Issue Briefs


The Republic of Korea (ROK), the world’s eighth largest energy consumer, relies heavily on energy imports from overseas, which makes it highly dependent on specific regions for such imports and that add to its vulnerabilities. Because South Korea imports approximately 75% of its oil needs solely from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and because of anticipated economic surges in the years and decades ahead, its dependence on such imports is likely to grow even more. Thus, Seoul is most likely to pay attention to the stability of the MENA area as well as strengthen global cooperation on energy.

Moreover, with 60% of South Korea’s overseas construction contracts coming from MENA, successive South Korean governments have sought economic cooperation on MENA states’ diversification projects, beyond the traditional energy and construction sectors, which has further underscored the importance of these growing relationships. Importantly, these projects required that many South Koreans work in MENA countries, some of whom fell victim to violent extremism in the region. In as much as a large number of Koreans still work, study, and travel abroad extensively, including throughout the MENA region, Seoul cannot but be fully cognizant of their needs that serve the nation in toto.1

It is critical to note that Seoul shares vital non-economic interests with its global allies too, which necessitate sharp policy investments. The ROK has successfully reinforced its role as a responsible, trusted middle power through its active participation within the UN and OECD’s global outreach activities.  Substantial investments in humanitarian, peacekeeping, and counter-terrorism missions since the early 2010s, mainly in the MENA region, have bestowed upon it global recognition. In addition, South Korea stood as an ideal type of free market-based development that also preserves cultural values and secures stable transitions for many conservative MENA governments with traditional societies who see neither Westernization nor socialism as attractive alternatives. MENA leaders have more keenly looked at the ROK’s development agenda as feasible solutions to achieve such authority and political stability since the 2011 Arab Uprisings, a series of anti-government protests.

Yet, the remarkable contribution and comprehensive recognition of South Korea’s peace, security, and development agenda in MENA have been undervalued by domestic audiences. This is largely because South Korean governments have kept such policies toward MENA, the world’s most dangerous and fragile conflict-affected zone low key and shied away from public attention. Besides, the soaring popularity of the ROK development model among MENA leaders is a quite brand-new phenomenon even to South Korean government officials. This Asan Issue Brief outlines South Korea’s stabilization policy regarding the MENA region, examines the South Korean development model as perceived by key MENA states, and evaluates its global contribution and recognition. It concludes with an appraisal of the ROK’s more confident and proactive policy toward MENA assessing and utilizing its policy assets and investments based on the reputation that a responsible middle power South Korea upholding multilateralism, liberalism, and rule-based order has earned.


The ROK’s Stabilization Policy in MENA and Its Global Recognition

Although South Korea’s foreign policy has mainly focused on Korean Peninsula issues in specific terms and Northeast Asian concerns in general, its “middle power policy” applied to the rest of the world emphasizing multilateralism, liberalism, and an open economy has gained global recognition since the early 2010s. South Korea has pursued a responsible middle power foreign policy to promote international norms, mediated international disputes, and contributed to stabilizing conflict-affected zone.2 Indeed, “middle powers” recognized the threats posed by international challenges, which was why many developed sufficient capabilities that strengthened their credibility, and allowed them to make positive contributions toward their resolution. Towards that end, Seoul joined the MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia) partnership, a cooperative mechanism among middle power countries launched in 2013, leveraging its considerable soft power resources on major global issues of development, human rights, and counter-terrorism.

There were several examples of these attributes by South Korea in the MENA region, where international norms and values required remedies to various conflicts. Seoul provided humanitarian aid, conducted peacekeeping missions, and joined the counter-terrorism coalition, all of which promoted stability and increased Seoul’s socio-political stock. Indeed, the ROK has reaffirmed its commitment as a trusted, responsible middle power member of the UN and OECD to increase its contribution to the international community as an aid recipient-turned-donor in addressing major challenges at home and abroad. Since 2015, successive South Korean governments have allocated about 95 million dollars for humanitarian assistance to help Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Yemen, and supported refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. In addition, the ROK granted humanitarian status to about 1,180 Syrian and 460 Yemeni refugees to take up residence in South Korea that was a major step given integration concerns.

As of December 2020, a total of 94,484 South Korean personnel had served in 12 peacekeeping operations around the world, mainly in MENA. After joining the United Nations in 1991, South Korea dispatched engineering troops to Somalia from July 1993 to March 1994, a major step for a new member. The overseas dispatch of South Korean peacekeeping troops celebrated 28 years of service in 2021.3 In early 2021, South Korea had peacekeeping troops in five United Nations peacekeeping missions to keep international peace and serve its global obligations. The main target area was MENA with 582 South Korean military and police officers deployed to five different peacekeeping operations in India/Pakistan, South Sudan, Lebanon, Sudan (Darfur) and the Western Sahara.4

The Cheonghae naval unit has participated in international anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2009, which added value too. In 2011, the unit conducted “Operation Dawn of Gulf of Aden” to rescue a South Korean merchant vessel and sailors who were captured by Somali pirates. In 2020, the Cheonghae unit achieved a cumulative record of one million sea miles that was, again, a significant achievement. For its part, and since 2007, the Dongmyung unit has been conducting peacekeeping and reconstruction operations in Lebanon. Locally known as “God’s gift,” the ROK peacekeeping mission serving within the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) played a vital role in South Lebanon, one of MENA’s hot zones. The unit achieved over 100,000 stabilization activities by 2020. In addition to reconnaissance activities, it organized multifunctional civil-military cooperation called the “Peace Wave,” invested in public medical support, and organized various school activities, including popular Taekwondo classes. Likewise, the ROK military’s Hanbit Unit has been running peacekeeping missions in South Sudan since 2013, appreciated by locals as well as the international community that valued burden sharing. Earlier, the Zaytun Division contributed to the legacy of peacekeeping and stabilization tasks in Erbil, during the Iraq War where 3,600 troops served with distinction.5

It is valuable to further recall that South Korea has carried out defense and military cooperation in education and training in non-combat fields as well. In 2010, and at the request of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the South Korean government dispatched 150 to the 1st division of the Akh, locally meaning the “brothers,” with the consent and backing of the National Assembly. The Akh Unit stood as the very symbol of trust between the ROK and the UAE, as it has carried out its mission without a single accident, while UAE forces actively participated in ROK-UAE combined training exercises.6

Of course, South Korea was an integral part of the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) global coalition since 2014, which added value to the effort and, equally important, earned Seoul global recognition. Given that the ROK has participated in the anti-ISIS global coalition, the violent extremist terrorist organization listed South Korea among 62 countries it labeled the “crusader coalition” in 2015.7

As mentioned above, the ROK adopted unprecedented humanitarian and peacekeeping missions that earned Seoul universal approval. Equally critical were its counter-terrorism initiatives that placed it high among global actors anxious to preserve collective security. In fact, Seoul strutted middle power attributes that were preserved in effective strategic alliances, which prevented additional conflicts.8


The ROK Model as Perceived by MENA States

The ROK model for development enhancing effective governance and reinforcing structural changes while preserving social values has been well perceived by MENA states. How to adopt a work ethic, achieve productivity, and limit the impact of modernization on a traditional society were some of the fundamental questions that decision-makers in the MENA region assessed. Many MENA governments look at the ROK’s development model with its free-market economy that preserves social traditions, as a paradigm worthy of emulation. Conservative MENA governments with traditional and communitarian societies have planned to facilitate market economy and reform inefficient bureaucracy but in an evolutionary way.

Historically, MENA countries were colonized by the British and French, directly or indirectly, and were later intervened in by the United States. Ideologically, both Islam and liberalism shared a common opposition to socialism and the state-controlled economy. Thus, neither Westernization nor command economies were particularly attractive. The ROK model, meanwhile, suggests that capable developmental states enjoy informal cooperative ties with business groups in society, and Asian traditional values are conducive to development without sudden rupture from the past, including political upheavals.9 Furthermore, since the 2011 Arab Uprisings that destabilized several regimes and gripped the entire region, MENA leaders have cautiously pursued targeted industrial policies for job creation, long-term growth, and, of course, political stability.10

Most MENA states faced concrete demographic conundrums and thus were aware that long-term stability necessitated both an industrious as well as satisfied population. Conservative Arab governments, including the oil-rich monarchies, looked at potential solutions offered by the ROK model that instilled free-market economic prospects while preserving time-tested social values. Then-deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia noted at the 2016 G20 summit that South Korea was the latest country that had successfully transformed itself within one generation, and it would be a model for growth in Saudi Arabia, a traditional country.11 Riyadh was certainly aware of the serious challenges that its desire for high-tech industrialization contrasted with limited intrinsic capabilities, though leaders also knew that the Kingdom could no longer just rely on oil in a rentier-state model. Internal stability required a new paradigm, one that encouraged the adoption of long-term investment strategies to ensure the creation of wealth; secured independent food production capabilities; empowered its population to become productive; invested in transportation hubs, tourism, and entertainment to create solid jobs; all to transform itself into a modernizing entity.12

In a similar vein, Muhammad bin Zayed, the Crown Prince and the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, stated at the 2018 ROK-UAE summit that the ROK has adopted a unique development model based on innovation and knowledge, and this kind of development has been one of the chief priorities of the UAE in the post-oil era.13 Likewise, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar on his visit to Seoul in 2014, said that South Korea’s model would serve Qatar’s development strategy.14

Naturally, the challenge that confronted all MENA states, including the conservative Arab monarchies, was to embark on such ventures in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way—as best illustrated by the post-2011 Arab Uprisings that overthrew despots, weakened others and, at least in Syria, Yemen, and Libya plunged them into civil wars. Even if the evolutionary preferences necessitated hard work and tolerance, including religious tolerance to avoid future clashes, there was a concrete realization that few alternatives existed. In fact, Seoul stood as the ideal archetype of development while it secured stable transitions and preserved social values.15

Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, and Jordan were equally enchanted by what Seoul’s experiences offered and were putative candidates to emulate the ROK archetype too, though all four needed to first resolve pending socio-political tensions. Egypt embarked on a massive creation of wealth scheme whose objectives included a sharp reduction in poverty, while Algeria confronted revolutionary demons that paralyzed the country’s immense socio-economic potential.16 Although both relied on tourism, Egypt and Algeria were semi-industrialized societies and fielded solid intrinsic capabilities that needed better policies to eliminate corruption. Iraq and Jordan were potentially in the same category, though several wars literally devastated the former and prevented the economy of the latter from taking off.17

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, during phone talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in 2020, said that he considered South Korea as the very development model for Egypt.18 Iraqi Minister of Planning Nouri Sabah al-Dulaimi on his visit to Seoul in 2019 praised South Korea for state-building, highlighting that the purpose of his visit was to see firsthand how Korea had developed and that Iraq would utilize Korea’s experience.19 Previously, King Abdullah of Jordan emphasized the value of South Korea’s development experience in 2012, and Algerian President Bouteflika appreciated South Korea as a benchmarking model especially for its indigenous development achievement without being subordinated to advanced countries in 2006.20

Nevertheless, outside of the conservative Arab Gulf monarchies that banked on tested legitimacies, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, and Jordan were well poised to fulfill their potential, provided their leaders added Seoul’s democratizing seeds to their economic plans. To be sure, this was easier said than done, but the histories of the past century illustrated that strong regimes—military as well as authoritarian—were vulnerable unless they transformed themselves into responsive governments. Simply stated, increasingly educated populations with access to industrial and post-industrial capabilities, ideas, and views were unwilling to be passively obedient. It behooved alerted authorities to become far more responsive, even if the processes were painstakingly elaborate to adopt and hard to apply.

Likewise, and not to dodge the question, it was vital to ask whether relatively wealthy Arab Gulf monarchies could instill the required work ethic amongst their populations to achieve stated development goals. Though difficult to generalize, optimistic signs emerged during the past few decades, with a good deal more to accomplish across the board, ranging the gamut from gender equality to instilling respect for work and the workplace. The goal was to make young Middle Easterners more productive, capable to use resources carefully, who valued time, showed better performance levels, and otherwise added value to their respective societies, all to precisely ensure success.21

In addition to the ROK’s development model, South Korea’s military and defense paradigm has also been well perceived by most Arab states. Though few observers ventured to ask whether Seoul could be perceived as a soft power model, the reality was that most Arab states aspired to emulate the South Korean military capacity. For example, while Saudi Arabia was a fellow G20 member state and—along with the UAE—certainly wished to protect itself by acquiring defense capabilities, it was not interested in transforming itself into a regional military power that threatened neighbors. This was a major point in common between Riyadh and Seoul. What Riyadh rejected were the Iranian, Turkish, and Israeli models, concluding that its long-term interests were best protected through carefully managed development without neglecting appropriate defense mechanisms. Moreover, and like the ROK, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia valued its defense alliances with leading Western powers, led by the U.S., a second significant similarity.22

To be sure, Riyadh perceived Tehran as an existential threat—much like Seoul viewed Pyongyang—and prepared itself for a nuclear Iran, which necessitated drastic reassessments of existing defense paradigms. Still, this was not the ideal solution as the ensuing arms race menaced to impoverish all concerned. Saudi priorities seldom neglected defense matters though socio-economic needs mobilized decision-makers to adopt concrete “creation-of-wealth” schemes to further improve living conditions for large segments of society. It was towards that goal that King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and Heir Apparent Muhammad bin Salman announced their Vision 2030 strategic framework to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, diversify the petroleum-based economy, and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism. Of course, Vision 2030 required internal as well as regional stability, which was why Saudi leaders were determined to prevail and rapidly transform the traditional society into a modernizing one.23


Appreciating Undervalued Performance: South Korea’s Peace, Security, and Development Agenda in MENA

It has been assumed that South Korea’s policy toward MENA has focused on economic interest-driven issues, such as securing a stable supply of energy, manufacturing exports destinations, and construction contracts and engaging in the ongoing economic diversification projects. This simple assumption is based on a rough assessment that the ROK’s relations with the world beyond the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia have traditionally been confined to economic interests. Also, South Korea was able to achieve significant development and growth progress due to its active export-oriented strategy looking outward, something that has been likely to continue.24

However, since the early 2010s the South Korean government has expanded its foreign policy scope beyond the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia and strengthened international cooperation on humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and stabilization missions, and counter-terrorism efforts mainly in the MENA region, the world’s most fragile conflict-affected area. Consequently, the ROK has responded proactively to instability throughout the MENA region, promoted Seoul’s global reputation, and emerged as a responsible middle power, implementing multilateralism, and defending a rules-based order.

Nonetheless, the outstanding performance of the ROK’s stabilization policy in the MENA region and subsequent universal approval, have been undervalued specifically for domestic audiences inside South Korea. Not many Korean citizens are aware that South Korea is raising its profile at the global level by participating in international peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations, and becoming engaged with MENA beyond economic issues.

The reason behind this undervalued policy performance with home audiences is that Korean public opinion in general is not fond of the pursuit of a “active, costly, and dangerous” stabilization policy in MENA even if authorities applied international norms that included valid features.25 Therefore, South Korean governments have kept such policies low-key and shied away from the public. A passive argument regarding the ROK’s peace and security agenda in MENA soared right after the 2015 killing of two Japanese nationals taken hostage by ISIS, despite Tokyo’s leading role as a provider of humanitarian aid to several Arab and Muslim countries. ISIS released videos and photographs of the Japanese hostages beheaded that, naturally, horrified most.

Many feared that South Korean businessmen, journalists, and aid workers working in MENA countries would face similar fates, which had occurred, albeit sporadically, since the mid-2000s.26 A Korean interpreter and Christian missionary, Kim Sun-il was kidnapped and murdered in Iraq in 2004, while 23 missionaries were captured in July 2007 by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The hostages were eventually released although two male captives, Bae Hyeong-gyu, a 42-year-old pastor of the Saemmul Church, and Shim Seong-min, a 29-year-old civilian, were executed before a deal was reached between the Taliban and the South Korean government. Mercifully, the Abu Sayyaf terrorists released their South Korean and Filipino hostages in 2017, though all such instances rattled the entire country.27

While the safety of South Koreans abroad was one of the foreign ministry’s key tasks, few detractors believed that Seoul’s humanitarian assistance would protect them or that authorities could prevent such developments. Importantly, while there was no direct causal relationship between adhering to international norms and being a target of terrorism, passive diplomatic postures seldom protected one’s citizens. Rather than implementing the policy of “wait-and-see,” which incurred long-term costs given the status of South Korea in the international community, it was imperative to assess the country’s policies in terms of its global middle power recognition, including opposition to terrorism, sustained commitments to humanitarian assistance, and astute steps towards nonproliferation throughout the MENA region. To be sure, while extremists were determined to capture the public’s attention, and democracies were vulnerable to such attacks over the short-term, it was essential to maintain unity of purpose to defeat those who craved violence. Indeed, democracies were inherently more suitable targets for terrorists because of open systems and state obligations to protect citizens.

As argued earlier, since the 2011 Arab Spring political upheavals, many MENA states have wished to emulate the ROK’s development model, which allowed for an accumulation of wealth and ensured internal stability. It is critical for MENA leaders to pay attention to the ROK model’s recipes to enhance state capacity, facilitate free markets, create jobs, and avoid destabilizing traditional societies in an evolutionary way. Yet, such recognition and perception of the ROK model by MENA states has also been undervalued both for South Korean governments and the public because the popularity of the ROK development model inside MENA has been recently fast growing.

Given the global reputations and profiles of its stabilization and development agenda, South Korea should actively appreciate and utilize such policy resources in order to mitigate the challenges of illiberalism in the MENA region and implement conflict-affected area stability measures with global allies. With the exception of the conservative Arab Gulf monarchies that are determined to break the pattern of perpetual crises by investing in the rejuvenation of their societies, whatever coalitions exist among relatively liberal states may well have lost their attraction compared to the audacious sponsorship offered by illiberal states. In fact, the results of illiberalism gaining ground throughout the MENA region include the following: 1) civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya; 2) refugee crises in several countries; 3) regression of authoritarianism; 4) survival of hereditary dictatorship in Syria; 5) the rise of extremism and ethnic nationalism; 6) Iran’s expansionism; and 7) the rise of Russia’s influence. Moreover, the focus of the recently elected Biden administration is about gradually reducing its role in the region although the administration emphasizes democracy, liberal values, and diplomacy.

The ROK model for stable development that is well perceived by MENA governments can target the root causes of terrorism and fill the stability vacuum generated by various internal crises. Civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, which have continued and intensified into proxy wars, persist as serious preoccupations. Such crises increased the numbers of refugees and introduced fresh threats to global security. Terrorist and violent extremist groups tend to largely take root in marginalized areas, using local grievances to recruit young citizens suffering from varying degrees of underdevelopment. Indeed, there is a growing consensus on the fact that military operations and security measures alone are not enough to defeat terrorism, and that proper responses ought to gain international cooperation.28 In order to efficiently respond to such challenges, greater emphasis should be put on prevention through reinforcing structural changes and eradicating root causes. It is thus necessary to enhance effective governance concerns and the underlying conditions that may create grievances.29

Although South Korea is a nascent player in stabilizing and developing the MENA region, many MENA states look at South Korea as a valuable partner for cooperation, something that advanced mutual interests in terms of ROK-MENA ties. The ROK as a responsible global actor became the 10th largest contributor to UN peace-keeping operations for 2020-2021.30 Also, the ROK has become a donor country from being a recipient of UN aid in less than half a century, a transformation that has inspired many developing nations to follow in the footsteps of the ROK in advancing their economies. A UN agency dealing with trade and development issues (UNCTAD) decided in July 2021 to categorize South Korea as a developed economy. It is the first time that the agency has upgraded a member nation from the developing economy group to the developed since its establishment in 1964. The time is long-overdue to present alternatives that promise to advance universal norms of cooperation, which enhance stability and development in several MENA countries.


The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.


About Experts

Jang Ji-Hyang
Jang Ji-Hyang

Center for Regional Studies

Dr. JANG Ji-Hyang is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Middle East and North Africa at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Dr. Jang served as a policy advisor on Middle East issues to South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2012-2018). Previously, Dr. Jang taught comparative and Middle East politics at Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Ewha Woman’s University, and the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Her research interests include political economy of the Middle East and North Africa, political Islam, comparative democratization, terrorism, and state-building. Dr. Jang is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Essential Guide to the Middle East (Sigongsa 2023 in Korean), The Arab Spring: Will It Lead to Democratic Transitions?(with Clement M. Henry (eds.), Palgrave Macmillan 2013), “Disaggregated ISIS and the New Normal of Terrorism” (Asan Issue Brief 2016), “Islamic Fundamentalism” (International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 2008) and a Korean translation of Fawaz Gerges’ Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy (Asan Institute 2011). Dr. Jang received a B.A. in Turkish studies and M.A. in political science from the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Texas at Austin.

Joseph A. Kéchichian
Joseph A. Kéchichian

King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies

Joseph A. Kéchichian is a Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is also CEO of Kéchichian & Associates, LLC, a consulting partnership that provides analysis on the Arabian/Persian Gulf region; and a Senior Writer for Gulf News, the top-ranked English-language news daily in the United Arab Emirates. Previously, Dr. Kéchichian was the Honorary Consul of the Sultanate of Oman in Los Angeles, California (2006-2011), a Fellow at the Middle East Institute (2009-2010, 2012-2013), Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (1998-2001), Associate Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation (1990-1996), Hoover Fellow at Stanford University(1989), and a Professor at the University of Virginia (1986-1989).