were among 47 agreements signed on the margins of the summit with 23 African countries. In exchange, Seoul agreed to make concessional loans totalling US$2.5 billion to Tanzania over five years while Ethiopia signed a US$1 billion financing deal with Seoul over four years for infrastructure, science and technology, health and urban development.

But if several such countries came to the summit prepared, some commentators have lamented the fact that Africa as a whole didn’t. This is a familiar refrain from such summits. What potential was thereby squandered? It’s been suggested that collectively the Africans could have arrived with at least a position that required South Korea to commit to the principles of the AU’s mining vision. This focuses on strategies to ensure mining delivers more to host African countries, including beneficiation (adding value) to African critical and other minerals, and other spinoffs for host countries, such as local jobs.

Africa doesn’t inherently speak with one voice on every or even many issues

In addition, African Development Bank Group President Akinwumi Adesina said: ‘I wish to request that [South] Korea solidify this [South] Korea-Africa Summit by agreeing to rechannel SDRs [Special Drawing Rights] to the African Development Bank.’ These SDRs marked ‘a new way to scale up development financing.’

However, this wasn’t presented explicitly as an AU or even an African demand.

In addition to more traditional partners, new industrial or industrialising countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and now South Korea are showing increased interest in summiteering with Africa. In response, in 2023 the AU drafted an African Partnership Strategy and Policy Framework stipulating how the continent should manage relationships with countries and with multinational bodies.

For a continent-to-country summit – e.g. with South Korea – it proposes that Africa be represented by the AU leadership rather than by each country. It also laments the failure to articulate ‘Africa’s positions and expectations from partnership summits’ and proposes that the AU adopt an action plan for each summit. That framework hasn’t yet been adopted, but will be considered by the AU’s Executive Council on 17 and 18 July in Ghana.

One would hope, though, that it would be debated in the broadest sense because the underlying principles aren’t axiomatic. The continent doesn’t inherently speak with one voice on every or even many issues. So much could be lost by trying to straitjacket it into collective policies towards all partners or even denying individual national leaders the opportunity to travel abroad and meet the likes of Yoon and conclude national agreements.

This is not an indignity if leaders choose to do it – as Ruto ironically demonstrated by his presence in Seoul last week.

  • About the author: Peter Fabricius is a Consultant, ISS Pretoria
  • Source: This article was published by ISS Today


The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) partners to build knowledge and skills that secure Africa’s future. Our goal is to enhance human security as a means to achieve sustainable peace and prosperity. The ISS is an African non-profit organisation with offices in South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Senegal.

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