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Central Asia and South Korea Are More Connected Than You Might Think

In Gwanghui-dong, Seoul, a Russian-speaking church of Koryo-saram members occupies the floor upstairs from a restaurant serving Kyrgyz cuisine. Koryo-saram refers to ethnic Koreans distributed across Central Asia. Many can no longer speak Korean and very few have moved 'back' to Korea. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

In Gwanghui-dong, Seoul, a Russian-speaking church of Koryo-saram members occupies the floor upstairs from a restaurant serving Kyrgyz cuisine. Photo and caption from Wikipedia.

When people think of Central Asia, they tend to think of a sphere of Russian influence, or, more recently, Chinese economic domination. But there is also a place for South Korea in Central Asia, and, increasingly, for Central Asians in South Korea.

A better migrant life

There are over 4,000 Kyrgyz and 14,000 Uzbek citizens who work as labor migrants in South Korea according to the two governments. While many work in factories or in the fishing industry, there are also those that run small and medium enterprises providing restaurant services for their countrymen and Koreans, and still more that ensure deliveries of Korean textiles and cosmetics to the Central Asian republics.

Korean socks and tights are exported to Central Asian countries. Photo by Zukhra Iakupbaeva

Korean socks and tights are exported to Central Asian countries. Photo by Zukhra Iakupbaeva

In an old discussion thread on the Asiana forum, users discussed the salaries of Central Asian workers in South Korea. Typically, these salaries vary from $800 to $1,200, at least twice what the average Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik, Turkmen or Uzbek might earn in Russia, where the vast majority of the region's surplus labour heads.

Chala Manap a reader of the local Kyrgyz news service Knews surmises:

россия и корея – две разные картины. корея – 800 долларов и заводская профессия, россия – 300 долларов и профессия дворника. лучше бы все кыргызы ехали в корею ( хотя в идеале лучше бы зарабатывали дома), по крайней мерестали бы ценными кадрами, когда у нас запустят заводы. и главное, все это без всяких таможенных союзов и прочих одкб… да и никто не требует сдать экзамен по корейскому языку и истории кореи

Russia and Korea are two different cases. Korea offers 800 USD for work at a factory while Russia offers 300 USD for work as a street sweep. It is better if Kyrgyz go to Korea (although in an ideal world it would be better if they earned at home) as they will be valued there. Importantly, there is no Customs Union or CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization]. No one is required to pass a Korean language test or a History of Korea test [as is the case in Russia]. 

This commenter is misinformed, however. As this author learned, Kyrgyz migrants destined for South Korea do have to pass tests in specialized Korean language centers that are based in Bishkek and Osh, Kyrgyzstan's two biggest cities. The process is the same in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two countries where South Korean companies have strategic economic interests.

A spot of Central Asia in Seoul?

The advertisement of remittance in Uzbek language. Photo by Zukhra Iakupbaeva

An advertisement of remittance services in Uzbek. Photo by Zukhra Iakupbaeva

Dongdaemun is one of the main places in Seoul where Kyrgyz and Uzbeks work.

It is a ‘Central Asian village’ in the capital with a series of restaurants featuring regional cuisine, textile houses, cosmetics shops, legal offices and hair salons. Most of the shop signs are in Cyrillic. One can even find a branch  of a Korean bank advertising money transfer services in Uzbek.

Larisa, the owner of the Kyrgyz restaurant “Ala-Too” (Big mountain in Kyrgyz) shared the story of her restaurant opening in an interview with the author:

My Kyrgyz friends in Seoul asked me to open a restaurant catering to their national cuisine after the turn of the millennium. They were observing how restaurants with different kinds of cuisine were popping up all over Seoul, all except Kyrgyz ones. After negotiations with Kalygul Turdaliev, leader of the Kyrgyz community in South Korea, I decided to open two Kyrgyz restaurants.

The Koryo Saram – Koreans better at speaking Russian than Korean

Despite her Russian name, Larisa is ethnically Korean. Her parents were forcibly transferred from the edges of the Soviet empire to its giant interior by Josef Stalin in the early 1940s. Larisa's family were moved to Uzbekistan, and she grew up speaking Russian and surrounded by Soviet culture. Stalin, for his part, thought the Koreans on the eastern margins of the Union might cooperate with a potential Japanese invasion.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Larisa moved to South Korea “to learn Korean.” Having married a South Korean man, she founded a bakery shop. Her Kyrgyz friends subsequently succeeded in persuading her to move into the restaurant business.

Kyrgyz restaurant "Ala-Too" is from the right. Photo by Zukhra Iakupbaeva

A sign for the Kyrgyz restaurant “Ala-Too” in Seoul. Photo by Zukhra Iakupbaeva. 

For over 14 years she has been providing Kyrgyz national food for Kyrgyz people based in Seoul, also holding events for the Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic and the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Seoul.

Tied by trade

Besides Kyrgyz and Uzbek restaraunts, Dongdaemun hosts several textile shops. These outlets are starting points for the export of Korean socks and tights to some of the biggest bazaars in Central Asia. The conduits of this trade are typically ethnic Koreans from Central Asia and other Central Asian traders.

Korean cosmetics are also exported to Central Asia. Yulia, a shop assistant at a Korean cosmetics shop in Seoul — Uzbekistan-born, like Larisa — told the author:

It is easier to export cosmetics to Kyrgyzstan rather than to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The customs clearance for cosmetics to Kyrgyzstan costs $1.50 per kg whereas the same customs clearance in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan will cost $8-9 per kg. 

Back in Bishkek there are plenty of stores offering Korean cosmetics to consumers. But one user of the popular Diesel forum writes of her suspicions that local wholesalers are using ‘brand Korea’ to sell an inferior product at an inflated price:

Как то знакомая мне поведала, что её подруга кореянка (южная) рассказала что та корейская косметика у нас, в самой Корее продаётся как в подземке. То есть грубо говоря “ширпотрёб”. Ну а вообще зашла я как то в корейский магазинчик по Советской и начала расспрашивать продавщиц о биби креме. Вообщем показали они мне пару дохлых тюбиков за 1000 с чем то сом…девочка знакомая отправила с кореи, цены по сравнению с бишем: земля и небо. А еще все свежее, максимум 3-4 месяца назад произведено

A friend told me that her friend who is a Korean (South) said that that the Korean cosmetics sold here in Kyrgyzstan are sold in Korea's subways, and are, in other words, goods for mass-consumption. I went to the Korean store on Soviet street and started asking sellers about BB cream. They showed me a couple of old tubes of cream for over 1000 soms [~$20] … Later my girlfriend sent me some creams from Korea. The prices there are much cheaper. And everything is fresh, maximum 3-4 months since its manufacturing date.

South Korea's economic partnership with Uzbekistan alone is worth $8 billion in bilateral projects, encompassing gas processing, renewable energy and textiles. South Korea's Daewoo International Group, which has key textile factories in the country, has faced substantial criticism over its support for forced child labor in the republic's cotton fields.

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A cosmetics shop in Seoul warns potential shoppers to smile for the hidden security camera in Russian. Photo by Zukhra Iakupbaeva.

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