Although the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula has been drawing most international attention, from the perspective of Central Asia, another interesting question is whether the new South Korean government will pursue as vigorous a Central Asian strategy as its predecessor. Under President Lee Myung-bak (2008–2013), the Republic of Korea (ROK) engaged in a “Global Korea” campaign and a “New Asia Initiative” that both encompassed Central Asia. President Lee himself had visited Kazakhstan seven times in the space of four years.
At the end of February 2013, Bakytzhan Sagintayev, Kazakhstan’s first deputy prime minister and minister of regional development, travelled to Seoul to attend the inauguration ceremony of the new South Korean President Park Geun-Hye as the head of a Kazakhstani delegation and as a special envoy of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Kazakhstani and South Korean governments affirmed their commitment to develop their “strategic partnership,” which they established in May 2009 (Tengrinews, February 27).
Sagintayev had visited Seoul in 2003 for an intergovernmental meeting and in 2012 for the Yeosu Expo 2012, whose theme was “the living ocean and coast.” South Korea supported Kazakhstan’s winning bid to host the World Expo in 2017, under the theme of “future energy.” In his late February–early March 2013 visit, Sagintayev reaffirmed Kazakhstan’s interest in obtaining access to South Korean investment and technologies. He told the media that, “Resources-wise we are a very wealthy country now, but we need to do more to implement further restructuring, and we need advanced technologies to reach our goal” (The Korea Herald, March 3).
The Republic of Kazakhstan and the Republic of Korea established diplomatic relations on January 28, 1992. After a slow start, their bilateral ties have expanded greatly in recent years, especially in the economic and energy sectors. Senior leaders from both countries, including their presidents, now regularly visit each other. The year of 2012 was a banner time in their diplomatic relations. In addition to celebrating two decades of bilateral ties, Presidents Lee and Nazarbayev held two high-level meetings—once during the March Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul and again when Lee visited Kazakhstan in September.
Scholars have noted important similarities between the ROK and Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan. They are surrounded by more powerful countries, many of which now have nuclear weapons. Lying at the crossroads of powerful empires, Central Asia and Korea have often been valued for their strategic rather than intrinsic worth—as terrain and clients for use against rival empires. They look to extra-regional partners to weaken the dominance of the nearby great powers. Globalization has now made it possible for Koreans and Central Asians to develop close economic and other ties with each other.
Despite their physical remoteness from each other, Kazakhstan has historical ties with Korea. During Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s tyranny, all 172,000 ethnic Koreans were forcibly removed from the Russian Far East and deported to unpopulated territory in modern Kazakhstan. Since their arrival in October 1937, these Koryo Saram have become well integrated into Kazakhstan’s diverse ethnic mix. Today, some 100,000 ethnic Koreans live in Kazakhstan, with several holding prominent public and private sector positions (The Korea Herald, March 3). “Kazakhstan is the only country in the post-Soviet space and possibly in the whole world to have on its soil a Korean national musical and drama theater,” President Nazarbayev had remarked in summer of 2011. “This is the symbol of our friendship, our brotherhood and a bridge between the two nations” (CACI Analyst, August 31, 2011).
Recent years have seen efforts to build on these historical ties and promote cultural exchanges between Koreans and Kazakhs. The two governments designated 2010 the “Year of Kazakhstan” in South Korea, while 2011 was the “Year of Korea” in Kazakhstan. Under the Lee administration, some South Koreans offered their own country as a possible developmental role model of a state that had developed a powerful economy and transitioned from an authoritarian to a democratic political system (http://www.keia.org/publication/new-horizon-south-korea-central-asia-relations-rok-joins-great-game).
Kazakhstan and South Korea are cooperating on various regional security issues. In June 2006, South Korea became a full member of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a Kazakhstan-initiated project begun in 1992 that seeks to enhance security throughout Asia. The two countries are leading global efforts to prevent nuclear nonproliferation and enhance the safety and security of dangerous nuclear materials. For example, President Nazarbayev attended the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul and made major commitments to prevent the diversion of its expanding nuclear materials and technologies for illegal uses. In an interview later that year, President Lee praised Kazakhstan’s contributions to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament: “Kazakhstan is an active participant in the discussions on reduction of nuclear weapons and non-proliferation. The country deserves to be respected for playing a leading role in [advancing] nuclear security in the region. Right after gaining sovereignty, Kazakhstan announced it had banned nuclear weapons and tests on its territory. Kazakhstan shut down the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and took up the initiative of creating a nuclear free zone in Central Asia. I was deeply impressed with Kazakhstan’s efforts” (KazInform, September 12, 2012)
The Kazakhstani and ROK governments are now cooperating bilaterally, as well as with other partners, to counter North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) do not have embassies in each other’s countries, their economic exchanges are miniscule, and only Kazakhstan’s ethnic Koreans have any cultural interactions with North Korea. Kazakhstani and ROK officials have jointly denounced North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles and urged the DPRK to rejoin the Six-Party Talks seeking to eliminate all nuclear weapons in North Korea in return for security, economic and other benefits. For example, on February 12, Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov urged Pyongyang to “abandon any steps [that] might lead to the escalation of tensions” and complained that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program “affects the non-proliferation process and bears security risks on a regional and global scale (Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 25).
Bilateral defense ties have also been growing. In October 2010, the Kazakhstani and South Korean defense ministries signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation. South Korea is helping to develop Kazakhstan’s naval forces and train Kazakhstani military officers in its military academies (Kazakhstan General Newswire October 4, 2010). One even might see arms trade develop in future years since both countries are trying to raise their defense exports. Thanks to Astana and Seoul’s overlapping interests and complementary foreign and economic policies, ties between the two Asian countries have been growing. And this cooperation is likely to increase further the more Kazakhstan develops and modernizes.