Moon Jae-in’s visit to Central Asia holds multiple purposes for Seoul

By Ma Weiying Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/6 20:01:05

At the end of April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in spent eight days travelling across Central Asia, visiting Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Before the trip, South Korean media said the president's trip would be aimed at promoting South Korea's New Northern Policy. But Moon's schedule revealed the multiple purposes of the visit. South Korea's aim was to make breakthroughs on domestic economic dilemmas, communicate with the Korean communities in Central Asia and learn from Kazakhstan's denuclearization experience.

The trip was designed to plan for the New Northern Policy. Since taking office, Moon has visited Southeast and South Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and India. 

Within the framework of South Korea's New Northern Policy, Russia's Far East is regarded as a key partner. Moon attended the third Eastern Economic Forum in Russia in 2017 where he proposed to build "Nine Bridges." However, the New Northern Policy extends beyond Russia. The long-term goal is to connect European countries through the Eurasia Land Bridge. 

Central Asia holds an important position in this grand blueprint. Guarding strategic spots in Asia and Europe, the three Central Asian states that Moon visited this time make up key nodes of logistics and transportation. 

The three countries are fast-growing economies and resources-rich nations in Central Asia. They display a strong complementarity for South Korea's industrial structure and act as essential partners for South Korea under the New Northern Policy.

During Moon's first two years in office, preliminary progress has been made in advancing the New Southern Policy, with ASEAN and Indian markets having been explored. However, the New Northern Policy is moving at a slow pace, shadowed by the situation on the Korean Peninsula

The Central Asian tour achieved strategy coordination between the New Northern Policy and Uzbekistan's Central Asia regional cooperation strategy as well as Kazakhstan Strategic Development Plan 2025. Moon's tour also strengthened cooperation in projects between South Korea and the three Central Asian states. During his presidency, Moon has been criticized by the public for his economic policies. South Korea's GDP shrank a seasonally adjusted 0.3 percent on quarter in the first quarter of 2019, the lowest record since the 2008 financial crisis. 

Investment and exports weakened, while the employment rate has also dropped. Shares of large companies such as Samsung, Hyundai, and LG have experienced drastic decline in traditional markets. As a result, South Korea is seeking new economic growth points as the country is dependent on overseas markets. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are resources-rich countries, but they lag behind in information technology. During his visit, Moon signed cooperation agreements in sectors such as information communication, 5G, big data and AI. 

Moon's visit to Uzbekistan led to cooperation agreements worth $12 billion. In Turkmenistan, South Korea built a large natural gas chemical complex in Central Asia, opening up new areas in energy cooperation. Samsung and Hyundai representatives were also included in Moon's visit, signaling their entrance into the Central Asian market. 

After Moon took office, communication with overseas Koreans has remained an important link in his overseas visits. South Koreans throughout the world are regarded as a bridge connecting South Korea and overseas societies. 

Moon's visit was also a chance to learn from Kazakhstan's denuclearization efforts. Moon expected that Kazakhstan's denuclearization experience will be of great assistance in promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula. As a member of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan hosted a large portion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and was the world's fourth-largest nuclear power. In 1991, the country decided to give up its nuclear arsenal and instead focus on developing its economy. So far, the economy has maintained steady and rapid development. In the future, the Kazakhstan model is very likely to be discussed in the denuclearization process of the Korean Peninsula. 

The author is an assistant research fellow with the Center of Northeast Asian Studies at the Jilin Academy of Social Sciences.

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