Why Korea should matter to South Africa

The past week has seen the start of another North Korea/South Korea flashpoint in a 50 year debacle. For followers of international relations, this incident is a goldmine of political and military analysis. From the reluctance by South Korea to properly invade the North through to the potential fight night match-up between these two armies (plus the USA), this incident is topical material. But it is largely irrelevant to South Africa, or at least this is the perception. But I would say that incidents like the shelling of Yeongpyeong island do matter for South Africa, or rather, that they should and our government is unaware of its importance.

For starters, South Africa had a very direct hand in the creation of North and South Korea. We actively participated in the Korean war, helping to shoot down north korean MiGs with the Americans and UN forces hand in hand.

Learning how to juggle tough strategic issues like the current crisis in Korea is precisely the skillset we appear to have forgotten.

We have a historical agency in what has resulted thereafter in Korea, and to simply shrug off responsibility due to the passing of time and apartheid alike would be incredibly wasteful of a perfectly good opportunity.

Yes, I say “opportunity” because South Africa recently won another afternoon at the Security Council’s lunch table, meaning we have a direct say in how major international events are responded to. This means that any actions on Korea or other large foreign affairs crises pass by our government’s hands for signing. That should not be underestimated. And yet this opportunity appears to have been missed by DIRCO, who would prefer to be involved in endorsing homophobic legisation through the UN rather than taking a active and historically-rightful role in larger, more existential problems, such as all-out war with a dictator in Asia.

South Africa could benefit well from making its voice heard in international affairs. At present the DIRCO (foreign affairs ministry) website has precisely nothing about the incident, preferring to focuses on the G20 summit. The South African Institute of International Affairs has nothing on their front page either. If the major players in South African foreign affairs continuously fail to capitalise on the issues and crises which global leaders deal with, we are missing a great chance here for our country to take a contributing role in them. Certainly, the G20 summit was important, but in the aftermath of the North Korean attack, nobody is watching that now. It has taken a firm backseat to a more immediate crisis. Just because it’s “violence” and therefore distasteful does not for a second excuse thinkers on foreign affairs from lazily avoiding the issue altogether.

No, our foreign affairs thinkers must get stuck in. That of course runs the risk of our foreign affairs diplomats running their mouths on all manner of idiocy which would discredit our entire national image, but there is the potential there for us to capitalise on a crisis and project a national foreign policy that was coherent, intelligent and worth stating at the highest levels of the UN.

Finally, South Africa quite frankly needs to learn the art of diplomacy once again. One gets the impression that DIRCO’s current flock of diplomats consider wining and dining with other diplomats to be the height of foreign affairs. But over-paid and over-catered diplomatic shindigs goes nowhere without political teeth behind it. If a diplomat condemns North Korea there should damn well be a minister or, dare I dream, president behind him or her to back up those words. Learning how to juggle tough strategic issues like the current crisis in Korea is precisely the skillset we appear to have forgotten. No doubt the diplomatic corps are well-versed in how to handle this skirmish from a foreign affairs perspective, but do the policy-makers who sign their cheques? I don’t think they do, and I believe it’s something well-worth developing once more. Hillary Clinton is a powerful envoy precisely because she has the backing of a whitehouse that knows what its foreign policy is. South Africa has suffered a disconnect in this kinda of state-diplomacy relationship, and Korea simply makes our ignorance made known to the world.

The shelling of Yeonpyeong was a major event in global history, and it shall be discussed for years hence by superpower and dictator alike. What the Security Council say now on this event could resonate strongly into the future for good or bad. Regardless of the outcome, South Africa should get on board this with a clear policy in order to truly build some foreign policy muscle which we appear to have lost after Mandela left office.

  • Mark

    The night after the shelling, at around 7pm Korean time, or 12pm SAST I mailed the ANC, DA, IFP, FF+ and COPE for comments. I was particularly interested in the ANC’s response bearing in mind that:

    1. Floyd Shivambu claimed that the ANC-YL “unapologetically support(s) North Korea.”


    2. The ANC-YL’s puppet, the National Youth Development Agency has invited a delegation of North Korean youth to a festival aimed at combatting imperialism, and one of the seminars will be “solidarity with North Korea.

    3. KCNA (The mouthpiece of the Korean Workers’ Party) claimed that “The secretary of the ANC Youth League of South Africa praised Kim Jong-il as the great guardian who firmly guarantees peace and security of not only the Korean Peninsula but the world with his sonngun (military-first) politics.”


    This makes the point that this event does indeed have relevancy in all the ways John has pointed out in addition to this other layer of the youth wing of our ruling party and its love affair with totalitarian dictatorships. But I digress. Of all the political parties I contacted, only the DA had a cohesive response, both condemning the aforementioned Youth Festival and decrying the fact that SA refused entry to the Dalai Lama whilst hosting a nation actively engaged in acts of war and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among other violations of international norms that are too numerous to list here.

    Good job, John for pointing out the need for or governement to take a more active role in international affairs. If the ANC truly wants to return to the “glory days” where the world saw them in a more forgiving light, they have surely missed the boat that in this instance.