It wasn't exactly headline news anywhere -
except maybe Conakry. Even in Seoul, it only made
the inside pages. But on August 28, in Seoul,
Foreign Ministers Ban Ki-moon and Mamady Conde
signed an agreement to establish ambassador-level
relations between their two countries: the
Republic of Korea and the Republic of Guinea.
Just as there are two Koreas, West Africa
has three Guineas. This one, an ex-French colony,
is the biggest. Next-door is
Portuguese. Some way to the southeast and around
the bend is Equatorial Guinea: once Spanish, now
awash in oil and dirt.
So what's the big
deal? Conde's signature closes a chapter in
inter-Korean competition, and the Cold War more
broadly. For Guinea, which had recognized North
Korea way back in 1960, was the last of Africa's
53 states hitherto to have no relations with South
Korea. With this last piece of the jigsaw now in
place, Seoul can boast a full house in Africa.
Today, sadly, Guinea is just another
failing state: trying to steer clear of the savage
ethnic wars that have ravaged its neighbors Sierra
Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. Refugees have
spilled across its borders, disrupting its main
asset, bauxite mining. With one-third of global
reserves, Guinea is the world's second-largest
Yet there was a time when Guinea
was a beacon of the Afro-Asian struggle against
colonialism. Under the charismatic Sekou Toure,
Guinea, alone of France's African colonies, voted
in 1958 for independence rather than continued
association with Paris.
de Gaulle, who had imposed this choice on the
colonies, reacted vindictively. The French pulled
out and broke off all ties. Sekou Toure turned to
Moscow, and in 1960 Guinea became the first black
African country to recognize North Korea: another
proudly independent regime.
Nor was it
alone. Other radical states - Mali, Algeria,
Tanzania and others - saw North Korea as a model
of autonomous industrialization and development.
Delegations visited; aid flowed. South Korea, by
contrast, was shunned as a supposed neo-colonial
puppet. More moderate - or temporizing - African
regimes recognized both Koreas, as became the
Seoul was slow to respond at first,
but soon Africa became a battleground where the
Koreas - like China and Taiwan - competed for
influence. Initially the North had the better of
it, as in its successful blocking of Seoul's
efforts to join the Non-Aligned Movement - on the
not unreasonable grounds that hosting 35,000 US
troops wasn't terribly non-aligned.
those glory days, North Koreans were all over
Africa: training armies, building stadiums and
statues, aiding agriculture. But by the 1980s,
ignoring South Korea looked like a dumb idea. One
by one, Pyongyang's allies jumped ship and
recognized the other Korea too.
Intriguingly, Guinea first put out feelers
to Seoul as early as 1978, when Toure was still
alive (he died in 1984). But after a fortnight
this overture was withdrawn - presumably because
North Korean leader Kim Il-sung complained
mightily. Quite why it then took another 28 years
is not clear.
These days an impoverished
North Korea, itself now an aid recipient, has
closed most of its embassies in Africa. Whether
South Korea will open one in Conakry remains to be
Having won the battle for influence,
Seoul so far has shown little imagination in
exercising it. Despite being a poster child in the
development-studies literature, having charted a
far more solid route out of Third World poverty
than the North's chimera, South Korea seems wholly
lacking in missionary zeal to advise others how
they might follow in its footsteps.
also one of the meanest aid donors among developed
nations, though it recently resolved to try harder
with plans to triple official assistance to Africa
by 2008 - to a paltry US$100 million. Yet if
President Roh Moo-hyun's first visit to the
continent this year was any guide, his itinerary -
Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria - suggested that Seoul's
energy needs will be paramount.
Algeria were also late to recognize South Korea.
In Cairo, Cold War and Korean dichotomies diverged
spectacularly. Even after Egyptian president Anwar
Sadat forged ties with the US and Israel, earlier
Nasser-era links with North Korea continued,
especially in the military. North Korean pilots
had flown Egyptian fighters in the 1973 Yom Kippur
War, and in return Egypt gave Kim Il-sung what
Moscow would not: Scud missiles, which North Korea
re-engineered and learned how to make. The rest,
as they say, is history - albeit all too ongoing
Meanwhile, in diplomacy's
quieter backwaters, the foreign-affairs
bureaucrats in Seoul, having ticked their last box
in Africa, can turn their attentions to the
planet's final few holdouts still resisting South
Korea's blandishments. According to the
semi-official news agency Yonhap, just four of the
United Nations' 192 member states have yet to
recognize South Korea. This quartet are Cuba,
Syria, Macedonia, and Monaco (not Morocco, as the
Korea Times had it).
Only two of these
matter. Of the others, Monaco may be too small to
bother with - unless South Korea, whose latest
scandal is gambling-related, fears the lure of the
casinos. As for Skopje, one would think its brief
flirtation with Taiwan at the turn of the century
would be a warning against playing any more
diplomatic games with divided nations - although
it did pocket a cool $150 million from Taipei. Or
maybe this has left Macedonians cautious. With
the other pair, clearly, it's politics. Syria, a
good customer for Kim Jong-il's missiles - and
another user of Korean pilots in 1973 - remains
loyal enough to Pyongyang to withhold recognition
from Seoul. Likewise Cuba: in truth never bosom
buddies with North Korea, even when the rhetoric
of tricontinental solidarity was at its height. In
today's much chillier climate, amid the gales of
globalization, the world's last two bastions of
unabashed communism have to make out that they are
comrades - if only for appearances' sake.
The reality is more complex. If South
Korea is in no rush to bag these last two scalps,
that's because its commerce, if not its diplomats,
is far from unwelcome in Damascus and Havana.
For example, last year Cuba wanted to
build a network of small local power stations.
That's a North Korean specialty, at least as
Pyongyang tells it. It was prowess in this area
that brought ex-premier Yon Hyong-muk back from
quasi-exile running Jagang province to be vice
chairman and senior civilian on the National
Defense Commission - the top executive body,
outranking the cabinet - before his untimely
demise last October.
So Fidel Castro
called in the Koreans. Er, the other Koreans. The
$720 million contract went to Hyundai Heavy
Industries, who set to work installing no fewer
than 544 packaged power facilities - with just 11
workers. (I'll bet the North Korean version, by
contrast, needs hundreds of scrawny peasants with
shovels, and is grossly inefficient - if indeed it
works at all.)
Thus it was that the
right-wing Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo marked
Liberation Day on August 15 with one of its
unlikelier headlines: "Fidel hails revolutionary
Korean efficiency". A month earlier, on July 11
(but only now revealed), the Cuban leader paid a
surprise visit to Hyundai's site. He was impressed
that so few workers are needed for a project that,
when completed by end-2007, will supply one-third
of Cuba's electricity needs, and was quoted as
urging Cubans to learn from the Koreans'
"diligence and aggressive working style".
For good measure he had a photo taken with
them, Kim Jong-il style. Two months earlier,
signing the contract, Fidel (according to Hyundai)
said South Koreans were not only "better than
North Koreans and Chinese" but even more reliable
than Japanese, because they work fast toward a
goal. That won't have made pleasant holiday
reading for the Dear Leader.
But hang on.
It was just after visiting Hyundai that Castro
came down with the mysterious intestinal bleeding
that has sidelined him for the past few weeks.
Among all the various medical and conspiracy
theories flying around, might it have been
something in the kimchi?
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary
senior research fellow in sociology and modern
Korea, Leeds University, England, and a freelance
writer and commentator on Korean affairs.