Korea in Central Asia

I sometimes think of the world in networks. The most simple of these networks are contiguous. For example, the Scandinavian countries share so much in culture and history that they cannot help but be interconnected. Such geographically tight networks also include the Andean countries of South America and the chopstick countries of east Asia. There are also the colonial empires, which persist to this day as cultural and economic networks. The sun still doesn’t set on the British-led Commonwealth of Nations, and Macau held the first Lusofonia Games, at which the Portuguese-speaking countries competed (as may be expected, the Brazilians won most of the events). We met in Aleppo a Quebecois woman attending a francophone literary conference. Other networks are even broader, such as the Arab, Islamic or Turkish worlds. Despite differences in language and culture, a Palestinian Arab identifies with an Arab from the Gulf or the Maghrib as a kinsman. Our bed and breakfast hosts in Uzbekistan vacationed in Langkawi, and we met many Iranians who were going to study abroad in Malaysia. The route network of Turkish Airways shows that Turkey is laying a sort of claim and influence on all of Central Asia (even non-Turkic Tajik Dushanbe has several Turkish restaurants and grocery stores), and we saw imports of Turkish food products in Xinjiang, China.

For a relatively small country (though admittedly one with one of the world’s largest economies), it can be somewhat surprising to see how widely distributed Koreans and Korean influence are. One rough gauge of the relative prominence of Korea and Koreans in a place is to see how people identify me, clearly an east Asian–their first guess indicates which of China, Japan or Korea has had the greatest impact on the area. For example, in Peru, where there is a significant local Chinese population, or in places where there is really very little interaction at all with east Asians, such as Ethiopia, people will assume that all east Asians are Chinese–not a bad guess, considering that China is almost ten times the size of Japan and over twenty times the size of Korea. In places that receive many Japanese tourists, such as Hawaii or Bali, people will assume that I am Japanese. In some places, Korea is the first guess; since Korea is much smaller than either China or Japan, this likely means that Korea has a relatively large footprint in the area, either because Korean tourists outnumber other east Asian tourists (as in, say, Boracay or Laos) or because of other ties between the place and Korea. One such place is Central Asia.

Perhaps the most important instance of Korea in Central Asia is the large number of ethnic Koreans (around 500,000) living in Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Koreans ended up in Central Asia by force, deported by Stalin from the Russian Far East (where they had been living not far from the Korean border) during World War II for fear that they would assist the Japanese. (While it is true that Korea was part of the Japanese Empire during the first half of the twentieth century, it seems unrealistic that Koreans would have been aiding their occupiers.) The Korean minority is quite visible in Uzbekistan. There are Korean restaurants in all the major cities and the Korean cold noodle dish naengmyeon is a common light meal in Tashkent, where it is called by the Russo-Korean name “kykcy,” meaning noodles.

Ethnic Korean woman selling “salads,” essentially Korean banchan, in a Samarkand market

I’ve spoken to several ethnic Koreans in Uzbekistan. While their lives have been somewhat complicated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union (during Soviet times the Koreans generally spoke Russian and associated with the Russian population rather than assimilating with the local Central Asian populations), it seems that they live quite comfortably, both culturally and materially, in Central Asia. I was told that they face no serious discrimination, and that they are accepted as part of the ethnic collage that is Central Asia. Since about 60 years have passed since the forced migration, most of the ethnic Koreans in Central Asia were born there (and even the elderly who were not born in Central Asia probably called the Russian Far East, and not Korea, home, prior to the move).

Korean woman, Tashkent

The second most visible instance of Korea in Central Asia are Korean products, which are everywhere in Central Asia. I suppose in some ways it is a natural market for Korea, being the next stop west on the Silk Road from China, and I also think that perhaps Korea is filling a vacuum left by the departure of noncompetitive Soviet products from the market. Korean electronics, automobiles, clothes, food products–all are in abundant supply.

Korean products for sale, from undergarments to electronics

Almost every car in Uzbekistan is an Uz-Daewoo, a joint venture of Daewoo Motors.

The ever-popular Choco-Pie, on sale in Tajikistan

An increasingly important category of Korean exports is cultural exports. Korea has become something of a pop culture capital of Asia, with Korean television shows in particular being shown all over the continent, from the Philippines to Vietnam to Mongolia to Uzbekistan. After identifying me as Korean, many Uzbeks would immediately reference the television show Jumong (which I have never seen). One tourist we met said that in Mongolia, the government requires special breaks during marathon Korean programming so that people would remember to feed their livestock!

Korean television shows and actors being used to sell merchandise. The Jumong t-shirts are extremely popular, worn by children all over Uzbekistan. As the American example has shown, cultural exports can be an extremely powerful way to market a country and its products–I’ve also seen Korean musicians pitching real estate developments in Vietnam.

The success of Korean football, especially since the 2002 World Cup, has also been greatly positive for Korea in terms of global recognition–people we meet on our travels often call out to me names of Korean football players (most of whom I’ve never heard of, not being a fan). Those red Korean fan t-shirts are making their way around the world–we’ve even seen them worn by negritos in a village near Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines!

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, are the Central Asians who have lived in Korea for work. With local wages high Korea has begun to import manpower. While the number of foreign workers in Korea is nowhere near the levels of some other countries, Korea seems to import them from particularly far and wide, with a large number of Uzbeks having worked in Korea. We’re not sure why this is, but perhaps there is some sort of proto-Altaic connection between Koreans and Central Asians (one Uzbek man told me several words that are similar in Korean and Uzbek), or perhaps ethnic Koreans in Central Asia started the trend of going to Korea for work. Another theory is that Korea issues visas to Uzbeks preferentially because they are seen as more “desirable” than, say, south Asians, or, because they are less able to blend in, less likely to try to overstay their visas than southeast Asians. I have been approached several times by Korean-speaking Uzbeks, not only in Uzbekistan but also in an Uzbek area of Kyrgyzstan. Given that few non-Koreans speak Korean, to hear an Uzbek out of the blue address you in Korean is quite a shocking experience. Since few Uzbeks speak English, Uzbekistan is perhaps the only country in the world where speaking Korean in addition to English can help you get around (especially because many former expatriate workers seem now to drive taxis). I was relieved to hear from those who had worked in Korea that their experience was positive, and a Korean traveler can expect to be the lucky recipient of much residual good will.

Our Sarmarkand taxi driver, who had worked in Korea for a couple of years and planned to return in hopes of establishing a trading company

The Stans: A Comparison

We’ve now visited, though some fairly briefly, four of the five “Stans,” the Central Asian republics that were once part of the Soviet Union, and I thought that it was worth doing a comparison, similar to my post of 5.7 on the states of the Persian Gulf.

Religion. All of the Stans are essentially entirely Islamic, but each having lived within the Soviet Union means that relatively few seem to take the religion and its proscriptions too seriously. Although we saw little pork being eaten (other than by resident Russians, Koreans and other “non-native” ethnic groups), alcohol flows freely, including especially vodka and beer. The most religiously conservative country is probably Uzbekistan, whose Fergana Valley is likely the most traditional region in the Stans, while as an ethnic group the Kyrgyz, often living in the wilderness, feel the least Islamicized. The only non-Sunni area, I believe, is the (Shiite) Ismaili Pamirs (post on Ismailis to come).

Crumbling infrastructure. The Stans were largely undeveloped in terms of modern infrastructure before the arrival of the Russians, and the departure of the Russians, who provided substantial financial support and investment in the region, has meant that the Stans have suffered greatly in maintenance of public works. Other than Turkmenistan and perhaps Kazakhstan, the Stans simply cannot afford to maintain themselves at the level of development and wealth that they enjoyed as part of the Soviet Union. This is most apparent in remote and rugged Tajikistan, which was the poorest republic of the Soviet Union. Because of the serious drop in living standards suffered at the time of independence, which was multiplied by a bloody civil war, many Tajiks, we were told, are nostalgic for the Soviet era. Western development assistance has played a role in supporting Tajikistan, but it has not been sufficient, as the electricity/fuel shortages of the previous winter showed. We found ourselves wondering whether the Tajik city of Murgab in the high Pamirs is even sustainable, now that it has lost its mission as a Russian military outpost–the setting is in so many ways inhospitable to human habitation, especially at such urban levels.

Police/Military presence. I found myself feeling sorry for Central Asians because of the omnipresence of the police and military. There is nothing about the region in particular that would suggest heavy-handed, corrupt, autocratic regimes–I think all the machinery was just inherited from the Soviet Union. We personally witnessed bribes in all the Stans that we visited except Turkmenistan (not that Turkmenistan is so clean–we later heard of tourists who had been ripped off by Turkmen customs officials). Of the Stans, Tajikistan felt the most like a police state, with numerous police checkpoints and a security force still referred to as the KGB. On the other hand, Tajik officials generally seemed quite polite and friendly, whereas the Uzbek government is infamous for human rights violations and corruption. Turkmenistan has the worst reputation as a police state, but during our short stay it really didn’t seem that bad to us–people seemed like they were quite freely going about their lives, even if under a paternalistic government and an 11 p.m. curfew. Kyrgyzstan is arguably the most “free” of the Stans we visited (hotels didn’t even ask for passports and registration of foreigners has been abolished), but this didn’t mean that the officials were any friendlier or less corrupt.

Food. The cuisine is essentially the same across the region, with the same dishes, both native and imported, found in each country. We did think that food in Kyrgyzstan was marginally better than in the other Stans that we visited. See post of 7.5.

Language. All of the major Central Asian ethnic groups are Turkic and speak Turkic languages, with the exception of Tajikistan, which speaks an Iranian language. Although Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek and Kyrgyz are distinct languages, it seemed to us that very many Central Asians professed to speak more than one–and so I believe that the languages are probably more similar to each other than, say, the Romance languages of Spanish, French and Italian. While Tajik is very similar to Farsi and not at all related to Turkic languages at a linguistic level, I thought that the inflection with which Tajiks speak sounded surprisingly Turkic–but this could have been in my mind. [Speaking of connections between Turkic and non-Turkic languages, it recently occurred to me that questions end with a “mi” in Turkish and a “ma” in Chinese, and that “water” is “su” in Turkish and “sui” in Chinese–if this is not a coincidence and there is a reason for this, please let me know!]

Wealth. I do not know how things were within the Soviet Union, but the Stans are diverging in terms of wealth. We did not visit Kazakhstan, but we were told by numerous travelers that things are seriously expensive there. It is unclear how wisely the gas revenues of Turkmenistan have been spent, but the extraordinarily cheap fares for the squeaky new sleeper train in Turkmenistan showed that the Turkmen are clearly benefiting in at least some ways from their country’s newfound money. Tajikistan was the poorest republic of the Soviet Union and remains poor–it is hard to see how the country could catch up given its serious disadvantages in location and terrain. Traveling from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan, or from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan, it is startlingly apparent how relatively modern and developed Tajikistan’s neighbors are. As one Kyrgyz woman living in the Tajik Pamirs put it, “life is hard” in Tajikistan, with scarce electricity and such basic pleasures as fruit.

Level of Russification. Ethnically, the Russians are most present in Kazakhstan, where they make up about a quarter of the population, and, while we have been to neither Kazkhstan nor Russia, it is likely Kazkhstan that is the most Russified in other respects as well. Among the Stans that we visited, however, Kyrgyzstan felt the most Russian, with the most Russian language in use, alcohol consumption at its highest, surly (or lack of) customer service and a general lack of apparent happiness in the urban population. Uzbekistan feels the least Russian, there having been something of a conscious campaign to make the country more Uzbek, including by abolishing the Cyrillic script that was used for the Uzbek language in Soviet times in favor of the Latin alphabet.