Okay, South Korea is approaching one of those epiphanies where it should become clear that the old, established way of doing things may no longer be reliable and it is time to take a new path — even trailblaze that path if necessary.
South Korea joined then-President George W. Bush's coalition of the willing in Iraq for two reasons: First, then-President Roh Moohyun needed to show the US that South Korea was a true partner in the alliance (especially amidst claims he was anti-American), and secondly, it was a chance for South Korea to secure valuable oil contracts in the region where its troops would be operating.
Both of these things had to be important, because Roh was running completely against the grain of his own party and even the generally pro-US opposition (now the ruling party) wasn't inclined to get too involved in Bush's ill-conceived war.
It seemed that reason #2 was paying off. In exchange for promises to provide $2.1 billion in infrastructure development in Kurdistan, South Korea's Korea National Oil Corporation and SK Energy secured nearly two billion barrels of oil.
Echos of the Madagascar deal: promises of development in exchange for security of a needed commodity.
But as with Madagascar, the deal may be going south. South to Baghdad, in fact, which is caught up in a feud over the autonomous Kurdistan region — which had been virtually free of Saddam Hussein's influence since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.
It seems Baghdad doesn't like the Kurdistan leaders in Arbil making contracts to give away oil that belongs, according to the new constitution, to the whole country. And they are telling KNOC and SKE that if they want to bid on other contracts, they will have to rip up the earlier one with Arbil.
My dad used to say this to me (in relation to medical school and what-not): If it were easy, everybody would do it. Seoul should ponder this question: Why haven't other countries been making these grand deals with Madagascar or Kurdistan? The answer may lie in a distrust of China or other countries among Iraqis or Malagasies that does not exist toward Korea, but the key may be that these grand plans are inherently risky. Risky because, well, not all the people of Madagascar support the government and Kurdistan doesn't exactly have full rights to the oil they claim to be selling.
And so maybe South Korea needs to take a good, long look at the problem and find that new path I've been mentioning. Instead of a few billion dollars for Kurdistan infrastructure, how about a few billion for alternative energy R&D. This is the wave of the future. Chasing down oil contracts is so 20th century. If Korea-based researchers (and this can include the growing number of non-Korean scholars populating Korea's tech institutes) can crack open the barriers to solar energy collection and storage, water desalinization, hydrogen power, small-scale nuclear energy, etc., etc., the world will beat a path to Taejŏn.
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