The South Korean president’s three day state visit began Sunday in Almaty, the largest city of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Mr. Moon Jae-in arrived in the country’s capital, Nur-Sultan (formerly called Astana), later in the day.
The Republic of Kazakhstan is South Korea’s largest trade partner in Central Asia, with their bilateral trade reaching US$2.2 billion last year.
The South Korean leadership seeks to further expand and deepen his country’s trade and economic cooperation with Kazakhstan and other countries in the Central Asian region under their New Northern Policy, which aims to build a network of cooperation with countries north of South Korea, including the former Soviet republics such as Russia. It has also to be pointed out that under President Moon Jae-in, Seoul has set quite ambitious goals. Thus, the New Northern Policy is one of the South Korean President’s main foreign policy projects, along with the New Southern Policy.
The former is considered by President Moon Jae-in’s administration as a main foreign relations policy driver under which they are seeking to improve and expand ties with key Eurasian neighbors, particularly, apart from Russia, with the Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, whereas the latter aims to better connect South Korea to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping and India. Those new policies adopted by Seoul seem to be the result of a wish to curb the county’s reliance on traditional trading partners like the European Union and the United States of America.
President Moon Jae-in’s trade and investment-focused tour of Central Asia is likely to give a boost to his “New Northern Policy” in regard to its part concerning our region which is far away from the Korean peninsula. How is this to be done, and in what way?
The Central Asian region comprises only landlocked developing countries (LLDC). They have no direct access to a coastline providing access to the oceans. Uzbekistan, which hosts the largest number of Koreans in the post-Soviet area, is one of only two doubly-landlocked countries (the second is Liechtenstein) in the world.
It is surrounded by the landlocked countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Not a single one of them is interlinked by land routes with South Korea that, in its turn, is like an island as it does not have terrestrial access to the Eurasian continent in the circumstances that currently exist.
Translating the New Northern Policy into a full-fledged reality means to achieve aims of improving South Korea’s economic cooperation with not only Russia, but also Mongolia and Central Asian countries. But for this to be possible, it is necessary to link the inter-Korean railway to the Trans-Siberian Railway. If this link is realized, the container trains will begin to run between South Korea and Central Asia via Russia’s Far East, Eastern Siberia and Western Siberia. It takes long to come from there up to here and vice versa. But there are no customs borders between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan, which is kind of a land bridge between the southern part of Central Asia and the outside world. Up to now, our country ensures Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan the main access to international markets, including the South Korean one. In practical terms, the New Northern Policy is, among other things, aimed at reducing distances and transportation time, thereby contributing to the expansion of economic and commercial cooperation between the two Koreas and the five Central Asian countries. That would be good, of course.
Yet here, a primary requirement is to have re-linked the severed rail lines between the two Koreas. It is evident that this is a rather daunting task, considering the current situation on the Korean Peninsula in light of talks between North Korea and the United States.
The good will of one side is obviously not enough for achieving progress towards translating the New Northern Policy into a full-fledged reality in regard to its part concerning the Central Asian region. But there is a need to do something about it. So it can only be hoped that Mr. Moon Jae-in’s initiative would succeed.