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     Sep 6, 2006
Seoul cleans up in Africa
By Aidan Foster-Carter

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

Guinea-Bissau, formerly 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 producer.

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.

President Charles 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 norm.

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.

In 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 seen.

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.

It is 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.

Egypt and 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 for comfort.

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.

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A Korean meeting of the minds (Aug 24, '06)

North Korea enjoys Southern makeover (Aug 11, '06)

South Korea's growing isolation (Aug 5, '06)


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