Strategic Partnership Upgraded as South Korean President Wraps Up Visit to Kazakhstan

ASTANA – This week, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited Kazakhstan as part of his week-long Central Asia tour. In Kazakhstan, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Yoon Suk Yeol emphasized mutual interests in economic cooperation, technological innovation, and cultural exchange.

This week, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited Kazakhstan as part of his week-long Central Asia tour. Collage created by The Astana Times. Photo credit: Akorda

This is Yoon Suk Yeol’s first trip to the region since he assumed office in May 2022. 

Key trade and investment partner

Experts agree the visit was meant to combine South Korea’s technological prowess with the region’s rich resources. Across Central Asia, Kazakhstan remains Korea’s key trading partner and key investment destination. According to the Kazakh Embassy in South Korea, trade turnover reached $6 billion in 2023, including $3.8 billion in exports and $2.2 billion in imports. 

Kazakh exports include crude oil, ferrous metals, rolled non-alloy steel, and iron, while Korea primarily exports electronics, equipment and production of mechanical engineering, car parts, and automobiles.

More than 700 joint ventures with the Korean capital work in Kazakhstan. Korean investments have reached $9.4 billion since 2005. 

The South Korean leader’s visit to Kazakhstan enhanced already positive dynamics in the bilateral ties. Addressing the Kazakh-Korean investment roundtable, Yoon Suk Yeol said bilateral exchanges are at their strongest since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992.

Crucial agreements

In Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Yoon Suk Yeol witnessed the signing of some crucial agreements. It includes a memorandum on the development of the energy sector, cooperation in critical minerals and metals, and a memorandum on science and technology, among others. 

“In the oil and gas industry, it is important for us to fully transfer South Korean technologies, as well as establish the production of modern equipment and spare parts. This is especially relevant given the expansion of our largest oil and gas fields, such as Tengiz, Kashagan and Karachaganak,” said Tokayev at the roundtable. 

South Korea’s Doosan Enerbility signed a cooperation agreement and memorandum of understanding with Kazakhstan’s Samruk Kazyna Sovereign Wealth Fund and its subsidiary, Samruk Energy, to modernize the country’s power facilities. 

One of the goals of the memorandum on critical minerals, signed by the Kazakh Ministry of  Industry and Construction, and Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, is to create a chemical analytical laboratory in Kazakhstan to analyze critical minerals and metals and conduct research and development.

The memorandum is aimed at strengthening international cooperation between Kazakhstan and Korea in various fields. The focus is on ​​the supply chain for critical minerals and metals, including lithium, nickel, cobalt, tantalum, tungsten, beryllium, niobium, titanium, rhenium, phosphorus, copper, aluminum, chromium, manganese and rare earth metals.

The Kazakh ministry also signed a memorandum of understanding on the safety and development of the supply chain for critical minerals with Korea Institute of Geosciences and Mineral Resources, and SK Ecoplant, a Seoul-based engineering company. The institute has been overseeing mineral exploration at the Bakennoye mine in eastern Kazakhstan.

The goal is a comprehensive exchange of information on supply chains for critical minerals and metals. This includes joint geological exploration and production, the development and processing of critical minerals and metals, and the mining and processing of lithium to produce lithium batteries.

The Korea Institute for Advancement of Technology announced on its official website that, under the agreement signed with the Kazakh National Center for Technology Forecasting, it will also invest 10 billion won (US$7.2 million) in an elevator research and development plant in Almaty. The plant will be built by the end of 2028. 

Both organizations will also seek ways to cooperate on the joint exploration and processing of rare earth metals and nurture experts in the field. 

Critical minerals are essential for South Korea’s technological advancements and industrial production. These minerals are used in everything from semiconductors, a major South Korean export, to electric vehicles, a growing market in which the country has invested.

By securing access to minerals in Central Asia, South Korea also aims to diversify its sources and avoid relying on any one supplier, including China. 

“Kazakhstan is a resource-rich country, which possesses most of the minerals that appear on the periodic table. Our country has excellent mineral processing technology and has industries in demand, such as semiconductor batteries, so we complement each other,” said Park Chun-sup, a senior economic affairs secretary to the President of South Korea, summarizing the economic outcomes of the visit. 

He noted that Korean companies are “recognized for their construction capabilities and reliability,” highlighting projects with their participation such as the Almaty Ring Road and the Shymkent combined power plant. 

In their joint statement, the two leaders agreed to continue to supply Kazakh uranium to Korea and consider the possibility of increasing its volumes. Kazakhstan is a major player when it comes to uranium resources. The nation is the world’s largest uranium producer, 

“Kazatomprom national atomic company constantly monitors public tenders on the official website of the authorized Korean energy company for the supply of natural uranium and intends to participate in tenders in the event of such an announcement,” reads the statement. 

There is also substantial potential in the automobile industry. 

“Korean cars account for more than one-third of all new cars purchased by Kazakhs, and crude oil and uranium imported from Kazakhstan play a major role in strengthening Korea’s energy security,”  said the South Korean leader at the roundtable. 

In November 2023, KIA launched the construction of a new full-cycle plant in Kostanai in northern Kazakhstan. There is a small-scale assembly plant of Hyundai cars in Almaty and a joint production of Daewoo Bus Global buses in Semei. 

Other projects in the pipeline include Doosan Enerbility’s power plant based on a combined cycle plant in Turkistan, Samsung Electronics’ plans to start producing household appliances in Kazakhstan, and GL Ralpha’s plans to build a biopharmaceutical plant in Astana.

Korea’s Central Asia diplomatic approach

In the joint statement, the Kazakh leader expressed support for South Korea’s K-Silk Road Strategy. South Korea is planning to hold a summit with the leaders of all five Central Asian countries next year.

“The positions of Astana and Seoul on current issues are similar. Our countries are interested in strengthening multilateral cooperation. We agreed to develop the dialogue further in the Central Asia + Korea format. Kazakhstan supports the K-Silk Road concept that was put forward by the Republic of Korea,” said Tokayev in a joint press briefing on June 12. 

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