The Political Drivers of South Korea's Official Development Assistance to Myanmar.

AuthorKim, Hyo-Sook

Since the early 2010s, the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) has increased its official development assistance (ODA) to Myanmar. In 2016, South Korea disbursed US$47.31 million in ODA to Myanmar, an almost ten-fold increase compared to 2009 (US$4.87 million). As Table 1 shows, in 2016 South Korea's ODA to Myanmar was smaller than its ODA to the other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) such as Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. However, the growth rate of South Korea's ODA to Myanmar over the last ten years was higher than that of any other ASEAN country. In 2016, Myanmar ranked 8th among South Korea's ODA recipients, up from 38th in 2007. (1) In 2015, the South Korean government selected Myanmar as a priority partner country for ODA. From 2013 to 2016, Seoul agreed to provide Myanmar with six loan aid schemes--known as Economic Cooperation Development Fund (EDCF) projects--amounting to US$500 million, making Myanmar the fourth-largest EDCF partner country after Vietnam, Uzbekistan and Bangladesh. In December 2017, the South Korean government agreed to provide US$80 million to implement the e-Government Integrated Data Centre Establishment Project in Myanmar. (2) What factors explain the increase in South Korea's ODA to Myanmar over the past decade?

Previous studies on South Korea's ODA to Myanmar have concentrated on the economic benefits for Myanmar, assuming that ODA contributes to partner countries' "promotion of economic development and welfare". (3) Other studies have argued that South Korea's economic self-interests--including gaining access to natural resources and developing emerging markets--have been the most significant drivers of the country's ODA to Myanmar." Given that South Korea entered the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in 2010, and Myanmar initiated democratic reforms in 2011, it follows that South Korea's greater emphasis on Myanmar as its preferred ODA partner is consistent with the international community's support for the country's democratization, and that South Korea has endeavoured to enhance its economic cooperation with Myanmar because it represents the "last frontier" in Southeast Asia. However, most of these studies have missed another critical aspect of South Korea's ODA to Myanmar: the salience of political factors, both international and domestic.

To address this literature gap, this article highlights three political factors which have motivated South Korea's ODA to Myanmar: dynamics involving North Korea; geopolitical competition with China and Japan; and domestic ODA policymaking. (5) The analysis focuses on the past decade, during which Seoul increased its ODA to Myanmar, especially during the administrations of Presidents Lee Myung-bak (2008-13) and Park Geun-hye (2013-17). Utilizing the concepts of realism and soft power, this article argues that political motivations involving national security concerns and domestic political factors have led South Korea to increase its ODA to Myanmar. South Korea's national status as a divided state --but also a middle power--and its domestic politics rendered ODA's role more significant in enhancing its national security and international standing. The analysis in this article utilizes publications by the South Korean government, minutes from the national assembly, scholarly literature and articles published in major South Korean newspapers.

This article begins with a literature review of South Korea's ODA to Myanmar. It then discusses the importance of political factors in understanding the nature of Seoul's ODA to Myanmar before examining the three international and domestic political factors that have motivated South Korea to increase its ODA to Myanmar. The conclusion summarizes the findings and provides some recommendations for future studies.

Literature Review: South Korea's ODA and Economic Considerations

South Korea's ODA has attracted considerable scholarly interest. Some academics have focused on Seoul's ODA as a means of supporting economic development and reducing poverty in partner countries, aligning with the established international development cooperation architecture led by Western donors. South Korea began disbursing ODA in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the establishment of two ODA implementation agencies: EDCF in 1987 for loans, and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) in 1991 for grants and technical cooperation. Although the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis led to a sharp reduction in South Korea's ODA budget, the country's economy recovered in the mid-2000s and Seoul has since increased its ODA disbursements, as well as reformed and improved its ODA policies. (6) In 2010, South Korea joined the DAC.

On the one hand, scholars such as Axel Marx and Jadir Soares, as well as this author, have indicated that South Korea has closed the gap with other DAC donors in terms of the quality of its aid, an example being the increase in multilateral aid in its total ODA as well as untied aid (aid that does not limit the procurement of goods and services to the ODA donor) and grants in bilateral aid. (7) Hee-young Choi has noted that South Korea has increased its aid volume, as well as the proportion of grants and untied aid to least developed countries (LDCs), in accordance with DAC recommendations. (8) This author has discussed the convergence of South Korea's aid behaviour with that of the international donor community, demonstrating that South Korea has adopted the international norm of poverty reduction, resulting in an increase of aid to Africa, where poverty is concentrated. (9)

On the other hand, Hong-min Chun et al. have criticized South Korea's failure to improve the quantity and quality of its ODA, (10) while Bongchul Kim has highlighted the limitations of the country's legal framework for disbursing ODA. (11) In South Korea, grant aid and technical cooperation have been managed by KOICA, headed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), whereas loan aid has been disbursed by the Eximbank of Korea under the Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MOSF). The 1987 EDCF Act and 1991 KOICA Act provide the legal basis of each aid scheme. South Korea enacted the Framework Act on International Development Cooperation (the Framework Act) in 2010 and established the Committee for International Development Cooperation (CIDC) to manage the country's ODA policy. However, as Kim has pointed out, South Korea's complicated legal framework for ODA has limited the effectiveness of its aid policy. (12)

In the International Relations literature on ODA, some scholars have argued that donors provide ODA as a means of reducing poverty in recipient countries. Among these scholars, liberalists assume the idea that developed countries should eliminate poverty and help people in need, i.e., a moral vision, has led to a global increase in foreign aid. (13) It is argued that as this idea has gained ground, aid regimes have become more poverty-oriented. (14) Thus, the development of principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures with regard to aid has led to a convergence in donors' behaviour: donors have begun to provide more aid, concentrated on the poorest countries and the poorest aid sectors. (15) Constructivists agree that the normative ideas represented by the Millennium Development Goals have encouraged donors to strengthen international cooperation for poverty reduction in developing countries. (16) Their focus is on how normative aid ideas emerge and are diffused in the international sphere, and the way in which they are internalized by donors. (17)

In the same vein, studies on South Korea's ODA to Myanmar have emphasized its positive contributions to Myanmar's development, particularly supporting growth in rural areas. Since 2011, South Korea has implemented ODA projects to develop Myanmar's rural economy: the so-called Saemaul Undong (the new community movement) ODA. Aimed at sharing South Korea's development experiences of the 1970s, this ODA is a village-based participatory development project, the policymaking of which is led by Saemaul-hoe (the new community meeting, in which villagers decide development projects by themselves, including project implementation). A criticism levelled by Hee-suk Kim is that the establishment of the new policymaking system in a pilot village in Yangon resulted in a dual political structure that led to conflicts among villagers and the unequal distribution of development resources. (18) Sung-gyu Kim has compared Saemaul Undong ODA projects in three villages in Myanmar and found that the motivations of villagers, the roles of leaders and the organization of associations within a village, i.e., social capital accumulation, as well as the homogeneity among villagers and village size, were the factors that determined the success of rural development projects. (19)

A second, and arguably stronger, argument in the literature is that South Korea provides ODA to advance its economic self-interests. By the end of the Cold War, and following the accession to the United Nations (UN) by both South Korea and North Korea in 1991, the central motivation for South Korea's ODA--formerly political and diplomatic in nature as will be discussed later--became economic. (20) Recognizing that economic cooperation with developing countries is vital to the diversification of export markets, the development of industrial structure and the need to secure a stable supply of natural resources, (21) South Korea focused its ODA on Asian countries such as China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Hyeok-sang Sohn and Jeong-ho Choe have pointed out that South Korea's ODA to ASEAN members, including the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) countries, has been driven by economic motivations, principally expanding trade and investment by South Korean enterprises. (22) They describe Seoul's ODA as "economic cooperation" aimed at serving...

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