Kazakhstan Sees South Korea as Ideal Partner in Pragmatic Diplomacy

ASTANA/SEOUL – The March 19 parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, signifies another phase of the country’s reforms under the slogan New Kazakhstan. As a result of the elections, a multiparty parliament has emerged in Kazakhstan, with six political parties obtaining seats in the Mazhilis, the lower chamber of the Parliament of Kazakhstan, as opposed to three in the previous term.

Bridge over the river Yessil in the capital of Kazakhstan Astana. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Evgenykz.

As the country moves toward democracy under the reform led by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan is ready to strengthen relations with East Asia, particularly South Korea, as a key trade partner and investor.

Roman Vassilenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, said East Asia has been a very important region for the country for over three decades. 

“If we say about [South] Korea, I want to emphasize that Seoul was one of the first countries that recognized our country’s independence and established diplomatic relations,” Vassilenko told The Korea Times via a written interview, noting that presidents of South Korea visited Kazakhstan six times, while the presidents of Kazakhstan also visited South Korea six times.

According to Vassilenko, South Korea is a significant trade partner and one of the top-10 investors in Kazakhstan, having invested more than $8.1 billion over the last 17 years, and more than 700 companies with South Korean capital are operating in Kazakhstan including Samsung, Hyundai, POSCO and Lotte.

“I believe that Kazakhstan and [South] Korea still have many areas in the economic sphere where they can create a synergistic effect in the process of mutual exchange and cooperation,” he said. 

“The most priority areas of economic cooperation are energy, mining and metallurgy, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, transport infrastructure, education and tourism.”

The deputy minister highlighted that Kazakhstan and South Korea have a strong relationship based on mutual respect and understanding with similar views on many regional and international issues. 

“We would like to note that we consider [South] Korea as one of the most reliable and important partners of our country. In this regard, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue to make efforts to further develop relations between the two counties,” he said.

Deputy Minister Vassilenko also expresses strong concern over North Korea’s nuclear program, emphasizing the need for a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear issue through full implementation of all relevant U.N. Security Council Resolutions.

“Recently, cases with missile tests have become more frequent. As a staunch supporter of nuclear disarmament, we share Seoul’s concerns regarding the situation on the Peninsula,” Vassilenko said. 

“We strongly deplore the nuclear tests conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and express serious concern over its nuclear program and recent legislation adopted to transform DPRK into a nuclear power, which undermines the global non-proliferation regime. We continue to underline the need for a peaceful solution to the DPRK nuclear issue through full implementation of all relevant U.N. Security Council Resolutions.”

Impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

As a country with the longest continuous international border in the world shared with Russia and considering Russia is its main trading partner, Kazakhstan, like the rest of the world, is also affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began in February 2022. 

The war has brought changes to Kazakhstan, which had previously maintained a neutral stance and practiced pragmatic diplomacy, balancing its interests between Russia, China and the West amidst geopolitical tensions in the region.

“For Kazakhstan, both Ukraine and Russia are two friendly states. In this regard, we are watching the events in Ukraine with particular concern. We are concerned about the numerous human casualties, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the unprecedented number of refugees. Based on the appeals of the Ukrainian side, we provide humanitarian assistance to the victims of the conflict,” Vassilenko said. 

“In general, in line with its principled position regarding any international problems, Kazakhstan consistently advocates finding an exclusively peaceful solution to the conflict. We are ready to provide a negotiating platform for peace talks if the opposing sides are interested in it.”

Vassilenko added that the conflict in Ukraine has caused consequences for Kazakhstan’s foreign trade and transit potential due to the rupture of established transport and logistics supply routes. 

“The indirect consequences of large – scale anti-Russian sanctions should be mentioned separately since Russia is a key trade and economic partner of Kazakhstan both in a bilateral format and through integration associations,” he said. 

“Due to obvious political, economic and geographical reasons, we do not join Western sanctions, but we also do not intend to allow the deliberate use of our territory to circumvent them. This position is understood by both our Russian and Western partners.”

Future of South Korea-Kazakhstan ties

Dulat Bakishev, former ambassador of Kazakhstan to South Korea who now teaches at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS), noted that Kazakhstan is a young country that gained independence in 1991. He said that President Tokayev is trying to stabilize the country after unrest in 2022 by transitioning to a multiparty democratic system.

“We have this history under the Soviet regime, so our situation is not unique but understandable. We had this culture of having one leader for decades, but we are in the process of transition to a democratic system and a lot of events are happening at a very fast pace,” Bakishev told The Korea Times via telephone interview, March 23.

“This is a process where people are stepping up to fight for their rights. It is difficult to say now, but we made steps forward and we have to see what this Mazhilis will do.”

Professor Bakishev believes that Kazakhstan can benefit from learning how South Korea achieved its success as a democratic and developed country in a short period.

“For us, it is very important to learn how South Korea achieved its goals, how South Korea secured its security, how South Korea created alliances,” he said. 

He added that both countries can supplement each other economically by having more South Korean companies, technology and skilled South Korean workers in Kazakhstan’s market.

“[South] Korea has a lot of people who have knowledge and experience, but some of them cannot apply their expertise here due to lack of resources. Maybe we could provide it since we have a developing economy and we need the expertise to develop.”

Chu Young-min, a lecturer at the Department of Central Asia Studies at HUFS and expert on Kazakhstan, also views the early elections in Kazakhstan positively in terms of the legitimacy of the regime being secured through a more democratic process, even though the new parties that entered parliament have similar leanings to the pro-government Amanat Party.

“President Tokayev outlined an ambitious plan to hold early parliamentary elections in addition to presidential elections so that Kazakhstan would have a new president, parliament and government ministries to run the country by mid-2023,” Chu said during an interview with The Korea Times.

“Once the new system is in place, he will be able to steadily implement the reforms he envisions to build a new Kazakhstan.”

According to Chu, as Kazakhstan is likely to maintain an ambiguous stance in its relations with certain big powers due to geopolitical influence, South Korea can be a good diplomatic partner for Kazakhstan as a relatively low-risk, pragmatic option in the current situation.

“South Korea and Kazakhstan do not have a particular history of hostility or threats to each other and even within the Kazakh leadership, there seems to be a tendency to view South Korea as a pragmatic partner rather than a member of a certain faction,” Chu explained. 

“In addition, the image of South Korea in Kazakh society is currently favorable, especially among the younger generation, as the Korean wave has continued unabated and has had a significant impact on the creation of the Q-pop culture among Kazakhstan’s youth.”

She believes that the soft power of South Korea can bridge the two countries together to find more areas of cooperation. 

“As the two countries have already confirmed their friendship, it is necessary to continue this atmosphere and identify more specific and feasible areas of cooperation. Especially utilizing South Korea’s soft power influence in Kazakhstan to promote cultural exchanges that can lead to public support and provide a foundation for cooperation in various fields,” Chu said. 

This article is republished with the permission of The Korea Times.

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