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Bilateral relations and why they matter: the case of South Korea

South Africa’s (SA) dynamic engagement in foreign affairs has the potential to yield favorable outcomes for the South African economic and development agenda. At the multilateral level SA’s participation in BRICS, IBSA and BASIC present potentially positive outcomes, including significant increase in trade and investment. Bilateral relations are particularly important in expanding South Africa’s national interest, both within and outside these multilateral groups, and play a significant role in respect of trade and investment relations. SA’s relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK) are a case in point.

ROK is Asia’s fourth-largest economy; a major player among the world’s top exporting nations. It is a high-tech industrialized nation, its automobile, shipbuilding, steel making, and IT industries are on the leading edge in global markets. In South Africa, the presence of ROK has increased and trade between the two nations include a vast range of products, from minerals and semi-finished products to sophisticated high-technology electric and electronic products, and adding to that is the success of ROK companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai that makes ROK to be better known in SA than ever before.

In general, discussion and analysis of South Africa’s engagement with Asia are frequently pre-occupied by its relationship with the emerging powers of China and India. This obscures growing diplomatic and trade relations with other developing nations such as ROK, Singapore Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand that are significantly beneficial to South Africa’s socio-economic development, while they also strengthen SA’s role in the South-South Cooperation.

SA and the ROK bilateral relations have grown steadily since 1995 when President Nelson Mandela visited ROK to strengthen economic ties. From there the relationship has grown to be mutually beneficiary for both countries. In December 2012 the diplomatic relations between the two countries will mark the 20th anniversary since its initiation in 1992.

The Deputy Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, Mr. Ebrahim Ebrahim, recently commended the success of this bilateral relation during the occasion of the national day celebration of the ROK, on 04 October 2012. He mentioned the fact that South Africa is ROK’s largest trading partner in Africa while the ROK is South Africa’s fourth largest trading partner in Asia after China, Japan and India.

Mr. Ebrahim praised the increasing focus on socio-economic ties at the bilateral level with the focus on important sectors such as creating job opportunities and skills development, transfer of technology, rural development and the beneficiation of minerals and energy, including direct investment in assembly plants for the products of South Korean companies.

In addition he also acknowledged the ROK’s role in Africa as a valuable one in “the enhancement the African development agenda, supporting diverse fields such as green growth, climate change, food security, governance and human capacity building based upon Korean experiences and development expertise”. This creates a great opportunity for South Africa, as the ROK biggest bilateral partner in Africa, to build a prospective foundation and play an influential role in the ROK’s initiatives for Africa’s development.

While the bilateral relations between the two nations are mostly defined by the focus on commercial affairs that range from trade on minerals and semi-finished products, to sophisticated high-technology electric and electronic products , SA should step up co-operation on academic and cultural exchange for its future national interest. For instance, it should introduce and strengthen the visibility and knowledge about the ROK in order to create a greater interest and awareness among ordinary South African citizens.
This could be achieved by increasing media coverage, cultural and sports events to create public awareness of the ROK in SA . Finally, SA should strengthen public dialogue through seminars or conferences to encourage debates and publications on SA-ROK relations, this in turn will “identify new trade and investment options that would be helpful in creating new opportunities and cooperative networks”

With the ROK playing a critical role in boosting the South African economy, the two decades of reciprocal and benefiting bilateral relations between South Africa and the Republic of Korea needs to be given much deserving interest and not overlooked in the chain of South Africa’s bilateral and multilateral relations with Asian countries, especially in the framework of South-South cooperation.


Mr. Kenny Dlamini holds a BA Hons in Politics from the Rhodes University and is a NRF research assistant at the IGD. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD


1 http://www.cnbc.com/id/48237596/South_Korea_s_10_Biggest_Companies
2 http://www.korea.net/AboutKorea/Korea-at-a-Glance/Facts-about-Korea
3 http://www.dfa.gov.za/foreign/bilateral/korea.html
4 http://www.dfa.gov.za/foreign/bilateral/korea.html
5 Shelton, G. 2009. Korea & South Africa: a strategic partnership. Johannesburg: Institute for Global Dialogue Page 42
6 Ibid Page 42

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