South Korea pushes the envelope in science diplomacy

Copyright: Adam Dean / Panos

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  • In just four decades, South Korea transitioned from aid recipient to a substantial donor
  • South Korea is now investing in Africa’s abundant human and natural resources
  • With US$5.6 trillion GDP, Latin America has also become a big investment target

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South Korea is expanding its science diplomacy outside the Asian region to new markets in Africa and Latin America, Fatima Arkin reports.

[SEOUL] South Korea is reinforcing science diplomacy and its role in the global scientific community as one of its four major policies for 2015, says the country’s top science minister.

Choi Yanghee, who heads the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning (MSIP), says that South Korea will expand science diplomacy outside its traditional spheres of influence in the region to new markets in Africa and Latin America.

In the 1960s, South Korea was a major recipient of international development assistance. But in just four decades, it transitioned to a substantial donor — the only country in the world able to make such a claim.

It is now trying to help other countries make the same great leap forward. Low-income countries will receive tailored assistance in the areas of education, technology and infrastructure while collaboration will take place with middle-income countries on specific research and development projects.

Choi says that his government will engage with officials in other countries then pass the mantle to South Korean institutions and universities.

“I believe there is a lot of potential for us to work harder,” Choi tells SciDev.Net.

Initiatives in Africa

South Korea has joined China in investing in Africa’s abundant human capital, mineral and plant resources. The MISP has been particularly keen on collaborating with several African countries in information and communications technology (ICT).

In May 2014, South Korea’s Export-Import Bank and Economic Development Cooperation Fund conducted business viability research on the creation of the Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, which was modelled after the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

Kenya also intends to add masters and PhD courses to its flagship ICT school, the Multimedia University of Kenya, which currently focuses on undergraduate studies. South Korea plans to allocate roughly 80 billion won (US$78 million) to make this happen by 2017. The creation of a specialised graduate school is part of Kenya’s goal to become a middle income country by 2030.

Many South Korean science and technology experts also actively engage with the Ethiopian science community. This May, the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STEPI) in South Korea hosted a training program with researchers from Ethiopia’s Science and Technology Information Center (STIC) after signing a memorandum of understanding in March 2015.

The programme’s main goal is to share lessons from South Korea’s science technology and innovation policy for development to enhance the research skills of those working for the STIC and to help them improve their general capacity building.

STEPI and the Ministry of Science and Technology of Ethiopia have been working together since 2010. They have conducted regular joint workshops and training programs. Several South Korean science experts have also served as university presidents or government policy advisors.

In 2011, Lee Jang-gyu, a retired electrical engineering professor at Seoul National University, was appointed president of Ethiopia’s Adama Science and Technology University, making him the first South Korean university president in Africa. The appointment was made after Ethiopia’s human affairs minister at the time suggested that a South Korean professor take the top post at the university.

Initiatives in Latin America

With a GDP of roughly US$5.6 trillion, Latin America is one of the world’s largest emerging markets and South Korea has taken notice. Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru are just some of the countries that MSIP says are potential strategic partners since they are either “particularly friendly” towards South Korea or are “interested in benchmarking South Korea’s development experience”.

The MSIP says it is especially interested in Colombia because it was the only Latin American country to send in troops during the Korean War. Brazil has the largest economy in the region and is “a potentially strong strategic partner”. Both Chile and South Korea’s presidents have a mutual interest in cooperating with each other while Peru “has always been friendly towards Korea”.

This April, South Korea and Peru signed an agreement to share South Korea’s various science and technology park models. These include the operation and management of new complexes, the exchange of manpower in various fields such as biotechnology and environmental techniques, and nurturing networks among businesses in both countries.

The MSIP has been offering consultations on similar scientific models to Ecuador as well.

Last April, the MSIP also signed a memorandum with Chile’s Ministry of Transport and Communications to strengthen cooperation in areas such as mobile communications and digital switchover, which would convert the analogue signal to digital cable.

The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute and Chile’s National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research have also signed a memorandum to promote joint research and expert exchange, following the establishment of the Korea Microlensing Telescope Network (KMTNet) in Chile, South Africa and Australia, largely to execute gravitational microlensing surveys which will enable the detection of low-mass exoplanets that are not possible with other ground-based approaches.

“We are taking a systematic approach to science diplomacy and our objective is to partner with a lot of different countries to create a win-win situation,” says Choi.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.