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

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