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Korean President Embarks on Three-Nation Tour Around Central Asia


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(Arirang News) – President Lee Myung-bak of Korea has left for Mongolia on the first leg of his six-day Central Asian tour, that will also take him to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, countries known for rich resources and geographical significance as they serve as a bridge between Europe and Asia.

Lee Myung-bak
17th President of the Republic of Korea

The Presidential Office said President Lee’s visit is largely aimed at expanding economic cooperation and strengthening strategic bilateral ties with the nations.

During his three-day state visit to Mongolia President Lee will hold a bilateral summit with his Mongolian counterpart, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, on ways to boost cooperation in the fields of energy, natural resources and health. The two governments are also expected to elevate their relations to a “strategic partnership” and issue a joint statement on adopting a mid-term action plan providing guidelines for bilateral cooperation.

The Korean leader will then head to Uzbekistan for a two-day visit from August 23rd, his first trip to the country since September 2009, to hold a one-on-one with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. They are expected to exchange views on measures to boost the nations’ strategic partnership in energy, natural resources and IT and also sign a series of contracts on the development of gas fields worth some US $4 billion and collaboration in the areas of healthcare, medicine and textiles.

Before returning home on Friday the Korean president will visit Kazakhstan, the last leg of his tour, where he will make a state visit for a summit with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. There, he is slated to ink deals on the construction of a petrochemical complex worth $4 billion and sign MOUs concerning collaboration in healthcare, medicine and the environment.

Approximately 500,000 ethnic Koreans reside in the former Soviet Union, primarily in the now-independent states of Central Asia. There are also large Korean communities in southern Russia (around Volgograd), the Caucasus, and southern Ukraine. These communities can be traced back to the Koreans who were living in the Russian Far East during the late 19th century.

Ethnic Koreans in the post-Soviet states use the name Koryo-saram (Cyrillic: Корё сарам, Hangul: 고려사람) to refer to themselves.

The majority of Koryo-saram in Central Asia reside in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Korean culture in Kazakhstan is centered in Almaty, the former capital. For much of the 20th century, this was the only place in Central Asia where a Korean language newspaper (the Koryo Shinmun) and Korean language theater were in operation. The Korean population here was sheltered by the local governor from the restrictions placed on them elsewhere. The censuses of Kazakhstan recorded 96,500 Koryo-saram in 1939, 74,000 in 1959, 81,600 in 1970, 92,000 in 1979, 100,700 in 1989, and 99,700 in 1999.

In Kyrgyzstan, the population has remained roughly stable over the past three censuses: 18,355 (1989), 19,784 (1999), and 17,299 (2009). This contrasts sharply with other non-indigenous groups such as Germans, many of whom migrated to Germany after the breakup of the Soviet Union. South Korea never had any programme to promote return migration of their diaspora in Central Asia, unlike Germany. However, they have established organisations to promote Korean language and culture, such as the Korean Center of Education which opened in Bishkek in 2001. South Korean Christian missionaries are also active in the country.

The population in Uzbekistan is largely scattered in rural areas. This population has suffered in recent years from linguistic handicaps, as the Koryo-saram there spoke Russian but not Uzbek. After the independence of Uzbekistan, many lost their jobs due to being unable to speak the national language. Some emigrated to the Russian Far East, but found life difficult there as well.

There is also a small Korean community in Tajikistan. Mass settlement of Koreans in the country began during the late 1950s and early 1960s, after the loosening of restrictions on their freedom of movement which had previously kept them confined to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Pull factors for migration included rich natural resources and a relatively mild climate. Their population grew to 2,400 in 1959, 11,000 in 1979, and 13,000 in 1989; most lived in the capital Dushanbe, with smaller concentrations in Qurghonteppa and Khujand. Like Koreans in other parts of Central Asia, they generally possessed higher incomes compared to members of other ethnic groups. However, with the May 1992 onset of civil war in Tajikistan, many fled the country entirely; by 1996, their population had fallen by over half to 6,300 people. Most are engaged in agriculture and retail business. Violence continued even after the end of the civil war; in 2000, suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir members exploded a bomb in a Korean Christian church in Dushanbe, killing 9 and wounding 30.

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