The Benefits of Deepening the Uzbek-South Korean Strategic Partnership
The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Investment and Foreign Trade of Uzbekistan, Sardor Umurzakov, and the Minister of Trade, Industry, and Energy of the Republic of Korea (ROK), Song Yoon Mo, praised positive trends in bilateral relations between the two countries in a July 6 meeting. Uzbekistan and South Korea have spent the past 25 years building a strong political and economic partnership. Uzbekistan’s population includes roughly 200,000 people of Korean descent, the largest Korean diaspora in any former Soviet state and the fourth largest in the world after China, Japan, and the United States. Moreover, Uzbekistan and South Korea collaborate in both bilateral and multilateral formats to promote education, tourism, and cultural programs between the two countries.
During a state visit to Tashkent in 2014, South Korea’s then-President Park Geun-hye declared that Uzbekistan was essential in the Ancient Silk Road and continues to be South Korea’s largest trading partner in Central Asia. President Park and former President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan also signed a new joint declaration at this meeting to deepen their strategic partnership. More recently, Uzbekistan has voiced its support for South Korea’s “New Northern Policy” to bolster its trade relations with Central Asian countries. In addition, South Korea is committed to establishing joint Uzbek-Korean projects to facilitate agricultural research, construct a training center to improve educational practices in Uzbekistan, and pilot bilateral mechanisms for healthcare collaboration.
Uzbek migrant workers are also increasingly considering South Korea as a destination for employment. In 2004, South Korea began gradually accepting foreign laborers after signing bilateral agreements with 16 countries, including Uzbekistan. Predominantly Central Asian neighborhoods can now be found in major industrial centers across South Korea as migrant workers from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan flock to the East Asian nation in search of jobs. In 2016, there were approximately 16,500 registered Uzbek migrant workers in South Korea.
Trade between Uzbekistan and South Korea has also risen at a significant rate over in recent years. By the end of 2019, trade between the two countries increased by 27 percent to reach $2.7 billion, the highest figure in the past five years. Observers remain optimistic that mutual trade between the two countries could amount to $5 billion by 2023.
Increasingly robust trade links between Uzbekistan and South Korean are closely tied to Korean business investment in the Central Asian country. Major Korean companies have established operations in Uzbekistan, including Lotte Chemical – the South Korean conglomerate’s chemical wing – that constructed the Ustyurt Gas Chemical Complex in 2015. The plant is the largest Korean-built complex in Eurasia to date. Historically, South Korea has also played a critical role in developing the Uzbek automobile industry, inking several memorandums of understanding to heighten collaboration in this industry. Furthermore, in April 2020, South Korea inaugurated the Korean-Uzbek business association under the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Energy in Incheon. The association serves to enhance business ventures between Uzbek and South Korean entrepreneurs.
Uzbekistan’s attempts to diversify its trading partners to include countries beyond the Caspian region is important to ensuring economic resilience for future global crises. Border closures spurred by future pandemics, refugee influxes, and political strife could impact the stability of Uzbekistan’s trade relations with its immediate neighbors. However, expanding trade relations with South Korea, Asia’s fourth largest economy, will allow the country to ease its reliance on Russia, China, and the European Union. In addition, South Korean interest in investing in the Uzbek market could compel Uzbek leaders to continue to promote economic reform. South Korea and Uzbekistan launched a Working Group, headed by the ministers of foreign economic departments of both countries, to reform the current economic situation in Uzbekistan. Initiatives implemented with the help of South Korean investors serve to transform Uzbekistan’s economic practices to become more palatable to foreign direct investment from other regions.