In spite of her troubled presidency at home and premature, ignominious exit from power, Park Geun-hye made serious attempts to bolster the main direction of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) foreign policy toward the Middle East. A collaborative drive for accomplishing a new momentous boom was by and large a dominant and recurring theme in the Park government’s overall approach to the region. Park enjoyed both personal motivation as well as politico-economic justifications to push for such arduous yet potentially viable objective. Although the ROK’s yearning for a second boom in the Middle East was not ultimately accomplished under the Park presidency, nonetheless, the very aspiration played a crucial role in either rekindling or initiating policy measures in South Korea’s orientation toward different parts of a greater Middle East region, extending from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Morocco.
For a couple of decades, South Korean top leaders were hardly used to paying steady particular attention to the Middle East. In the pressure-cooker politics of Seoul, Middle Eastern affairs were by and large the purview of the state bureaucracy through which relevant policies and strategies were carved out and implemented subsequently. Officials with a cabinet portfolio, and on rare occasions the serving prime minister, were sporadically dispatched to the region to curry favor with this or that Middle East country over a secure supply of oil or a number of lucrative contracts for Korean contractors. During the past decade, however, the normal pattern of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) overall interactions with the Middle East has undergone dramatic changes. A major distinctive characteristic of this transformation is frequent travels to the Middle East by South Korean presidents and many other top officials of the East Asian country. They have also been heard regularly to talk about the region even when their audience is entirely Korean and the subjects they touch upon have a lot to do with broader domestic politics and social issues (Saxer 2013).
Essentially, it was former conservative president Lee Myung-bak who tacked under the belt of his political career a record number of official visits to the Middle East, unprecedented in the history of the ROK’s modern relationship with the region. As a Mideast-savvy politician and technocrat who had gleaned many practical lessons from his previous experiences in the Middle East as a Hyundai boss during the 1970s and 1980s, Lee used to often encourage his fellow citizens to go to the region in search of various opportunities they could potentially find there. The commencement of Lee’s presidency (February 2008–February 2013) in the ROK fortuitously coincided with a surprising hike in oil prices (to $147 per barrel at its highest), which further galvanized his government into taking action on various Mideast-related initiatives (Azad 2013). In spite of his unparalleled attention to and outstanding achievements in the Middle East, nonetheless, Lee’s legacy in the region was not going to swiftly vanish into thin air once he left the office of the presidency. Stakes were now pretty high indeed and his successor, Park Geun-hye, had every reason to take the approach one step further.
Although Park possessed little, if any, Mideast-related experiences and connections before taking office in early 2013, still she arranged a good number of official visits to many countries in the Middle East throughout the tenure of her rather colorful and chaotic presidency. On different occasions, Park unequivocally called on Koreans in both public and private sectors to look out for huge untapped opportunities in the Middle East at a time when many among the Korean youth were facing fewer desirable options to make their wishes come true (Reuters 2014a). There also happened to be some unprecedented developments and fresh dynamism in the ROK’s relations with Middle East under the presidency of Park Geun-hye. Park was probably more entitled than many of her predecessors to either formulate new Mideast-related policies or just reconsider what her country had already implemented toward the region. But what was really the fountainhead of such entitlement, and how could it give a boost to her government’s Middle East approach? What was the central plank of the ROK’s orientation toward the Middle East under Park, and how did her government pursue such a pivotal objective in different parts of a wider Middle East region?
PITCHING A SECOND BOOM: ITS GENESIS AND INTENT
As the first female president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye’s ascendancy to power was certainly new development in Korea’s long history of paterfamilias politics. Many pinned their hopes on potential that her success would eventually render significant changes to the East Asian country’s political and social dynamics. There were also a lot of upbeat people who assumed that her government would inject new blood into the economic life of the nation by carrying out various lofty promises that Park and her team had made in the run-up to the presidential elections of December 2012. Contrary to such typical expectations, nevertheless, Park’s presidency (February 2013–March 2017) was a messy period during which politics often brimmed with scandals, corruption, and tragic events (Leibo 2017, 134). As the biggest casualty of those topsy-turvy circumstances, Park herself was ultimately destined to depart ignominiously. Descending from hero to zero and from palace to prison, therefore, she had little chance to be credited with any important domestic achievements in political, economic, and cultural areas in the ROK.
In the realm of foreign policy, moreover, Park’s turbulent tenure required grappling with many challenges. In particular, there happened to be a dubiously dramatic reversal in South Korea’s relationship with its rising giant neighbor, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), over the course of Park’s presidency. She commenced her presidential position with a show of lovey-dovey affection for the ROK–PRC ties and many thought that Park’s enthusiasm for the Chinese language and culture would carry the bilateral relationship of the two countries to a high pinnacle (Sutter 2015, 152). But the South Korean–Chinese connections dashed from delight to despair halfway through her presidency primarily because of the US installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) on the Korean soil. The move ultimately put almost the entire Chinese society in a retaliatory mood as the Chinese government scaled back the number of tourist groups to the ROK and many Chinese citizens stopped buying Korean brands all together (South China Morning Post 2017). Although it was an urgent matter of national security strategy to let the US administration install the THAAD system, nevertheless the ensuing political kerfuffle and economic consequences in ROK–PRC relations badly clouded over the Park government’s actual performance in the realm of foreign affairs.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s relationship with the Middle East region under Park was not as chaotic and troublesome as those her government had to encounter domestically and regionally. Quite to the contrary, the ROK’s overall interactions with the Middle East moved in a relatively smooth and progressive pace throughout her presidency. With the aim of expanding the ROK’s already growing connections to the region, she managed to take quite new steps epitomized by her official visit to Iran which was essentially the first such move taken by a South Korean president since the two countries established their diplomatic ties in October 1962. In a nutshell, the leitmotiv of Park’s Middle East policy was to repeat a “second boom” in the region by close cooperation with her fellow citizens hailing from both the public and private sectors. In addition to carving out relevant policy measures by her government, Park herself advised South Koreans, in a number of speeches and interviews, to determinedly seek for the realization of a second boom by taking advantage of the many promising opportunities the Middle East could offer to them.
Park had many good reasons to advocate for a second boom in the Middle East. After all, the early experience of the “first boom” in the region by South Koreans had taken place under the reign of her father, Park Chung-hee, during which she was also performing as the East Asian country’s de facto First Lady because her mother had been killed in Tokyo in 1974 during an assassination attempt against her powerful father (Foley 2013, 217). Park Chung-hee pushed Korean companies and workers to go to the Middle East in the wake of the first oil shock of 1973, which was a huge economic and financial boon for the ROK. The first boom adventure, which lasted almost until the mid-1980s, turned the oil-producing countries of the Middle East into an Eldorado for a large number of Koreans who could make a mint especially in the field of construction industry (Pirie 2012). Park Chung-hee has since been credited for his indispensable role in both promoting and facilitating the ground for the highly successful performance played by the Koreans over the course of first Mideast boom. It was therefore very logical for his daughter to remind Korean citizens that achieving a second boom in the Middle East could similarly function as a panacea for many chronic economic and even social problems the country was going through (Buzo 2017, 250).
It is true that advocacy for a second boom was the catchphrase of the ROK’s approach toward the Middle East region under Park Geun-hye, yet this central theme was also different from what the first boom generally entailed. In the call for the iteration of another boom, the educated and skillful youth of South Korea, particularly those unemployed and redundant at home, were asked to play a major role through a tenacious application of their ability and expertise somewhere in the Middle East (Bank of Korea 2011; Grinberg 2014). And unlike the first boom, which had a lot to do with the bustling business of the construction industry, the second boom was to involve a whole host of industrial and service sectors as well. More importantly, the materialization of a new boom under current circumstances in the Middle East ineluctably required a more proactive foreign policy by the Park-led Korean government. How did then such an objective and its prerequisite influence both the direction and final outcomes of South Korea’s Middle East policy in different parts of a wider Middle East region stretching from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to North Africa?
THE GCC: GEARING TOWARD MULTIFACETED ENGAGEMENT
The foundation of the ROK–GCC relationship has long been based on an attachment of both parties to a favorable international alliance system very conducive to the dynamics of their bilateral connections in various areas. At least until the GCC countries were all supposed to be “close allies” of the West and they were also speaking with a relatively single voice in their external affairs, South Koreans had little to worry about regarding the overall direction of their country’s diplomatic and political association with the Arab bloc. Such international alliance was instrumental for the Park government to up the ante by courting GCC countries for an all-out, expanded partnership. The two sides signed a strategic cooperation deal in September 2014 that led them to convene the first ROK–GCC strategic dialogue one year later in September 2015 (MOFA 2016a, 210). By holding regular summit diplomacy with GCC leaders here and there, Park also personally strived to convince her Arab counterparts to facilitate the ground for the ROK’s larger presence in the GCC countries in different areas (Yonhap News Agency 2015).
With closer diplomatic and political ties came various better economic opportunities for South Koreans. The year when Park commenced her presidency marked a trade turnover of more than $46 billion between the two parties, placing the GCC virtually as the fourth largest trading partner of the ROK. Within the GCC, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) maintained its position as the second largest exports market for South Korea in the Middle East, while the whole Arab bloc remained the biggest overseas client for Korean construction companies. As a rather long-term lucrative market for Korean contractors, the GCC still had some new opportunities to offer. The prospect of holding the World Expo 2020 in Dubai as well as the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha stoked fresh lobbying activities in the region by many Korean top political and economic officials in favor of the ROK’s conglomerates (chaebol). Stakes were high because Koreans had long carried out many relevant projects throughout the GCC, and they now could not afford to lose the race to their Western and particularly Eastern rivals in this area which has been their forte for decades.
Meanwhile, the Park government attempted to breathe new life into the stalled talks between the ROK and the GCC over signing a free trade agreement. The two sides had kicked off such negotiations in July 2008 but they had failed to reach a favorable conclusion due to some legal, financial, and technical issues. The Koreans held talks with the Qataris as an intermediary over this matter but no major breakthrough happened between them. In spite of this stalemate, the ROK was successful in the area of exporting its technical know-how to the GCC states. In fact, export of advanced technology and technical services to the wealthy Arab bloc now became a critical focus of the ROK government’s policy measures because recent serious deliberations in the region about moving toward a potentially “post-oil era” could supply grist to the mills of Korean public and private sectors in many promising and profitable areas, ranging from health care and hospital systems to information and communication technologies (Nihon Keizai Shimbun 2017).
In order to spread their technical tentacles smoothly into the GCC countries, moreover, the Koreans were willing to transfer to the region even some of their highly sensitive materials and technological equipment. A case in point was building nuclear power plants for the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia, harkening back to the groundbreaking $20 billion deal between South Korea’s KEPCO and the UAE in December 2009 to construct the Arab country’s first nuclear power station at Barakah. When the ROK-built first reactor was ready, Park Geun-hye made an official trip to the UAE in May 2014 primarily for the sake of attending the ceremony to celebrate the installation of the nuclear reactor (MOFA 2015, 188). One other critical case is South Korea’s push for selling arms and military materials to the GCC countries. Of course, the ROK’s history of arms exports to the Middle East dates back to the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988, but the East Asian country has in recent years increased its marketing activities to export more military and defense equipment to the region, though the GCC countries have shown less enthusiasm for such Korean products largely thanks to their convenient access to many more sophisticated arms suppliers in the West (Brzoska 1987).
A last, but not least, area of the Park government’s quest in the GCC zone was the promotion of the so-called “cultural soft power.” A basic goal was to instill in the minds of Arab youth a pro-Korean sentiment so that more people would emerge as fans and enthusiasts of the East Asian country and thereby become loyal customers of its products and services. Any major achievement in this realm could undoubtedly oil the wheels of the Korean diplomatic and economic machine in the region in one way or another. The trade entrepôt city of Dubai was particularly a target of South Korea’s cultural diplomacy partly because out of some twenty-four thousand Korean residents in the Middle East, roughly half of them were reported to be working and living in that city alone. This was also a reason why the Park government could reach an agreement with the UAE over a visa-waiver program in October 2016. The move had the potential to significantly increase the number of Arab tourists to South Korea, making them the biggest spenders as compared to travelers from other regions (Lee 2017).
IRAN: WHERE A SECOND BOOM WAS TO SPAWN
With the ascendancy of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency in August 2013, tackling Iran’s chronic and knotty foreign policy problems became a leitmotiv of the new government. Since Iran had suffered a major setback from the nuclear controversy under Ahmadinejad, none of the external issues facing the country mattered more than the daunting task of negotiating a peaceful resolution to the nuclear stalemate (Sagan et al. 2007). After a long, drawn-out process of intensive negotiations over some eighteen months, Iran and the five-plus-one party (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) issued a document entitled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in June 2015 according to which the Persian Gulf country could get rid of the relevant international sanctions in exchange for scaling back in its nuclear program (New York Times 2016). But the JCPOA was not only about a lasting settlement to the Iranian nuclear problem as the deal had long being predicted by many impartial experts from every bent as destined to reintegrate the country into the international system even if gradually. Although the nuclear deal was of high importance for fixing some of Iran’s crippling problems at home and abroad, it was equally critical for many foreign countries, including South Korea, which had long had pivotal interests in the country (Mehr News Agency 2016).
Most of those concerned and eager nations were actually waiting in their wings long before the nuclear deal was clinched to start their own bilateral negotiations with Iran regarding how to return to the country and its bustling markets. Still there happened to be a number of foreign stakeholders whose obsessions about a fresh business bonanza in Iran rather differed from other nations. The ROK was one of those countries; it worried primarily about how to maintain its current enviable shares in Iran just in case the ensuing circumstances did not let it to rev up its market penetration in the Persian Gulf country. After all, South Koreans and some other Asian countries had been among the major winners of the ruthless regime of Iran sanctions and their fortunes had aroused even the jealousy of many Western rivals. Koreans were therefore very anxious to safeguard their pivotal interests in Iran when the Persian Gulf country was moving to confidently mend fences with the West and consequently let into the country a slew of new voracious competitors from almost every part of the world (Yonhap News TV 2015).
Consequently, Park Geun-hye became the first South Korean president to pay an official visit to Iran, on May 1–4, 2016. Prior to Park’s trip to Iran, no Korean top leader, not even a North Korean paramount leader, had gone to the Persian Gulf country. In fact, such a crucial event had not taken place even during the reign of her father, Park Chung-hee, when the ROK and Iran enjoyed a more propitious environment in their bilateral relations. For an uninterrupted diplomatic relationship of more than six decades old, therefore, much importance was attached to Park’s tour to Tehran (Hankook Ilbo 2016). Moreover, the South Korean president embarked upon her journey at a critical time when there was really not much certainty about the prospect of Iran’s ongoing yet cautious interactions with a number of influential Western countries. Whether or not the United States had already endorsed Park’s Iran visit, no matter explicitly or implicitly, she most probably could not plan for such event in the absence of a tacit agreement from the Obama administration. After all, a great deal of the cold environment in the ROK’s political ties with Iran had to do with Washington’s policies toward Tehran during the past four decades (Ghanoon Daily 2017).
That is one pivotal reason why so much stuff was published and broadcasted here and there about various economic and cultural aspects of her Iran trip in order to water down the political significance of the very development. The better to skillfully divert all interested international attentions from the foregoing political element, Park’s trip to Tehran was dubbed largely as “economic diplomacy,” “sales diplomacy,” “cultural diplomacy,” “Roosari diplomacy,” and so on. Little, if anything at all, was said about the invisible role of the US factor in arranging and making possible a politically sensitive official trip of such genre. Although the Iranian nuclear deal had brought some crucial positive changes to Tehran’s overall interactions with the outside world, still many close allies of the United States kept behaving rather prudently in dealing with Iran. As a case in point, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later had to put on hold his scheduled official visit to Tehran until after the American presidential elections in November 2016 (Japan Times 2016).
Regardless of the US component adumbrated above, Park’s Tehran adventure was critical for both the ROK and Iran politically, economically, and even culturally. A key objective was to stir up enough enthusiasm and support for a new all-out relationship between the two countries in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal. The political message of the trip was already crystal clear, while the economic weight of Park’s entourage surprisingly transpired to be “the largest business delegation in the history of Korean presidential trips” to a foreign country (Im 2016, 41). It was estimated that the flurry of lucrative deals that were signed between the two countries during Park’s visit was worth more than $37 billion, providing a better ground for various Korean companies to participate in many new projects in Iran, ranging from construction to energy facilities. Her politico-economic mission to Iran was eventually to benefit all those 236 participating entities, involving representatives of 146 small- and medium-sized companies, 38 giant corporations, and 52 bodies affiliated with business organizations, public institutions, and hospitals. Park particularly raised the ante when she dubbed Iran “a land of opportunity,” and urged her fellow citizens on multiple occasions to repeat a “second Middle East boom” by taking advantage of the huge opportunities the Persian Gulf country could present (Kang 2016a; Hamshahri 2016).
IRAQ: VENTURING TO A NEW BRIDGEHEAD
Under Park Geun-hye, the ROK’s political, and especially economic, connections to Iraq also grew by leaps and bounds. The Koreans tried especially to pitch their own country as a good example to follow so that the Iraqis take the nation-building struggle of the East Asian country in the aftermath of the Korean War as a role model for reconstructing the new Iraq (MOFA 2016b, 201–2). Such a strategy provided the ROK with lots of fresh opportunities in Iraq in various diplomatic and economic areas. In particular, South Korea drew a bead on the Middle East country’s promising oil industry. Iraq’s dilapidated oil industry certainly needed a lot of new investments some of which could be financed by the ROK, which was in a rather convenient position to do so largely thanks to its peculiar policy toward the Iraq War. Moreover, South Korea gradually increased its oil imports from Iraq at the cost of other oil producers in the region, Iran and Oman in particular. This policy soon turned Iraq into the fourth, and later third, top supplier of crude oil to the ROK after Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, respectively.
Construction was a second area that greatly attracted the attention of South Korea. Iraq had never used to be a major purveyor of construction deals for the ROK even in the heydays of the first Middle East boom of the 1970s and 1980s. But circumstances were significantly different now. Despite its shocking instability and enormous domestic problems, the new Iraq gradually became a major construction market for South Korean contractors. In fact, the Middle East country emerged eventually as the biggest contributor to overseas Korean builders before the Park presidency was over. Iraq had now become a major exporter of crude oil within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and part of the revenues were naturally pouring into the construction business for which many Korean companies had a phenomenal forte. Lucrative offers by the central Iraqi government led to the participation of more than one hundred Korean companies with around fifteen hundred employees to carry out various infrastructure projects primarily in safer regions of Iraq (Park 2014).
Besides construction, Iraq also became a new bustling exports market for other Korean goods and services. The Middle Eastern country has a relatively large population, and its consumption market could grow swiftly as Iraq received more oil income. Since the ROK was more interested in relatively profitable and large deals, contracts signed by the central Iraqi government could better meet some of its expectations from a new Iraq. Such business deals would be even more compelling if the Koreans were to experience them for the first time in the region. A case in point is an arms contract between Korea Aerospace Industries and the Iraqi government to sell to the latter some twenty-four units of the ROK’s T-50 light fighter jets. The package deal, which was signed in the first year of the Park presidency, valued more than two billion dollars, including pilot training and other supportive services for a revitalizing and modernizing Iraqi air force. The landmark arms deal was virtually the single most lucrative military export the ROK had ever experienced (Kang 2013).
Meanwhile, the relatively more stable and quickly developing region of northern Iraq, Kurdistan, remained as a critical part of the ROK’s foreign policy toward the new Iraq. In fact, the capital of the Kurdish region, Irbil, became the cynosure of South Korea after the outbreak of the Iraq War, when the East Asian country dispatched, out of the blue, an army of some thirty-six hundred of its military forces as the third largest contingent of foreign forces, right behind the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Although the Korean forces that were stationed in Kurdistan apparently were not involved in any bloody missions during the internecine conflict, nevertheless, their presence in the region subsequently cemented a rather close relationship, both politically and economically, between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the ROK. Under Park, bilateral interactions between the two parties increased further, persuading the South Korean government to elevate the status of its Irbil-based liaison office to that of a consulate that functioned practically like an embassy (Yonhap News Agency 2016).
Long before establishing its politico-diplomatic mission in Kurdistan, however, the ROK had set up its own official economic representative in the Kurdish region. Created in 2004, the Irbil-based office of the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) was primarily in charge of implementing and supervising Korean government-financed projects throughout the Kurdish region. The private sector of the ROK swiftly joined the business, taking on various construction projects ranging from sewage and water irrigation systems to apartment complexes and airport runway (Rudaw 2016). The ace in the hole was the goodwill of many top Kurdish officials who were willing to offer a generous and growing number of lucrative deals, in both construction and consumer markets, to South Korean businesses, hoping that this engagement with the ROK and its well-to-do corporations would in turn translate into more political support for the ambitious KRG particularly at a critical time when a Korean national, Ban Ki-moon, was in charge of the United Nations (Sputnik International 2016).
TURKEY: FROM BROTHERHOOD TO BROTHERLY FRIENDSHIP
The identity of Turkey, both internationally and regionally, has long been an important factor in the Seoul–Ankara relationship. The ROK government has for decades dubbed Turkey a non-Middle Eastern state, putting it dubiously in the category of European countries. But some seismic developments in Turkey’s foreign and domestic affairs during the past one and half decades have somehow put South Korea over a barrel. By distancing itself considerably from Ankara’s erstwhile euphoria for Europe, the Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party has greatly shifted Turkey toward the Middle East, giving a significant boost to the country’s historical and cultural affinity with the region. Moreover, the Islamic proclivities of Erdogan’s political party and some other religion-related developments in the Middle East pressed the ROK government to deal with the new Turkey rather cautiously. Some South Korean top officials were now relatively reluctant to comfortably call the Turks their “brothers in blood,” an expression that was previously common in many official meetings and diplomatic conversations involving high-ranking people from the two countries (Daily Sabah 2017a).
In spite of Seoul’s rather prudent approach to Ankara under Park, nonetheless, Turkey remained as usual one of the closest partners of the ROK in the Middle East. Even Erdogan’s masculine politics and Park’s gender identity could hardly make a serious dent in the edifice of bilateral ties between the two parties. The intimate nature of their relationship has some historical background, but its modern cause largely dates back to the Korean War of 1950–1953 during which Turkey sent some fifteen thousand soldiers to the internecine conflict to fight in favor of South Korea (Casey 2008, 29–31). From the very beginning, the move was highly controversial among the Turkish population because their country was the fourth biggest supplier of soldiers among the sixteen countries which entered the conflict to save the ROK. More than 720 soldiers, or some 5 percent, of the dispatched Turkish troops lost their lives over the course of the bloody war, though their sacrificed blood has since continued to play an indispensable role behind all good interactions between the two countries in various political, economic, and cultural realms (Soysal 1997, 179).
Still, the friendly dynamics of the ROK–Turkey connection were not devoid of disagreements and frictions. Troubles in their bilateral relations could occur potentially in any strategic, political, and economic field. For instance, one case was the unhappiness of Erdogan’s Turkey with a bid by the ROK government’s Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS) to engage in gas exploration offshore of Greek Cyprus (Today’s Zaman 2013). Another case was the Erdogan government’s suspicion about potential collusion between the Park government and the Obama administration with regard to his arch-rival, Fethullah Gulen, the founder of the Gulen movement, which was widely accused by Turkish authorities of being behind the ostensibly military coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016 (Hong 2016). Of course, such incidents were temporary and could be ironed out rather smoothly by the relevant officials of the two countries. But the nature of economic turnover between the ROK and Turkey often proved to be a lasting source of grievances echoed here and there especially by the Turkish media and politicians in Ankara.
The crux of the problem is that Turkey has long suffered from a whopping trade deficit with South Korea. Latest statistics indicate that the ROK’s exports to Turkey valued more than $6.4 billion in 2016, while the entire volume of the Turkish exports to South Korea in the same period was not worth more than $518 million, causing an astonishingly twelve-fold trade deficit in favor of Seoul. Unlike South Korea’s other major trading partners in the Middle East region, Turkey does not export fossil fuel energies and its agricultural and tourism industries are often struggling to partially make up for what the country needs to import from the ROK every year. On top of that, South Korea has long been addicted to exports, taking advantage of any technicalities and legal frameworks in its international interactions to bar more volumes of imports into its borders. In fact, the ROK has the highest rate of dependence on exports among all OECD countries (a club which does include Turkey as well), and such unhealthy economic and commercial trend is only increasing without any panacea in sight (Daily Sabah 2017b).
Negotiating a free trade agreement with Turkey was essentially a strategy for the ROK to show that it was willing to have some sort of symbiotic relationship with the Middle Eastern country. However, the signed trade policy, which came into effect in the first year of Park’s presidency, concentrates heavily on the investments and service sectors involving the two nations (Hurriyet Daily News 2014). As a corollary to that, more South Korean companies have been pushed to invest in Turkey, engaging in many new projects from building spectacular bridges to constructing sophisticated solar plants. Some of the recent construction deals in Turkey carried out by South Korean companies include the third Bosphorus Bridge, a tunnel under the Bosphorus, a coal-powered power plant, and an oil refinery. The only problem is that a growing presence of Korean corporations in Turkey as an outcome of the implemented free trade agreement has done little, if any, to hack away at a widening gap in the Turkish trade balance with the ROK, which some in Turkey call a “one-way commerce” in favor of the East Asian country (Nikkei Asian Review 2017).
THE LEVANT REGION: STILL POLITICALLY PERPLEXED AND ECONOMICALLY UNTAPPED
For decades, the Levant region (consisting of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel) used to be more of a political liability than an economic prize for South Korea. During the past two decades, however, the ROK government has strived to forge normal political and economic connections to the region. But the Koreans have been more successful in achieving this objective in Israel than in other states of the Levant. Under Park Geun-hye, South Korea made more attempts to increase the volume of economic and technological cooperation with the Jewish state, though the level of political and security interactions between the two countries made more progress as well. Under the banner of “creative economy,” a number of joint R&D projects were implemented between the ROK and Israel so that the Koreans have a better chance to learn some innovative ideas through closer association with their Israeli counterparts (MOFA 2016c, 206–7). A fresh push for technological exchanges between the two states was also extended to include some sensitive military and defensive contracts, one of which involved the purchase of Israeli radars and rocket interceptors by South Korea (Reuters 2014b).
Overt deeper ties to Israel could indicate that the ROK was no longer worried about potential implications of such relationship on the Palestinian issue, which was once a major bugbear of South Korea’s foreign policy toward the broader Middle East region. And unlike its East Asian neighbors, Japan and China, the ROK was not also obsessed with playing a mediating role in the complicated and knotty matter of the peace process involving the Palestinians and Israelis. South Korea’s real position with regard to the issue was already crystal clear to many, and its participation in any mediating efforts here and there could hardly help either party. Nor it did really stay the ROK’s hands from forging diplomatic as well economic connections to Lebanon and especially Jordan (Jordan Times 2015). The kingdom of Jordan has actually been on rather good terms with South Korea, receiving considerable amount of grants and loans provided by the East Asian country. Moreover, some Korean companies such as Hyundai have managed to capture a significant share of Jordan’s markets in different areas (Korea Herald 2015a).
Compared to other states in the Levant region, nevertheless, Syria remained, as usual, the riddle of South Korean foreign policy. Only a handful of countries currently do not have any formal diplomatic relationship with the ROK, and one of them is Syria, which has always refused inflexibly to set up political ties with South Korea. Successive Korean governments before Park tried to enter the Arab country at least economically; a relentless policy which ultimately led to the creation of a business center by KOTRA in Syria in November 2009. The opening of the center, which was celebrated with a relatively great fanfare by some government officials and business leaders from both countries, buoyed up many in the ROK, who pinned their hopes on the economic and technological means as a powerful instrument to eventually forge close normal political and commercial connections to Damascus (Korea Joongang Daily 2009). But Syria was soon plunged into an internecine and protracted civil war that dashed hopes of a quick and quid pro quo deal on close political and economic interactions between South Korea and Syria.
A vocally staunch support of the anti-Assad forces by the Korean government made things much worse so that Syria even denied a visa to a South Korean national who was member of an international team dispatched to inspect the Middle East country’s chemical weapons. Given this history of suspicion and mistrust, it seems unlikely that an Assad-led political system would easily let in South Korean contractors, many of whom are already waiting in the wings to flock into the war-torn country for lucratively massive construction contracts in a post-conflict Syria. This is one reason why the Korean government under Park gradually yet quietly reconsidered its policy toward the Syrian civil war especially when the prospects for a swift removal of Assad from power, by either domestic forces or outside powers, dwindled one year after another. Instead, the ROK shifted its attention to the rising ghost of the Islamic State (IS or ISIL) which was now supposed to pose greater dangers to South Korea’s vested interests in the Middle East in one way or another (Bangkok Post 2014).
The alarm bells were beginning to ring more loudly in Seoul when the IS included South Korea in the list of potential targets for its attacks worldwide. Because of hosting US military bases, the ROK could actually encounter such a nightmarish scenario, a reality which soon forced the Park government to take some cautious measures against the threats posed by the IS. Of course, South Korea’s main direction of foreign and security policy as a close ally of the United States could still bring grist to the mill of IS for such eventuality. On top of that, many in South Korea worried that the US administration might again force South Korea to dispatch its military forces to the Middle East for an imminent ground operation under an American command to uproot the IS. Since the East Asian country was already paralyzed by a whole host of prickly problems at home and abroad, a new controversial adventure by its military forces in the topsy-turvy world of the Middle East region was the last thing the Park-led Korean government wished to deal with (Korea Herald 2015b).
NORTH AFRICA: A CHANGING POLITICO-ECONOMIC ENVIRONMENT
South Korea has by and large been a newcomer to North Africa, and generally, to the African continent. Although the first Korean diplomats and political envoys to the Middle East had a chance to visit the region in the late 1950s, nonetheless, the ROK did not subsequently manage to build strong political and economic connections to North Africa. As a matter of fact, South Korea’s diplomatic ties to North Africa’s most important country, Egypt, is a tale of roughly two decades old. But the ROK does not bear the whole responsibility alone. As former colonies with their own peculiar tormented history, North African countries, Egypt in particular, were not really interested in forging good relations with South Korea as a close ally of the United States (North Africa Post 2013). They were instead in favor of close and multifaceted connections to the former Soviet Union and some other communist and socialist countries such as China and North Korea. That is one reason why Pyongyang, rather than Seoul, could for decades enjoy close political and military interactions with Cairo (Pyongyang Times 1967).
Political and ideological factors were, therefore, playing a part in putting a stop to the ROK’s larger political and economic presence in North Africa, though South Korea could still capture a relatively good share of the Libyan construction market during its bubble days. Moreover, the Koreans, who were primarily interested in ready and safe opportunities in other parts of the Middle East, considered North Africa to be incognito to them and potentially hazardous. North Africa, and Africa in general, captured the attention of the ROK seriously only when previous lucrative opportunities in other exotic regions began to dwindle. From now on, South Korea’s high agenda in the region incorporated various objectives, from extracting critical natural resources in Libya and snatching investment contracts in Tunisia to obtaining consumption markets in Egypt and exploring a potential free trade agreement with Morocco (Schwekendiek 2017, 269–70). These critical priorities pushed the ROK government to beef up its politico-economic diplomacy, making North Africa into a new destination for occasional, and sometimes frequent, visits by successive South Koreans presidents, foreign ministers, and other top officials.
Park personally did not visit North Africa, but she met their leaders on the sidelines of the annual UN meetings in New York. She also once hosted the Egyptian president el-Sisi, who paid an official visit to the ROK in March 2016 (Ahram Online 2016). Among all North African countries, therefore, South Korea gave preference to Egypt because of its geographic location, demographic size, and cultural weight, hoping that the Arab country might provide better opportunities for the participation of Korean companies in its large-scale economic and development projects. Besides serving potentially as a convenient center to transfer Korean manufactured products to the neighboring countries, Egypt was also approached by the ROK for military deals and even cultural initiatives (e.g., the establishment of a culture center in Cairo in 2014 that was a first of its kind in the Middle East). The Park government aimed particularly to turn Egypt into one of South Korea’s prospective customers for arms and military equipment such as K-9 howitzer through negotiating a defense deal with Cairo (Kang 2015).
What particularly stoked new economic expectations among Koreans about Egypt, and other countries in the region, was the so-called Arab Spring, which had started in North Africa. It was a general belief among many observers and pundits that the political crisis had a lot to do with woeful economic conditions such as high unemployment rates in the region. They ineluctably came to the conclusion that the post-crisis political systems and national governments had little option but to do something serious with their economies through pork-barrel spending on various development programs and social welfare projects, implementation of which required active participation of many foreign companies such as those from the ROK. Putting strong faith in prophecies of this genre, a number of Korean companies started carving out their relevant plans in the early months of the Arab Spring (Chosun Ilbo 2011). Libya was a particularly alluring candidate for many Korean contractors who optimistically believed that the post-crisis Arab country would certainly provide another construction boom for the Koreans.
Succumbing to soothsayers and their sanguine views of new Libya, the Korean government soon emerged among the ardent proponents of the anti-Gaddafi coalition (Libya Herald 2016). Gaddafi had previously offered very generous contracts to the Koreans, but his demise was now on the wish list of almost every major Korean contractor (Korea Times 1986). Moreover, the ROK became one of the few countries in the world which kept its embassy running in Tripoli until its building fatally came under attacks in April 2015, forcing the Park government to temporarily transfer its diplomatic staff to the neighboring country, Tunisia (Reuters 2015). South Koreans had, therefore, predicted a rather smooth and speedy process into an imminent economic boom fraught with huge bankable opportunities for their companies under a post-Gaddafi political establishment. But in sharp contrast to such heady optimism, Libya was driven into a bloody civil war with rival factions and forces from different parts of the country all engaging in turf battles to one day successfully and single-handedly take control of the entire territory and its plentiful resources.
The push for achieving a second boom was the main plank of South Korea’s Middle East foreign policy under Park Geun-hye. This high objective certainly played a determining role in rekindling the ROK’s politico-economic policies as well as cultural measures toward almost all Middle Eastern countries, but the recrudescence of a new boom in the region, as Koreans perceived it, was not eventually viable. There are by and large three reasons why another Mideast boom was hard to come by under current circumstances. First, oil prices on average remained low, putting a lot of budgetary pressures on all energy exporting countries in the region. Unlike in the first boom period, the Mideast countries had little appetite to allocate more funds for new development plans and welfare programs in the absence of satisfactory energy incomes, while some nations even had to shelve for now some of their ongoing projects because of financial uncertainty and budgetary constraints. Iran, as the biggest export market of South Korea in the Middle East, was undergoing additional difficulties because a fair part of the Persian Gulf country’s external revenues had been dammed up outside its sovereign borders due to sundry international sanctions.
Second, the Koreans themselves, both as professionals and laborers, contributed significantly to the materialization of the first boom. Korean companies were generally content with any small contract they could sign in the region, and many of them were prepared to work as subcontractors for more experienced and sophisticated corporations hailing from the West or Japan. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Korean manual laborers in the Middle East were among the most hardworking and disciplined workers the region had ever encountered, and their strenuous lifestyles and frugal saving habits back in those days had a lot of material benefits for their own country. But both groups have undergone tremendous transformation since then. Rich and resourceful Korean companies are now more risk-averse and finicky, giving their preferences and priorities to investments in highly rewarding and fail-safe environments. And while Korean laborers in the first boom were resolutely prepared to work some sixteen hours a day in the sweltering summers of Saudi Arabian deserts to advance the first boom dream, many of their children and grandchildren are no longer willing to spend even half of that time studying in air-conditioned spaces in Seoul or Busan.
Finally, Korean companies and businesses throughout the Middle East have run into a swarm of new international as well as local rivals that were largely nonexistent over the course of the first boom. It is true that the Koreans could offer excellent financing packages and various types of advanced technology to their clients in the region, but other less well-known competitors have been striving to catch up by presenting more tempting deals and adequate qualifications. Many of these challenging contenders also adhere to some of the business traits and working ethics that once greatly contributed to the overall success of Korean companies in the Middle East. Additionally, an increasing number of local and regional players active in the critical political and economic affairs of the Middle East have undeniably become a powerful new force to reckon with. Be they more educated and sophisticated decision-makers or ambitious and experienced businessmen, the local and regional challengers have regarded themselves as more entitled to the windfalls of a potential second boom in the Middle East region.