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Tensions on the Korean Peninsula: What this means for Africa

19th January 2011

By: In On Africa IOA


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In July 1953, the Korean Armistice was signed, effectively ending the three-year war on the peninsula. However, since no peace treaty was ever drawn up, the war between the northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the southern Republic of Korea (ROK) never really ended.(2) Despite a lengthy period of understanding between the two as a result of ROK’s sunshine policy, in 2009 the DPRK ignored orders by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to abandon its nuclear weapons programme(3) by conducting its second underground nuclear test, as well as walking out of the Six Party Talks and declaring to their southern counterparts that they no longer considered themselves bound by the 1953 agreement.(4) Tensions further increased in 2010 following the DPRK’s sinking of the Ch’ŏnan naval ship, as well as the shelling of civilian settlements on Yŏnp’yŏng Island. These incidences occurred along the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the disputed maritime boundary that was demarcated in 1953. ROK, mindful of the fact that DPRK is in possession of approximately 10 nuclear weapons,(5) has resigned itself to live fire artillery exercises.(6)

Thousands of kilometres away, Africa is vulnerable to these hostilities. The DPRK lists almost a dozen African states among its major trade partners,(7) while ROK lists six.(8) Should the exercises between theses old enemies end in the outbreak of war, what will this mean for Africa who rely on the Korea’s for trade? This article aims to highlight the importance of the Korean Peninsula with regard to the trade relationships necessary for African states to emerge into the developing world.


The north versus the south

After the split of the Korea’s, each state followed its own path. The north chose communism, and is today one of the most totalitarian, secretive, rundown and dangerous states on the international stage. It is internationally isolated and reports of torture and other human rights atrocities abound.(9) Its population is starving due to the Government’s policy of centralised rationing of food stuffs, of which most supplies are given to the military.(10) Economically, the state is in ruins. In 2008, it was estimated that the DPRK gross domestic product (GDP) amounted to US$ 24.8 billion, which is interpreted as approximately an annual GDP per capita of only US$ 1800.(11) However, among all this poverty, the DPRK is thought to be earning millions from the sale of illegal armaments, drugs and other contraband,(12) evidenced by the discovery in 2010 of a shipment of weapons bound for the Republic of Congo in a South African port.(13)


The ROK, on the other hand, approached their newfound statehood from a different angle. The ROK Government sought to grow their economy and so, moving away from centrality, encouraged the development of groups of family-owned companies in the industrial sector such as that of Hyundai, Samsung and Daewoo.(14) These policies effectively created this East Asian Tiger and 15th largest economy in the world.(15) Achieving a GDP of over US$ 1.36 trillion in 2009, roughly US$ 17,074 GDP per capita annually,(16) ROK has become a significant player on the global stage. Human development in ROK is world-standard, with its population having access to one of the fastest internet networks in the world and with the country being a pioneer in mobile television devices.(17)

The differences between the two states are numerous and vast. Other than the very different profiles indicated above, both states ally themselves on different sides of the international spectrum - DPRK with China and Russia, and ROK with the United States of America (USA) and Japan.(18) It is thus needless to say that conflict in the Korean region could cause diplomatic ripples in every corner of the globe, and so it is in the interest of all powers that peace is maintained. However, should it not be possible and tensions do arise, the repercussions for the African continent and the world are likely to be incalculable.

Piggy in the middle

The then ROK Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Ban Ki-Moon, announced in 2006 at the first Korea-Africa Forum in Seoul that a relationship between Korea and Africa would be beneficial to all parties.(19) Four years later, in 2010, 30 African ministers, the African Development Bank, the ROK Strategy and Finance Ministry gathered in Seoul for the bi-annual Korea-Africa Economic Cooperation Conference (KOAFEC) in order to strengthen ties between the ROK and Africa.(20) It was announced during this conference by current Strategy and Finance Minister, Yoon Jeung-Hyun that ROK would be increasing their development cooperation fund, which is aimed at infrastructure expansion,(21) from US$ 590 million granted in 2005-2009 to US$ 1.09 billion for the 2010-2014. ROK, who is seeking to lower its dependency on the Middle East, has granted this support in exchange for a portion of Africa’s natural resources, oil in particular.(22)

According to the European Commission trade statistics, trade between the Korea’s and Africa abounds. The DPRK earns approximately € 4,865.8 million from trade worldwide.(23) Of this amount, Algeria ranks as DPRK’s second most important trade partner, responsible for over € 841.0 million in 2010, or 17.3% of DPRK world trade. Other African trade partners include the Republic of Congo (7th position) at €97.3 million, South Africa (9th position) at €76.5 million and Ghana (21st position) at €19.9 million in 2010 alone.(24) It is thus evident that, regarding trade, Africa is of great importance to the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.

The ROK finds Africa just as important. Even though only seven African states rank in ROK’s top 50 trade partners,(25) the total worth of their trade relationships show their true value. For example South Africa, which is ranked according to the DPRK as ninth most important trade partner, is ranked by ROK as its 32nd most important trade partner. However, regardless of this ranking, the monetary value of this trade partnership is much more, valued at € 1,564.7 million.(26) Other top 50 African trade partners include Egypt (at 29th place with €1,814.2 million), Liberia (at 30th place with €1,778.4 million), and Nigeria (at 31st place with €1,677.5 million).(27)

Concluding statements

The above assessment has shown that both the Korea’s have found very lucrative investments on the African continent, especially so in the case of ROK. Similarly, Africa, through instruments such as the KOAFEC agreements made bi-annually, has found in the Korea’s an opportunity for development funding that is not Chinese. The question still remains, however, what will become of Africa should a second Korean War break out. In all likelihood, funding will be withdrawn and diverted towards the domestic sphere. Africa will be left with half-built bridges and roads, which will more often than not be ignored rather than completed.

So what then, can Africa do to prevent this possible onslaught of conflict? At present, two non-permanent United Nations Security Council seats are held by pivotal African states, namely South Africa and Nigeria.(28) Should conflict break out in the Korean region, it will most definitely be discussed within the walls of this committee, considering especially that three of the Security Council permanent members are close allies to the involved parties.(29) South Africa and Nigeria should thus focus on using their role as the voices of Africa to encourage dialogue and mediation and a move away from open conflict.


(1) Contact Megan Erasmus through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Asia Dimension Unit (
(2) Daniels, G & Hoare, J., 2004. The Korean Armistice of 1953 and its Consequences - Part 1. STICERD International Studies Paper Series. and ‘The Korean War Armistice’, BBC News, 22 July 2003,
(3) United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1874, 12 June 2009,
(4) BBC News, ‘North Korea Country Profile’, 23 November 2010,
(5) Ploughshares website,
(6) International Crisis Group, ‘North Korea: The Risks of War in the Yellow Sea’, Asia Report No. 198, 23 December 2010,
(7) European Commission Trade Statistics, ‘North Korea’, 15 September 2010,
(8) Ibid.
(9) Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, ‘North Korea’, US State Department, 29 September 2010,
(10) Ibid.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Charbonne, L., ‘South Africa says intercepted North Korean Arms Shipment’, Reuters, 22 February 2010,
(14) ‘South Korea Country Profile’, BBC News, 23 November 2010,
(15) Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, ‘South Korea’, US State Department, 10 December 2010,
(16) Ibid.
(17) ‘South Korea Country Profile’, BBC News, 23 November 2010,
(18) Stares, P. B. & Wit, J. S., 2009, Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea, Council on Foreign Relations Special Report No 42, pp 1-9.
(19) ‘Africa: Korea seeks better Africa ties’, Wordpress, 13 November 2006,
(20) ‘Joint Declaration of the Korea-Africa Economic Cooperation’, African Development Bank, September 2010,
(21) Jung-a, S., ‘Arnie and Africa: South Korea keeps its options open’, Financial Times, 15 September 2010,
(22) ‘Africa: Korea seeks better Africa ties’, Wordpress, 13 November 2006,
(23) European Commission Trade Statistics, ‘North Korea’, 15 September 2010,
(24) Ibid.
(25) European Commission Trade Statistics, ‘South Korea’, 15 September 2010,
(26) Ibid.
(27) Ibid.
(28) United Nations Security Council website,
(29) Stares, P. B. & Wit, J. S., 2009, Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea, Council on Foreign Relations Special Report No 42, pp 1-9.

Written by Megan Erasmus(1)


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