Central Asia refers to five countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, which became independent after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Region, located in the heart of the Eurasian continent, is attracting attention as a key promising participant for regional integration projects of major powers, and is the site of fierce geopolitical competition between Russia, China and the United States. Central Asian economies which are dependent on the export of energy resources such as oil and natural gas, are diversifying their industrial structure through policies to encourage manufacturing industry in line with the transition to a global carbon-neutral era, and are implementing policies to expand the development of new and renewable energy. In addition, as non-face-to-face activities have become normal due to the COVID-19 crisis, digital transformation including ICT industry is accelerating in Central Asia, where population density is low.
2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Korea and the five Central Asian countries. Korea has grown into an important import partner in Central Asia over the past 30 years. According to the official statistics of each country in 2020, Korea is the third largest importer of Kazakhstan, the fourth largest importer of Uzbekistan, and the seventh and ninth largest importer of remaining three Central Asian countries. On the other hand, Central Asia is not a major trading partner for Korea, as it accounts for less than 1% of Korea’s total exports and imports. Trade items between Korea and Central Asia are also limited to some items due to differences in economic structure and economic development. However, the possibility of cooperation between Korea and Central Asia is increasing as the 4th Industrial Revolution and economic modernization policies of Central Asian countries have led to major changes in economic and social structures of Central Asian countries.
Central Asian countries are striving to modernize their economies and diversify their industrial structures for sustainable economic development, and are pushing for modernization of the domestic financial sector to expand domestic investment and successfully attract overseas investment.
In addition, with the advent of the carbon-neutral era, the development of new and renewable energy is being promoted, and the digitalization of the economy is being pursued in accordance with the global trend of the 4th industrial revolution. At the same time, governments in each country are implementing improvement policies to strengthen their capabilities in health care sector as they face medical and health crises such as the shortage of medical supplies due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In other words, important tasks emerging in Central Asian countries is to successfully overcome the health crisis and promote stable economic development. For this purpose, important future cooperation tasks between Korea and Central Asian countries is to break away from the existing cooperation limited to some items and to discover areas of cooperation for building mid- to long-term cooperative relationship.
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Korea and Central Asia, this study used the following research methods to evaluate the achievements of cooperation in the fields of diplomacy and economy, and to analyze the four major cooperation areas in depth.
First, the contents of the research topic of this report were analyzed and organized using various primary and secondary literature and statistical data. These literature and statistical data were actively used to analyze the current status and characteristics of politics, diplomacy, and economy in Korea and Central Asia, and to analyze the cooperation status and performance of four major cooperation areas: digital cooperation, renewable energy cooperation, financial cooperation, and health care cooperation.
Second, in order to improve the quality of this study by obtaining the opinions and advice of experts, a number of experts related to each subject were invited and expert meetings were held. In particular, the objectivity and validity of directions and policy proposals of this study were enhanced by listening to the opinions of experts focusing on the four major cooperative areas.
Third, due to the COVID-19, field research and interviews with local experts were practically difficult, so written interviews were conducted with experts from Central Asia working in government, academia, and private sector living in Korea and Central Asia. This study was intended to provide vivid information and conduct realistic research by reflecting the results of these written interviews In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Central Asia, this study comprehensively evaluates the economic and diplomatic cooperation between Korea and Central Asia over the past 30 years. Furthermore, this study explored areas with high potential for cooperation between Korea and Central Asia by reflecting the rapidly changing global political, economic, social and cultural environment. The contents of this study can be summarized as follows.
First, diplomatic and security cooperation between Korea and Central Asia. Central Asia is a region in which Russia, China, and the United States are in geopolitical competition due to high potential for oil and natural gas energy resource development, bordering with unstable Afghanistan, and high importance as a key point for regional integration projects. Russia is trying to maintain military influence in Central Asia based on historical ties, and China is seeking to expand its economic influence through the Belt and Road Initiative. The United States, which advanced into Central Asia to attack Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, is preparing a new strategy in Central Asia to check Russia and China.
Marking the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Central Asia, the achievements in terms of diplomacy and security between Korea and the five Central Asian countries are as follows. The first is the expansion of the horizon of Korean diplomacy. The past governments of Korea have made efforts to expand their diplomatic ties to Eurasia, and within that, policies of cooperation with Central Asian countries have been steadily strengthened. Second, sharing experiences with Kazakhstan, which voluntarily promoted denuclearization and non-proliferation. Korea is one of the few countries that has a multilateral consultative body with five Central Asian countries, and the two sides are cooperating based on multilateralism.
Second, in terms of economic cooperation, Central Asia is not pertaining to Korea’s major trading partners, accounting for less than 1% of Korea’s total exports and imports, but Korea is an important trading partner for Central Asia. Among the five Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have relatively large trade volume with Korea, but the trade volumes between Korea and the other three countries are insignificant. Over the past 30 years, Korea’s total investment in Central Asia has reached $3.596 billion, of which Kazakhstan’s share was $2.661.2 million, accounting for 74% of the total investment in Central Asia, and Uzbekistan accounted for 21.52% with $774 million. The proportion of the remaining three Central Asian countries was insignificant at 2.78% in Kyrgyzstan, 1.66% in Tajikistan, and 0.13% in Turkmenistan. Therefore, in terms of foreign direct investment, investment relations between Korea and Central Asia have been concentrated in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In the 1990s, Korea invested the most in Uzbekistan among Central Asian countries, but since the 2000s, Kazakhstan has maintained the status of Korea’s largest investment destination in Central Asia. Uzbekistan was selected as a major ODA priority partner in 2010 and 2015, making it a major beneficiary among the five Central Asian countries. Uzbekistan was re-selected as an ODA priority partner country in 2021, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were newly selected as priority partners. Accordingly, Korea’s ODA to Uzbekistan is expected to continue its high performance as it is today, and the ODA to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is now equipped with conditions to expand further.
Third, the transition to the digital era presented an important task of ICT cooperation between Korea and Central Asian countries. All five Central Asian countries have established and implemented mid- to long-term strategies for the digital economy. Uzbekistan’s strategy is “Digital Uzbekistan 2030”, Kazakhstan’s is “Digital Kazakhstan 2018 to 2022”, and the Kyrgyz government is pursuing “Digital Kyrgyzstan (2019-2023)”, Tajikistan is seeking “The Concept of the Digital Economy of the Republic of Tajikistan”, Turkmenistan has announced the resolution of “The Digital Economy Development Concept 2019-2025”.
The strategies of Central Asian countries commonly set priority areas such as strengthening broadband networks, digital transformation of the economy, formation of a sustainable innovative ecosystem, formation of human capital, expansion of e-commerce, and formation of e-government. Korea-Central Asian digital cooperation is largely divided into ODA projects and private cooperation. Korea has been continuously expanding its ODA projects with Central Asian countries, mainly cooperating in the fields such as e-government, geographic information system, and educational digitalization. The cooperation of the private sector related to the digital economy largely consists of the export of ICT devices such as mobile phones and the advancement of service companies such as KT and LG CNS, and the export of ICT devices has been led by Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics. While Korea’s cooperation with Uzbekistan, which has been Korea’s ODA priority partner, is high, while ODA projects and private entry to other Central Asian countries were still on the low side. However, as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are selected as priority partners for ODA in 2021, cooperation with these countries is expected to expand further in the future.
Fourth, the possibility and policy tasks for new and renewable energy cooperation between Korea and Central Asia were analyzed. Among the Central Asian regions, especially Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have the greatest potential for solar power generation, and Kazakhstan has a high potential for wind power generation as it can generate wind power in about 50% of the total land area. These industries are very useful in terms of economic and energy security in Central Asia. Central Asian countries have established national strategies for the construction of new and renewable energy facilities. However, only Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have prepared concrete plans for the implementation stage of renewable energy strategy. The governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have announced plans to generate more than 10% of electricity generation from solar and wind power by 2030, and significant investments are expected to be made to achieve this goal. In Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are in the stage of developing new and renewable energy industries in earnest according to their national development strategies, and many wind power and solar power projects are being promoted. As a result, opportunities for foreign companies to participate in local businesses are increasing significantly, and competition for bidding orders from each country is fierce. Korea needs a national strategy and support to advance into Central Asia in consideration of new and renewable energy cooperation by breaking away from the existing Korea-Central Asian energy cooperation limited to oil and natural gas cooperation.
Fifth, the current status of the financial industry in Central Asian countries and the tasks of financial cooperation between Korea and Central Asia were analyzed. Financial cooperation between Korea and Central Asia is also a promising field for cooperation in that Central Asian countries are promoting industrial diversification and modernization through foreign capital attraction. Central Asian countries have low competitiveness in financial markets, and financial companies in each country are not able to expand their participation in the global financial market. Therefore, the development of a balanced financial industry is pointed out as one of the urgent national tasks of the five Central Asian countries. In banking sector, Kazakhstan is the most connected to the global financial system among the five countries, Turkmenistan is the most isolated market, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are heavily dependent on the government, and Kyrgyzstan has restrictions depending on the size of the domestic market. Looking back on the details of Korea-Central Asian financial cooperation over the past 30 years, Korean financial companies and financial infrastructure have advanced into Central Asia, centered on Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which have the highest demand for development cooperation among the five Central Asian countries. In the development aid cooperation sector, credit extensions such as development loans and overseas investment loans were concentrated in Uzbekistan, while official development aid was concentrated in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the form of sharing development experience, technical support, and training. However, the need to expand the scope of financial cooperation between Korea and Central Asia is growing as the joint financial market of the European Economic Union is formed and Fintech and ICT emerge.
Lastly, health and medical cooperation between Korea and Central Asia. Korean medical institutions have been promoting health and medical cooperation mainly in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which have high demand and purchasing power for medical tourism. In fact, for 10
years from 2009, when foreign patients were legally allowed, the rate of increase of inbound patients from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to Korea was 67.1% and 48.3%, respectively, higher than the average annual growth rate of attracting foreign patient’s inflows in Korea (22.7%). As such, Korea and Central Asia are complementary to each other in terms of medical supply and demand, thus expectations for medical cooperation between the two countries were high. However, various legal regulations in Central Asian countries, the reluctance of locals who are accustomed to public health to use private medical institutions, and the high current costs of hiring Korean doctors have been obstacles for Korean institutions to advance into Central Asia. However, through President Moon Jae-in’s 2019 visit to Central Asia, regulations that have been pointed out as problems in health and medical cooperation between Korea and Central Asia are being discussed again at the government level, raising expectations for revitalizing health and medical cooperation. In addition, as non-face-to-face contact becoming commonplace due to the COVID-19, various pilot projects are being operated to make telemedicine a reality in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Accordingly, the possibility of local advancement through telemedicine, which Korean medical institutions have tried and hoped for from the beginning of their entry into Central Asia, is increasing.
As described above, this study has analyzed the cooperation achievements and tasks in the fields of diplomacy and security, economy, digital, renewable energy, finance, and health care between Korea and Central Asia over the past 30 years. Based on this, this study presents policy implications and tasks as follows in order to enhance mid- to long-term cooperation between Korea and Central Asia.
First, it is the field of diplomatic and security cooperation between Korea and Central Asia. Korea should form solidarity with middle powers such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan so that peace and neutrality, negotiation and dialogue can function in the great power politics. Most of the agendas in which middle powers can intervene or exercise initiative in the global order centered on great powers are directly related to human security, such as human rights, humanitarian aid, sustainable development, response to climate change, natural disasters, infectious diseases, and nuclear proliferation prevention. Thus, solidarity with middle powers is also related to human security. Therefore, Korea should strengthen diplomatic cooperation with Central Asian countries in terms of solidarity with middle powers. In the post-coronavirus era, cooperation between Korea and Central Asia leads to solidarity of middle powers for human security, and mutual understanding should be enhanced by strengthening public diplomacy in line with the era of the 4th industrial revolution.
Next, the key cooperation areas were selected based on the evaluation of economic cooperation between Korea and Central Asia. Despite the disproportionate trade relationship between Korea and Central Asia over the past 30 years, in order to develop a mutually beneficial and future-oriented cooperative relationship between the two sides, Korea needs to select areas of cooperation that can support the sustained economic growth of Central Asian countries and lead the cooperation. These cooperative areas should share Korea’s advanced technological level and development experience and meet the policy demands and needs of each country in Central Asia. In addition, for future-oriented and sustainable cooperation with Central Asian countries, it is necessary to prepare a new framework for economic cooperation. In order to prepare such a new framework for economic cooperation, it is desirable to set the direction of cooperation between the two sides and select the areas of cooperation in consideration of the economic development strategies and economic policy directions and policy demands of each country in Central Asia. Accordingly, in this study, four promising areas of cooperation; 1) digital cooperation, 2) new and renewable energy cooperation, 3) financial cooperation, and 4) health and medical cooperation, between Korea and Central Asian countries were selected, and in-depth analysis and policy measures were presented for each field.
First, it is a policy plan for ICT cooperation between Korea and Central Asia. As Korean government promotes online/non-face-to-face economic cooperation and the digital economy of partner countries using ICT technologies such as AI due to the COVID-19, digital cooperation with Central Asian countries that are promoting the transition to a digital economy is emerging as a promising business.
Promising fields of digital cooperation between Korea and Central Asia include: a) Broadband network sector, including ICT policy exchange for network construction (frequency management policy and network joint construction, etc.), and cooperation in 5G and advanced technologies /future technologies using 5G such as the Internet of Things, big data, and artificial intelligence. b) It is promising to export Korea’s e-Government model in a package type that includes e-Government promotion and online participation or usage ability directly related to practical use, which is needed by the people of Central Asian countries. c) It is possible to export new services, business models, and security technologies of Korea to the e-commerce market in Central Asia, which is in its infancy, and it is possible to enter various application fields such as fintech, payment-related applications, and edtech, where demand is expected to increase with the growth of e-commerce in Central Asia. d) As agriculture is a major key industry in Central Asian countries and can receive budget support from international organizations, smart farming-related services, such as seed testing, human resources and management-related training, data management/precision system, etc., are promising. e) Smart city business sector, which includes multiple layers of solutions (smart transportation, smart building, smart water supply, smart energy, smart waste management, smart safety/disaster prevention solutions, etc.). f) It is necessary to establish a startup ecosystem that can create various innovations using ICT technology.
Considering that Central Asian countries lack the financial capacity to pursue digital projects, Korea should actively seek cooperation by winning bids for digital transformation projects from Central Asian countries and participating in several international development bank projects. It will also be necessary to consider how to leverage the EAEU and Russian/overseas channels in digital cooperation with Central Asia to enter the market. At the same time, Korea should focus on cooperation with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan so that this cooperation can be expanded to the other countries step by step.
Second, in accordance with the transition to a carbon-neutral era, cooperation in renewable energy between Korea and Central Asia should be promoted. In Central Asia, local business risks are too high for private companies to carry out alone, and there is insufficient information for domestic companies to enter the renewable energy field. There are many problems in local businesses that are difficult to solve with the efforts of private companies alone. Therefore, in order for Korean companies to enter the new and renewable energy business in Central Asia, which has great potential, institutional support at the government level is necessary.
The governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have clearly stated their intention to develop new and renewable energy with private capital rather than government funds in their national development strategies.
Considering that the private sector in both countries has limited funds to invest in this field, the new and renewable energy project will be carried out with the financial support of foreign governments or multilateral development banks in the PPP method. As it is true that Korea lacks in price competitiveness and financial support compared to its competitors, it will be important to actively cooperate with the local government from the initial stage of the project to be selected as the preferred bidder.
Energy projects are mostly large-scale projects that require a long-term investment of a large amount of investment. However, various reasons, such as changes in local laws/systems and bureaucracy in Central Asia, are hindering entry into the local market, and private companies are experiencing difficulties in investing. There is a need for institutional measures to protect investors through consultations between the Korean government and the Central Asian government. In addition, in order to receive payment guarantees from local governments for the amount of PPP investment, an agreement between countries is required. Currently, the public-private network with the local country is well formed, so using it to discover and participate in new projects is an effective strategy to increase the penetration power of Korean companies. Considering that Central Asian private and governmental funds are insufficient, it is necessary to efficiently utilize Korean ODA funds to advance into new and renewable energy projects in Central Asia. In addition, it is necessary to actively participate in projects funded by multilateral development banks.
Third, it is the field of financial cooperation with Central Asian countries that are actively promoting foreign capital attraction. The following long-proposed existing agendas such as capital market cooperation, SME financing for Koryoin(Korean diaspora) companies in Central Asia, public finance and resource development through international financial institutions, plant project funding support, and transfer and provision of basic knowledge and technology necessary for nurturing manufacturing for industrial diversification and advancement in Central Asian countries, regular advice on credit guarantees necessary for fostering special economic zones and SMEs, etc. are still considered necessary to build long-term and sustainable financial cooperation.
However, considering the rapidly changing circumstances surrounding the financial industry, it is necessary to approach the existing agenda in a new way or to readjust the agenda. In relation to the integration efforts of Eurasian countries, including Central Asia, important areas in which Korea can contribute or cooperate in the future financial sector of Central Asia are as follows. Integration of Central Asian financial infrastructure, implementation of a multilateral payment and settlement system using local currency or single currency in the region, stock market development and revitalization of investment in CIS countries, support for overcoming financial crisis, etc. In order to induce active investment in raising funds for regional development, it is necessary to establish a guarantee fund that mitigates investment risk through multilateral cooperation or to actively participate in financing and financial support projects of international financial institutions. In addition, it is important to expand mutual cooperation through active participation of Korean public financial institutions related to the improvement of financial market infrastructure such as payment and settlement infrastructure, fintech, and credit rating systems, which are becoming increasingly important with the spread of digital finance. Regular multilateral or bilateral meetings with financial regulatory supervisors in Central Asian countries are important in order to politicize these diverse financial cooperation-related agendas, share experiences, and discover and continuously promote mutually beneficial cooperation tasks.
Lastly, health and medical cooperation between Korea and Central Asia, where the possibility of cooperation has increased more than ever due to the COVID-19 crisis. Due to the global pandemic of COVID-19, our daily life is changing in a non-face-to-face manner based on digital technology. Digital-based non-face-to-face activities increase convenience and reduce costs as there are no time and space restrictions.
Digital technologies also have the advantage of being scalable through networks. Korean medical institutions with strengths in IT sector will be able to quickly adapt and apply these changes to advance into Central Asia in the form of non-face-to-face treatment and medical platforms. In particular, the medical platform business model that reflects the local people’s demand for high-quality medical services following the introduction of the health insurance system can be expanded and exported to Russia and other Russian-speaking CIS countries. At the same time, by conducting non-face-to-face education to strengthen the capabilities of local medical staff, Korean medical institutions will be able to secure manpower to assist with remote medical treatment and contribute to the improvement of health care in Central Asian countries.
For such non-face-to-face treatment and digital platform business between the two sides, the policy support of Korean government should be made in order to alleviate institutional regulations, as well as the efforts of Korean medical institutions.