Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

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

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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