On his way back from the United States, South Korean President Moon Jae-in spent eight days traveling across Central Asia. With visits to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, Moon took the long way home. While Central Asia is a distant partner for South Korea, it’s a growing market for South Korean technology and hungry to diversify its partnerships. In recent years, the region has turned its attention more deliberately to regional cooperation, generating an opening for states like South Korea to make inroads.
In Turkmenistan, Moon met with counterpart, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov on April 17. According to the South Korean readout, the two presidents announced plans to boost cooperation in the energy and infrastructure sectors. Six memorandums of understanding were signed between the two sides, and Moon announced that a branch of King Sejong Institute would be set up in Turkmenistan. The government-run King Sejong Institutes offer Korean classes and have branches already established in all the other Central Asian states.
The two presidents also commented on the completion last year of the state-operated Kiyanly Petrochemical Complex, which cost approximately $3.4 billion. The complex was built by a global consortium which included Korean giants Hyundai Engineering and LG, as well as Japan’s Toyo Engineering and Ashgabat borrowed from Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and the Export–Import Bank of Korea to finance construction. The underlying agreements had been signed in 2014, when then-South Korea President Park Geun-hye was the first South Korean leader to make a state visit to isolated Turkmenistan.
Next, Moon traveled to Uzbekistan. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev made a state visit to South Korea in November 2017, one of his first trips beyond the immediate Central Asian neighborhood. Moon’s visit to Uzbekistan, which lasted April 18-21, included a visit not only to the capital Tashkent, but Samarkand as well. The two countries also announced the upgrading of their relationship to a “special strategic partnership,” a step up from the “strategic partnership” announced in 2006.
One headline item from Moon’s Uzbekistan stop was a package of deals reportedly worth $12 billion. Though specifics are thin, the two leaders mentioned the wide range of sectors in which the two countries cooperate, from energy to healthcare, science technology, and more. Moon also noted that the two countries would work toward concluding a Korea-Uzbekistan FTA, to build upon burgeoning trade between them. Uzbekistan and South Korea have strong economic relations, with Seoul ranking among Uzbekistan’s top five sources of imports (coming in after China, Russia, and Kazakhstan). Uzbekistan hosts several vehicle production facilities, most critically GM Uzbekistan, which was originally established as a joint Uzbek government and Daewoo facility. Although ownership changes (and the collapse of Daewoo) altered the name, the underlying relationships remain. The bulk of Uzbekistan’s imports from South Korea are vehicle parts.
In an address to the Uzbek legislature, Moon waxed poetic about the history and future of linkages between Uzbekistan and South Korea: “On my way here, I imagined a day 1,500 years ago. That was the day when envoys from an ancient Korean kingdom arrived in Samarkand.” Referring to the idea to establish a functioning rail system from South Korea to Central Asia as the “Iron Silk Road” of the 21st Century. “Doesn’t just the thought of it make your heart leap?” he said.
Moon’s final stop in Central Asia was Kazakhstan where he met with interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev but also reportedly held a separate meeting with Nursultan Nazarbayev. Moon’s visit, from April 21 to 23, was overshadowed by domestic Kazakh politics. On April 23, Tokayev was named by Nazarbayev’s party, Nur Otan, as their candidate fro the snap presidential elections set for June 9. It’s nearly unfathomable for anyone but Tokayev to win the election.
The visit marked the 10th anniversary of the strategic partnership between South Korea and Kazakhstan, and Moon commented that bilateral trade doubled between 2017 and 2018, up to $4 billion. The two sides agreed to deepen relations under the “Fresh Wind New Economic Programme,” which according to Kazakh media covers infrastructure development, agriculture, healthcare, and culture. Details were few.
A South Korean president can’t go to Kazakhstan without talking about denuclearization. Kazakhstan, at the moment it became independent in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, hosted a portion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, as well as significant testing facilities. The Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests in Semipalatinsk from 1949 until 1989. Nazarbayev decided to give up the country’s inherited nuclear weapons, a decision which South Korea appreciates deeply in light of North Korea’s nuclear development. It gives Kazakhstan a unique weight when discussing denuclearization, though Kazakhstan has not featured as a major negotiator when it comes to North Korea.
According to a South Korean presidential administration official quoted in The Korea Times, “President Moon told Nazarbayev that Kazakhstan’s decision to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear weapons will help the ongoing inter-Korean peace process. How the decision contributed to bringing peace in Central Asia and helped the country rise as one of the leading economies in the region were additional issues discussed at the meeting.”
For the states of Central Asia and South Korea, each seeking to diversify their partnerships, the other represents a distant, but worthwhile partner. South Korea, in particular, has fit Central Asia into the long arc of its New Northern Policy. The policy aims to boost South Korea’s relations — economic and political — with its northern neighbors, starting most importantly and by geographic necessity, with North Korea, then Russia and through Central Asia on to Europe. In a way, it echos Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative at a smaller scale but with a broader framing and far less geopolitical baggage.
The centerpiece, for South Korea, is the vision Moon mentioned in his remarks to the Uzbek legislature: a railroad connection through the Korean Peninsula and beyond. A “Silk Road of steel,” as Moon named it in a Facebook post before leaving Central Asia. “Our future is to open an era of the Silk Road of steel with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan,” the post reads, “The results of this three-nation tour will be utilized to maintain our economic vitality.”
In more immediate and practical terms, South Korea is seeking to invest in developing relations with several high-tech sectors like digital health care and 5G technology which Central Asia, by necessity, needs external partners. In these areas, South Korean companies may compete with Chinese offerings, but again, with far less geopolitical baggage and in some areas far better reputations. In total, the South Korean government reports that Moon “obtained guarantees” from the three Central Asian states he visited for 24 projects (five in Turkmenistan, 15 in Uzbekistan and four in Kazakhstan) wirth $13 billion.