Wednesday, 03 July 2024

K-Silk Road: Korea Unveils New Strategy for Central Asia Featured

Published in Analytical Articles

By Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu

July 3, 2024

President Yoon Suk Yeol of the Republic of Korea recently visited the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Prior to his tour, he introduced the “K-Silk Road” initiative, highlighting his role in guiding Korea’s future interactions with the region. While this initiative builds upon Korea’s longstanding policies, it signifies a desire to forge a new chapter in Central Asian relations. Despite its shortcomings and some neglected areas, this initiative is a significant step forward in the context of regional relations. 

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BACKGROUND: The “K-Silk Road” strategy represents a continuation of Korea’s longstanding policies toward Central Asia, building on a foundation laid over several decades. Korea’s interest in establishing ties with the region began with the Trade Transaction Act of 1972, which facilitated trade with communist countries despite their ideological differences. This economic pragmatism eventually extended into Korea’s foreign policy. A significant shift occurred in 1983 when Lee Bum Suk, the Foreign Minister under President Chun Doo-hwan, introduced “Nordpolitik.” This policy aimed to foster closer ties with communist countries, particularly the Soviet Union and China, and was implemented during Roh Tae-woo's presidency in 1988. An indirect objective of Nordpolitik was to engage with North Korea through the broader communist bloc.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Korea seized the opportunity to establish direct relations with the newly independent Central Asian republics. Special attention was given to Uzbekistan, reflecting historical connections. In early 1992, Korea began to strengthen these ties by dispatching its first Korean language teachers to Tashkent, marking a significant step in cultural and diplomatic outreach.

In the early 1990s, the Korean conglomerate Daewoo significantly increased its investments in Uzbekistan, to the extent that the country earned the nickname “Daewoobekistan.” Korea then expanded its engagement with other Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – adopting strategies centered predominantly on energy and economic development. In the late 2000s, Korea further bolstered its engagement with Central Asia through several key foreign policy initiatives, including the New Asia Initiative, the Eurasia Initiative, and the New Northern Policy. These frameworks underscored the importance of deepening ties within the region. Successive Korean presidents played crucial roles in solidifying these relationships: Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye, and Moon Jae-in each cultivated direct and personal connections with the leaders of Central Asian republics. This sustained diplomatic effort significantly enhanced Korea’s presence and influence in Central Asia.

Multilateral relations between Korea and the Central Asian republics are maintained through the Korea-Central Asia Cooperation Forum, where the parties convene regularly. Since 2019, these interactions have gained significant momentum. President Yoon’s recent announcement of the “K-Silk Road” initiative signifies a concerted effort to elevate these relationships to a new dimension, focusing on deeper economic, cultural, and political integration mostly with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

IMPLICATIONS: President Yoon began his regional tour with a visit to Turkmenistan, where he met with President Serdar Berdimuhamedov. Yoon advocated stronger energy ties between Turkmenistan, which holds the fourth largest natural gas reserves globally, and Korea, the world’s fourth largest natural gas buyer. The leaders emphasized the potential for enhanced cooperation in the energy sector. This sentiment was echoed at the Korea-Turkmenistan Business Forum, which brought together 250 participants from both nations. Business leaders at the forum agreed to pursue collaborative ventures to bolster their energy partnership.

Daewoo Engineering announced the intention to work on two fertilizer plant projects. Hyundai Engineering, in partnership with Turkmenistan State Gas Corporation, signed an agreement to build a fourth desulfurization facility in the Galkynysh gas field. In addition, a new decision was taken on the polymer plant, which was first initiated in 2013 for the Kiyanli region.

Korea has focused on the development of 5G technology in Turkmenistan in previous years and has begun work on deploying the smart city concept in the country. Daewoo Engineering aims to realize the second phase of the Arkadag smart city project, expected to function as a pilot application for the smart city concept housing 64,000 people.

In Kazakhstan, President Yoon and his counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev underscored the robust bilateral relations. These ties owe much to Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s keen interest in Korea. Following Kazakhstan’s independence, Nazarbayev appointed Korean economist Chan Young Bang as his special advisor, tasked with implementing privatization policies and creating a free market economy. This tie has fostered enduring high-level contacts between Korean and Kazakh leaders, ensuring the continuity of strong diplomatic relations.

During the meetings, companies like Kia, Daewoo, and Hyundai, active in Kazakhstan’s automotive sector since the 1990s, discussed plans to introduce new technologies and enhance personnel training initiatives in the country. In the energy sector, President Tokayev expressed interest in the US$ 882 million combined cycle power plant to be constructed in Turkistan by Doosan Enerbility in 2023. This project underscores Kazakhstan’s commitment to expanding its energy infrastructure with advanced technologies and international partnerships.
In the banking sector, the parties agreed to broaden the scope of BNK Finance Kazakhstan, owned by BNK Financial Group, particularly in microfinance. This initiative is designed to support Korean companies’ investments in the energy sector across the country. Korean banking operations first began in Kazakhstan in 2008 through initiatives by Kookmin Bank and Shinhan Bank. These developments underscore Korea’s commitment to strengthening economic ties and enhancing financial services in Kazakhstan.

The discussions also addressed a significant academic initiative, resulting in an agreement between the National Seoul University of Science and Technology and Korkyt Ata Kyzylorda University to collaborate on joint studies in Artificial Intelligence. Additionally, plans were finalized to establish campuses for Woosong University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). These initiatives show Korea’s commitment to advancing educational partnerships and supporting expertise in emerging technologies like AI.

Kazakhstan’s cultural relations with Korea are poised to deepen, supported by a significant ethnic Korean population of approximately 150,000 within the country. Historical ties between the two nations were further solidified by the repatriation of the remains of Gye Bong-woo, Hwang Woon-jeong and Hong Beom-do in 2019 and 2021. These individuals played pivotal roles in Korea’s struggle for independence from Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945. These cultural and historical bonds continue to strengthen the bilateral relationship between Kazakhstan and Korea.

In Uzbekistan, Presidents Yoon and Shavkat Mirziyoyev held a fruitful meeting. Uzbekistan is Korea’s most important partner in the region due to historical and cultural ties. Diplomatic relations between the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo and the ancient Turks in this region date back to the 6th-7th centuries. Moreover, Uzbekistan is home to the largest ethnic Korean population in the region, numbering over 200,000. Since the early 1990s, Korea has engaged extensively in various sectors, a trend that received notable encouragement from Uzbekistan’s former President Islam Karimov. Under Mirziyoyev’s leadership, Uzbekistan continues to prioritize Korean investments. President Yoon’s “K-Silk Road” perspective lends significant weight to Uzbekistan’s strategic location along the historical Silk Road, emphasizing the nation’s pivotal role in fostering enhanced economic and cultural exchanges throughout the region.

During the meetings, Uzbekistan Railways and Hyundai Rotem signed an agreement for the purchase of electric trains named Jalaluddin Manguberdi, which will serve the Tashkent-Urgench-Khiva route. Under the terms of the agreement, Korea will deliver six high-speed trains comprising a total of 42 cars, valued at US$ 195.7 million, to Uzbekistan.

It was further disclosed that discussions with Lotte Group focused on increasing industrial capacity, building upon their prior involvement in the Ustyurt Gas Chemical Complex. Additionally, cooperation is set to expand into critical minerals, an area highlighted during President Yoon’s visit. Uzbekistan’s abundant reserves of tungsten, lithium, and molybdenum make it a strategic partner in this regard, aligning with the resource diplomacy approach initiated during Lee Myung-Bak’s presidency.

CONCLUSIONS: President Yoon refers to “K-Silk Road,” Korea’s new Central Asia concept, as “the continuation of 30 years of experience.” This strategic framework offers numerous advantages for both Korea and the countries in the region. Korea pursues bilateral and multilateral relations with a win-win approach, circumventing regional tensions. This stance shows Korea’s commitment to supporting mutually beneficial partnerships in Central Asia through the “K-Silk Road” initiative.

While the “K-Silk Road” concept aligns with Korea’s established regional policies, it also necessitates innovative approaches. Talks at the leadership level are ongoing at a continual basis, reflecting strong confidence in further consolidating bilateral and multilateral relations. However, President Yoon should also address historical gaps where previous administrations have fallen short. Specifically, there is a need to integrate Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan more comprehensively into the regional framework, including making high-level visits to these republics. Until now, relations with these countries have been relatively limited, highlighting an opportunity for enhanced engagement under the new Central Asia strategy.

The geographical positions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as the influence of other regional actors in these countries, have relegated Korea to the background. However, to formulate a comprehensive regional policy, it is imperative for Korea to increase investments across various sectors, particularly in the economy and energy. Given that the essence of the “K-Silk Road” concept aims to link Korea with the historical Silk Road, it becomes crucial to prioritize engagement with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Without establishing a significant presence in these two pivotal countries, Korea cannot claim to have a holistic Central Asia policy that fully embodies the spirit of the Silk Road initiative.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Dr. Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu is a Visiting Professor at Joongbu University and Senior Researcher at the Institute of EU Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He studied and worked in Baku, Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Seoul as academic and journalist. He is the author of numerous articles and books on South Caucasus and Central Asian affairs.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.

Read 4973 times Last modified on Wednesday, 03 July 2024

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