KOREA FOCUS
President Lee’s Visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and Future Tasks
Ko Jae-nam

Professor, Department of European and African Studies
Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security



I. Outline of Presidential Visit  
 
President Lee Myung-bak made state visits to Uzbekistan (May 10-12) and Kazakhstan (May 12-14), holding talks with their top leaders and issuing joint declarations on increasing practical cooperation in a variety of areas.
 
Since Korea established diplomatic ties with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in 1992, there have been eight Korea-Uzbekistan summits (five times in Korea, twice in Uzbekistan and once in Beijing) while Korean and Kazakh presidents have met four times (twice in Korea, once in Kazakhstan and once in Beijing).
 
During his trip, Lee gave speeches at meetings with business people and met leaders of ethnic Koreans as well as youth representatives. In Uzbekistan, he traveled to Samarkand, a major city on the Silk Road and the native place of President Islam Karimov. Lee, having already met Karimov and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev while he was mayor of Seoul, appeared to be good friends with his counterparts. Karimov accompanied Lee on his trip to Samarkand and in Astana, Lee and Nazarbayev held talks in a sauna bath.
 
The Central Asian nations have had increasing strategic importance since the fall of the former Soviet Union. With the rapid decline of Russian influence, the region has experienced political and economic confusion in an international “power vacuum.” Yet, in the 21st century, the Central Asian nations have been a focal point of international interests in search of energy security and containment of terrorism.
 
The region’s geographical proximity to three of the four BRIC countries (Russia, India and China) and its possible involvement in conventional and unconventional warfare as well as the renewed interest in the Silk Road in the international community also add to its strategic importance.
 
Lee’s trip to Central Asia was aimed at spurring Korea’s resource diplomacy, which he has stressed since he took office in early 2008, and promoting his New Asia Initiative, which he unveiled during his visit to Indonesia in March. The president also wanted to exchange views with the leaders of Central Asia on the global economic crisis, climate change and further cooperation on regional and international levels. He also wanted to encourage more than 300,000 ethnic Koreans residing in the two countries and expand the promotional network of hallyu (Korean wave), the overseas craze for Korean pop culture.  
 
II. Korea’s Diplomacy toward Central Asia
 
1. Comprehensive Central Asia Initiative
 
Following the normalization of relations in 1992, Korea’s diplomatic attention in Central Asia initially focused on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Both had large Korean enclaves and asserted relatively bigger political, economic and diplomatic importance. But the scope of attention has broadened in recent years to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as energy and resource diplomacy was given greater emphasis.
 
In December 2005, the Korean government formed the “Central Asia Conference” with more than 20 representatives of public and private organizations. It produced the “Comprehensive Central Asia Initiative” for the five Central Asian nations plus Azerbaijan. The plan was adopted by the Cabinet in late 2006. It set the following goals: 1) establish a staging point in Central Asia for advancement to the Eurasian continent; 2) secure long-term supply of energy resources; and 3) explore a market which will achieve $10 billion in bilateral trade by 2015 and $5 billion in construction orders.
 
The plan also envisages: 1) full exploitation of bilateral relations strengthened through summit-level diplomacy 2) differentiated approaches to individual states based on national characteristics 3) more synergy effects through closer collaboration between interrelated businesses and advancement of industries with relative advantage, 4) strengthening the legal and systemic foundation for expansion of cooperative infrastructure, and 5) sharing of Korea’s economic development experiences to establish strategic partnerships for national development of the Central Asian nations.
 
The comprehensive initiative thus defined Korea’s strategies for advancement to Central Asia in four areas -- politics/diplomacy, energy/resources, economy, and human exchange/culture – and delineated concrete cooperative measures with individual nations. Accordingly, tasks were assigned among relevant government agencies under state-by-state implementation programs. Programs for individual nations were set up for three time periods – 2006, 2007-2010 and post-2010 – so that they could be performed with regard to their specific circumstances, economic development strategies and desire for cooperation with Korea. Government agencies and private corporations are currently promoting cooperation projects in accordance with roadmaps provided by the comprehensive initiative.
2. Korea-Central Asia Cooperation Forum
 
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is responsible for coordinating task performance among government agencies regarding the political/diplomatic area as well as the overall plan. The ministry organized the Korea-Central Asia Cooperation Forum, which was attended by the vice foreign ministers of the five Central Asian nations. The inaugural session was held on November 15, 2007 in Seoul and the second meeting on December 9, 2008 on Jeju Island.
 
In the first forum, some 150 participants from government, business, academic and cultural circles of Korea and the Central Asian nations reviewed past cooperation between Korea and Central Asia and discussed prospective areas of future cooperation, while the Korean participants described their nation’s development experience. A chairman’s statement was adopted at the end of the session. In the second forum, discussions were held on four major themes: 1) special opportunities in Central Asia, 2) agricultural cooperation, 3) cultural and educational cooperation, and 4) trade and investment finance.
 
The Korea-Central Asia Forum created the first multilateral dialogue channel between the region and Korea. It will be instrumental for Korean businesses’ advancement to the region and also serve as a reliable base for expanding cooperation in energy and resources. As a means of human networking, the forum has contributed to strengthening trust between public and private sector representatives of Central Asia and Korea and enhancing diplomatic coordination through vice ministerial-level bilateral consultations.
 
3. Energy and Resource Diplomacy
 
Over the past years, Korea has vigorously pushed energy/resources diplomacy with the five Central Asian countries through visits by presidents and prime ministers. As soon as it was inaugurated, the Roh Moo-hyun administration promoted energy/resources diplomacy with Central Asia by sending its prime minister to the region. A presidential visit followed soon after.
 
On his visit to Kazakhstan in September 2004, Roh signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the exploration of a Caspian Sea oil field with an estimated deposit of 1.6 billion barrels, starting in 2006. During his visit to Uzbekistan in May 2005, Roh signed a convention for the creation of an international consortium to participate in the oil exploration of the Aral Sea. Separate agreements were made during the visit on Korea’s participation in the joint development of Zapadno gold mine and the Djantaur area.
 
In October 2005, the Roh administration sent a resources cooperation team to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan to check the progress of various development projects and search for new opportunities. During the first half of 2006, Korea held a resources cooperation committee meeting with Kazakhstan and later with Uzbekistan. Prime Minister Han Myung-sook visited Central Asia in September 2006 to encourage cooperation in the area of energy and resources.
 
The Lee Myung-bak administration, which was inaugurated in February 2008, declared energy/resources diplomacy as a major policy goal and assigned Prime Minister Han Seung-soo to oversee the task. In April, a survey team headed by Vice Minister of Knowledge Economy Lee Je-hoon was sent to Central Asia and then Prime Minister Han visited Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in May.
 
Han’s Central Asian tour achieved significant results. In Uzbekistan, he signed a contract to purchase 2,600 tons of uranium worth $400 million from Uzbekistan between 2010 and 2016. Korea has been importing uranium mostly from Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, the United States and France. Korea's state-run Korea Gas Corp. (KOGAS) signed a contract with its Uzbek counterpart, Uzbekneftegaz, on joint exploration of oil and gas fields in Chust, Namangan and Uzunkui regions of Uzbekistan.
 
In a meeting with Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev, the two sides also agreed that Korea will have the exclusive right in the coming six months to explore the A-District of the Amu Darya region, where the largest Uzbek oil fields are located. They also agreed that Korea and Uzbekistan will jointly develop molybdenum and tungsten mines in the region, 150 kilometers west of Samarkand.
 
In Kazakhstan, Han also sealed contracts for investment in Zambil offshore oil field and for long-term supply of uranium and signed an MOU for joint development of a molybdenum mine. In Turkmenistan, the prime minister consulted on Korean firms’ participation in that country’s inland and offshore gas fields. He also secured an opportunity to participate in modernization projects of Turkmenbashi port facilities.
 
4. Diplomatic Cooperation
 
Korea has made positive gains in eliciting support from Central Asian nations on its diplomatic fronts. Uzbekistan was the first to openly express support for Ban Ki-moon when the former Korean foreign minister was running for U.N. secretary-general and it actively supported Korean port city Yeosu’s bid to host the 2012 World Expo. The Uzbek delegate to the 15th Non-Aligned Ministerial Meeting in July 2008 spoke in support of South Korea’s position concerning Korean peninsula issues.
 
In 1993, Korea first took part in the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) as an observer. In 2006, Korea joined the organization, which was established by Kazakh President Nazarbayev in 1992, and contributed $50,000 to the regional body. In the U.N. General Assembly in December 2008, Korea supported Turkmenistan as a joint sponsor of the “Resolution on Reliable and Stable Transit of Energy” and again sent its energy/resources ambassador to an international conference on safe energy transportation held in Ashhabad on April 22-23 this year.


III. President Lee’s Achievements in Central Asia

1. Cooperation in Energy/Resources
 
The Lee administration, which was struck by high oil and raw material prices soon after its inauguration, named energy/resources diplomacy a high priority. Central Asia was the first target of the new government’s all-out energy/resources diplomacy. Through his visit to the two Central Asian nations, Lee sought to solidify the memorandums of understanding on cooperation in energy and resources area, including those signed during the Roh administration. He also secured a foundation for promoting new cooperation projects.
 
The joint communiqué issued after the Lee-Karimov summit talks said in Article 3 that the two countries would smoothly implement energy/resources cooperation projects, including the gas field development and chemical plant construction in Surgil and oil field exploration in Chust, Namangan, and closely cooperate in new development and exploration projects. The communiqué also said the Korean government will increase its economic assistance to Uzbekistan and introduce a new employment program to allow more Uzbek workers into Korea.
 
In a ceremony on May 11, which was attended by Lee and Karimov, Korea and Uzbekistan signed a total of 16 deals regarding joint exploration projects and drilling of new oil fields in Uzbekistan. The state-run Korean National Oil Corp. will be the main contractor to carry out the oil exploration project with Uzbekistan's national energy firm Uzbekneftegaz. Apart from the 16 deals signed at the ceremony, Korea also agreed to provide US$17.6 million to help build a new sewage system in Navoiy, a provincial capital in southwestern Uzbekistan.
 
Lee and Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev agreed on May 13 to boost bilateral cooperation by upgrading their countries' relationship into a "strategic partnership." According to a joint statement released after their talks in Kazakhstan's capital city Astana, Lee and Nazarbayev adopted an “action plan,” which describes a set of measures that will increase their diplomatic and economic cooperation in various fields including the areas of energy cooperation, trade, culture, labor and construction.
 
On economic cooperation, the two sides signed 10 MOUs, of which seven concern energy and resources, agreeing to jointly develop the Jambil maritime oil block in the Caspian Sea as well as a thermal power plant in Balkhash and to collaborate in establishing wireless Internet networks in Kazakhstan. The two sides will also hold talks at least once every two years to enhance their cooperation in the development of nuclear energy. It will include joint planning and construction of small and medium-sized nuclear reactors. Other than economic and energy cooperation, Lee and Nazarbayev also agreed to work together in fighting the worldwide recession, terrorism and global warming.
 
2. Broadening the Horizon of New Asia Diplomacy
 
Lee’s visit to Central Asia was also a step to broaden the horizon of his “New Asia Initiative.” Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are not only the leaders of Central Asia but key players in the strategic environment of the Asian region.
 
At the close of his tour of Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia in March, Lee disclosed his New Asia Initiative in Jakarta during a meeting of Korean diplomatic mission chiefs in Asia. The diplomatic initiative is Korea’s attempt to represent Asia in the international community and to create conditions and circumstances to play a constructive role for the interests of Asian nations, Lee explained. He said Korea will strengthen cooperation and alliance with other Asian countries which share common positions on major international issues, thereby increasing their collective negotiating power and expanding their national interests.
 
The New Asia Initiative is also aimed at expediting Korea’s attempt to join the ranks of advanced nations through closer cooperation with Asian nations, which have immense growth potential accounting for 52 percent of the world population, 21 percent of total GDP and 26 percent of global trade volume. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has formulated a set of action plans for the diplomatic initiative. They are: play a leading role in resolving major global issues; promote economic cooperation tailored to meet specific international relations; increase contributions inside Asia; and establish the “Asian caucus” to cope with outstanding regional issues.
 
3. Stronger Trust between Leaders Boosts Relations
 
Mutual trust based on close personal ties between Lee and his counterparts in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan contributed heavily to the outcome of Lee’s Central Asian summit diplomacy. When he was mayor of Seoul, Lee presented Karimov an honorary citizenship of the capital and has maintained personal relations with him since then. Karimov attended Lee’s inauguration, and Lee’s separate meetings with Karimov and Nazarbayev during the 2008 Beijing Olympics also helped increase their mutual understanding and trust.
 
Through the summit talks in Astana, Korea elevated its relations with Kazakhstan to “strategic partnership,” the highest level of bilateral ties. In March 2006 when President Karimov visited Seoul, Korea and Uzbekistan declared the enhancement of their ties to “strategic partnership.” Lee and Karimov, however, admitted that their strategic partnership had not produced substantial fruit over the past three years. They renewed pledges to pursue substantial cooperation on governmental, parliamentary, economic and private levels.
4. Strengthening of Practical Economic and Trade Cooperation
 
Lee’s trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan provided momentum for further bilateral economic and trade cooperation. The presidents of the two Central Asian countries have made strenuous efforts to apply Korea’s development strategies to their countries and therefore have strong hopes for increased trade and economic exchange with Korea.
 
In their joint statement, Korea and Uzbekistan agreed to expand cooperation in mineral, oil, gas, petrochemical, construction, automobile, high-tech products, information communications and agriculture industries, and make efforts to improve their overall investment environments. In particular, the two countries agreed to expand multifaceted cooperation for the realization of the Navoiy Free Industrial and Economic Zone project in view of the great synergy effect between Korean Air’s international logistics center at Navoiy airport and the special industrial-economic zone.
 
Korea and Kazakhstan, meanwhile, adopted an action plan to increase practical cooperation, which included ways of collaboration in infrastructure construction, agriculture, information technology, environment and cultural exchanges. The adoption of the action plan, which was agreed upon during Prime Minister Han’s visit in May last year, will be seen as a milestone in the two nations’ bilateral cooperation to achieve mutually beneficial results through their increasingly closer ties. Lee told the Korean-Kazakh New Growth Forum that the two nations need to further exploit their mutually complementary economic and industrial structures. Particularly, he suggested jointly building “cooperation belts” in energy, IT and transportation industries.
 
5. Increasing Cooperation on Regional and Global Levels
 
Korea and the two Central Asian nations which have continued diplomatic cooperation in the regional and global arenas are on a solid foundation to further their cooperation in pursuit of peace and security in Asia and the world and in overcoming the global economic crisis. Having established “strategic partnerships,” the three countries are ready to apply their cooperation agenda to the broader international community and expand their sphere of cooperation from economic and cultural areas to the more sensitive political, diplomatic, military and security affairs.
 
Lee and Karimov agreed to regularly exchange visits and to continue political dialogue and exchange of opinions on bilateral and global issues while upgrading cooperation in the U.N. and other international and regional organizations. Karimov highly appraised Korea’s role and efforts in tiding over the global financial crisis as a co-chair of the G20 summit conference. Lee, for his part, expressed support for Uzbekistan’s entry into the World Trade Organization and its joining in the international economic system.
 
The two sides also reconfirmed their common stand against international terrorism, religious fanaticism, drug trafficking, organized crimes, nuclear proliferation and other regional and global challenges. Karimov supported the Lee administration’s North Korea policy based on coexistence and co-prosperity and resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem through the six-party talks.
 
Korea and Kazakhstan also agreed to jointly promote peace and security in Asia and the world, particularly through such multilateral channels as the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE), for continued dialogue on regional issues and effective resolution of international questions. The two countries agreed to increase mutual trust and expand exchanges and cooperation in diverse areas to cope jointly with international terrorism and supranational crimes. They shared the belief that the Korea-Central Asia Forum contributes to the promotion of practical cooperation among its participants.
 
6. Expansion of Cultural Network through Ethnic Korean Communities
 
Lee emphasized that the ethnic Korean communities in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – about 200,000 members in the former and 100,000 in the latter – are valuable assets to strengthen relations between Korea and Central Asia and agreed with the leaders of the two countries to support their ethnic Korean communities. Both the Korean-Kazakh and Korean-Uzbek joint communiqués specifically mentioned government support for the development of ethnic Korean societies in the two countries.
 
Considering that the ethnic Koreans in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are playing a vital role in introducing hallyu cultural products to these countries, Lee’s visit is expected to encourage and expand the hallyu network in the region.

IV. Future Tasks and Matters to Be Considered

1. Extension of the ‘New Asia Initiative’ to Eurasia
 
Lee’s tour of two Central Asian countries produced an opportunity to extend his New Asia Initiative beyond East Asia to the whole of Central Asia or to the Eurasian continent. Korea’s increased contact with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the two most influential countries in Central Asia with their large populations, economic power, territorial size and geopolitical environment, will mean enhanced exposure of Korea to the entire region. As of last year-end, Korea completed establishing permanent missions to the five capitals of Central Asia.
 
As a follow-up to Lee’s trip, Korea needs to make positive approaches to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the three countries of the South Caucasus, namely, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. While maintaining upgraded strategic partnerships with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Korea should seek to increase exchanges with the other countries of Eurasia through visits by the prime minister or cabinet ministers.  
 
2. Practical Diplomacy with Optimum Style of Cooperation
 
Extreme diversity characterizes the Central Asian countries. They differ widely in political, economic and diplomatic policy responses to various domestic and external conditions. Variables include ethnic composition, possession of energy and mineral resources, political inclination of top leaders, influence of adjoining countries and traditional relations with neighboring countries. While Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan pursue greater economic openness, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan maintain a relatively closed system.
 
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the two oil-exporting nations, show rapid increases in national income. On the other hand, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, without petroleum export, are slow in economic growth and have bigger proportions of poor population. Korea’s diplomatic approaches to these countries should consider all these factors of diversity within the former territories of the Soviet Union.
 
3. Upgrading of the Korea-Central Asia Cooperation Forum
 
The Korea-Central Asia Cooperation Forum, which started in 2007 as the first multilateral dialogue channel between the two regions, has played a significant role in promoting understanding and expanding comprehensive relations of cooperation between the two sides. If its elevation to the summit level may not be feasible for the time being due to differing interests among the Central Asian countries, a gradual upgrading may be considered.
 

It should be noted that the Central Asia Plus Japan dialogue, which has ministerial-level delegates discussing a wide range of issues, including human rights and democracy, has failed to make any remarkable achievements. As Korea leads the annual forum with vice ministerial-level participants, it should restrain from explicit expression of opinions on internal political issues in the Central Asian countries but rather encourage active discussions on non-political subjects, such as economy, energy, culture, science and technology. Korean diplomats should remember that Washington’s criticism of human rights situation in Central Asia has eventually resulted in waning U.S. influence in the region.

 

4. Support for Ethnic Korean Communities
 
Ethnic Koreans who mostly had middle-class status during the Soviet rule are now generally in worse economic situation because the new governments have not supported racial minorities. In recent years Korea has tried to help the ethnic Koreans in Central Asia by giving them priority in its industrial training programs and expanding their opportunities for learning Korean, an advantage in finding a job in Korea. The Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) is planning to open free vocational training centers and there also are programs to raise the number of invitees to Korea and expand training programs for ethnic Korean college students from Central Asia. But these measures are still too limited to provide substantial assistance.
 
As Korea tries to expand practical economic cooperation with Central Asian nations and operate cultural networks for effective promotion of Korean popular culture in the region, adequate support for the ethnic Korean communities is required. When help is extended from Korea in a systematic manner, they can make remarkable contributions to cultural exchanges and smooth people-to-people relations.
 
5. Effective Implementation of the ‘Comprehensive Central Asia Initiative’
 
Central Asia has bright prospects for economic growth, given its enormous energy and mineral resources, growing foreign investment in their development, moves toward regional economic integration, transformation into logistics hubs with construction of transportation infrastructures, emergence as new commodity markets, and growing geo-economic value due to geographical proximity with the new economic powers of China, Russia and India. Moreover, most Central Asian governments are pushing to improve transportation and communications infrastructures and to develop petrochemical and IT industries. Therefore, the region is going to be a good destination for Korean corporate investment.

While carefully watching the domestic political situations and changes in economic and industrial policies in these countries, Korea should effectively implement the Comprehensive Central Asia Initiative by setting up an efficient cooperative system among relevant government agencies. Central Asian studies should be activated to build an information bank about this less known region.
 
6. Support for Cooperation Projects Agreed Upon during Presidential Visit
 
On the occasion of President Lee’s visit, Korea and Uzbekistan signed as many as 26 MOUs and agreements on energy and resources, IT, infrastructure and other projects. There were 10 such documents signed with Kazakhstan during the presidential visit. However, many of the MOUs and agreements signed with foreign countries in the past have not been carried out due to changing circumstances. Government authorities need to maximize efforts to prevent abandonment of projects, employing governmental as well as private-level support and supervision.
 

Considering the existence of authoritarian systems in some of the nations in this region, Korean officials and business people involved in cooperative projects with those countries need to strengthen their human networking with the elite groups who have policymaking powers. At the same time, official oversight is also necessary through high-level dialogue among presidents, prime ministers and ministerial-level officials.

[Analysis of Major International Issues,
June 2009, published by
the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security]