[Friends for decades] Uzbekistan’s ambassador recalls milestones of 30 year relationship with Korea
Not many ambassadors can say they had the privilege of serving a country through seven presidencies.
Vitaly Fen, the Uzbek ambassador to Korea, is one of a very few. He opened the embassy in Seoul as its chargé d’affaires in 1995 and was soon leading it as its ambassador.
Having witnessed the presidencies of Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye through 2013, Fen already had a lot of stories he could tell about Uzbek-Korean relations when he first thought about retiring from his career in diplomacy.
“During my initial ambassadorship, I directly participated in the arrangement of high-level meetings between the country’s leaders nine times,” Fen recently told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “The warm friendly relations between the leaders of our countries were the main factor in the regularity of such high-level meetings.”
Within four years Fen was called back to the job in Seoul, soon sitting between Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Moon Jae-in during the presidential summit in November that year.
More recently, Fen coordinated a visit by an Uzbek parliamentary delegation to Korea to attend President Yoon Suk-yeol’s inauguration ceremony.
“Representatives of the delegation of Uzbekistan were warmly received by the new leader of South Korea,” Fen said. “It is no exaggeration to say that the meeting, scheduled for 15 minutes in the protocol, lasted almost one hour, and the dialogue took place in an extremely sincere and upbeat spirit, which is evidence of the South Korean leader’s special attention to the relations with Uzbekistan.”
As Uzbekistan and Korea celebrate the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic ties this year, the Korea JoongAng Daily asked the envoy to recall some historical milestones, many of which he witnessed in person. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
Q. It wasn’t long after Uzbekistan became independent that it established relations with Korea. Can you give us more context on where the country was in 1992?
A. Cooperation with South Korea occupies a special place in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. Thirty-one years ago, that is, on Sept. 1, 1991, a new, independent country called the Republic of Uzbekistan appeared on the world map. On Dec. 30, 1991, the Republic of Korea was among the first countries of the Asia-Pacific region to recognize the independence of Uzbekistan. Diplomatic relations were established between our countries on Jan. 29, 1992.
After gaining independence and becoming an equal member of the world community, independent Uzbekistan in its foreign policy pursued close cooperation with all developed countries, including the Republic of Korea.
How would you sum up the two countries’ relations since then?
The Republic of Korea has supported the political and economic reforms implemented in our country since the first days of Uzbekistan’s independence and remains our reliable friend and the closest partner to this day.
During the 30 years since the establishment of our diplomatic relations, 18 high-level meetings have been held between the heads of states.
At each of these meetings, the parties reached important agreements on the development of political, trade-economic and cultural-humanitarian fields.
Until now, more than 200 interstate, intergovernmental and interdepartmental documents have been adopted between our countries. This important legal framework serves as a solid foundation for mutual cooperation.
You witnessed some milestone events in the 30 years of Uzbek-Korean ties, including the very first presidential summit of the two countries. What do you recall from that visit in 1992?
During the visit of the first President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov to Seoul in 1992, the first important document aimed at the development of mutual cooperation between the parties — the declaration “On the principles of interstate relations and cooperation between Uzbekistan and South Korea” was signed.
I came to South Korea as a member of the Uzbekistan delegation and I remember clearly, the most important result of this visit was the signing of an agreement with Daewoo Corporation on the construction of a car manufacturing plant in Asaka, Uzbekistan. Between 1992 and 1996, the design and construction of the joint enterprise “UzDEUavto” was carried out. In 1996, the enterprise began to manufacture cars, and Uzbekistan became one of the world’s car-producing countries.
Can you tell us some of the key differences of your experiences of leading the diplomatic mission of Uzbekistan in Korea in the 1990s, and since 2017?
It can be said that since 2017, a new page has opened in the relations between Uzbekistan and Korea as fundamental reforms have been launched in Uzbekistan under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The first state visit of the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev to South Korea took place in November 2017. During the talks held in Seoul, the parties agreed to consistently continue high-level dialogues, to further activate cooperation in the fields of economy, energy, finance, investment, and high technologies, to increase the volume of mutual trade, and to expand humanitarian relations.
In April 2019, the President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, came to our country on a state visit. At the end of the fruitful negotiations, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and President Moon Jae-in signed a Joint Declaration on a Special Strategic Partnership between the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Republic of Korea.
This year also marks the 85th anniversary of the Koryoin’s (ethnic Koreans from post-Soviet countries) settlements in Uzbekistan and other countries in the region. It is our understanding that your family members are also part of the Koryoin population. Can you tell us more about the Koryoin’s place in Uzbek-Korea relations and what the ties have meant for your personally?
In his recent meeting with the parliamentary delegation from Uzbekistan, President Yoon Suk-yeol emphasized that Uzbekistan occupies a special place in the foreign policy of the Republic of Korea. He noted that there are about 200,000 Korean diasporas living in Uzbekistan, calling them “a bridge connecting the relations between our countries.” Among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Uzbekistan has the largest Korean diaspora.
In difficult times, the kindness, tolerance and humanity of the Uzbek people encouraged and helped the forcibly resettled Koreans to find their rightful place in our multi-ethnic society.
Of course, I am also a representative of the Korean diaspora who is a citizen of Uzbekistan. I was born, grew up, studied and worked in Uzbekistan.
In 1937, the cruel year of the 20th century, 75 thousand people of Korean nationality, including my parents, were deported from the Far East to Uzbekistan. They without any doubt found their second homeland when they came to Uzbekistan — the land of kindness and hospitality.
I would like to draw attention to one interesting fact that there are around over 300 identical Korean surnames today, and those with this surname make up over 60 percent of Koreans. Considering this, it is difficult to say that there are direct family ties between Koreans with the same surname. However, it is the surname “Fen” that is very rare among Koreans, and therefore all who have it are related by blood.
I remember like it was yesterday, when I first came to the Republic of Korea as part of the Olympic team in 1988, I was very impressed when dozens of Koreans with the surname Fen from all over the country came to meet me and pay their respects to their distant relative from Uzbekistan.
What’s the latest on trade between Uzbekistan and Korea?
Korea has become our reliable friend and partner that has stood the test of time. This is evidenced by the fact that today Korea ranks fourth among Uzbekistan’s foreign trade partners.
Uzbekistan and Korea have made significant progress in concluding a Free Trade Agreement. Today, the parties are working on the draft agreement and are discussing the prospects of simplifying the tariff restrictions applied to certain goods. Of course, both countries are equally interested in the signing of this agreement, and in the future, the volume of mutual trade is expected to increase much more than at present.
Do you have any recommendations on places to visit in Uzbekistan?
Recently, the “Great Silk Road” international tourist center was opened in the city of Samarkand. It is a modern multi-purpose tourism complex spread over 260 hectares, which includes world-class hotels, extensive public spaces, multi-purpose wellness centers, dining and leisure facilities, as well as a large convention hall for events. In the city of Samarkand, a new international airport was put into operation, which can receive tourists from the whole world, including the Republic of Korea.
[The] historical cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Shahrisabz, are included on the Unesco cultural heritage list. In addition, [in] the southern part of the country — Surkhandarya — [one] can travel through mountain gorges or see the remains of ancient Buddhist cities near Termiz.
Timeline of Uzbekistan-Korea relations
7th century Earliest interactions
There are wall paintings in Samarkand, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities not only in Uzbekistan but throughout Central Asia, that point to a possible people-to-people exchange taking place between Korea and Uzbekistan. The painting depicts two figures who historians have estimated to be officials sent from the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BC to 668 AD), being accepted and welcomed by the ruler of Samarkand, likely in the middle of the 7th century.
1937 Koryoin settlements
Over 170,000 Koreans in the Soviet Union were forced to immigrate across Central Asia in 1937 during Joseph Stalin’s rule, many of whom ended up in Uzbekistan. Today, there are some 200,000 descendants of Koreans, also called Koryoin, in Uzbekistan, one of the largest found in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
1992 Establishment of ties
Uzbekistan and Korea established relations in January 1992, just a few months after Uzbekistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991. Korea was among the first countries to recognize the independence in December that year. The first high-level meeting between the two countries took place almost immediately when Uzbek President Islam Karimov visited Korea in the summer of 1992.
1996 Daewoo in Uzbekistan
Daewoo Corporation built a car manufacturing plant in Asaka, Uzbekistan, launching the joint enterprise “UzDEUavto” with Uzbekistan in 1996.
2006 Strategic partnership
On the occasion of the state visit by President Islam Karimov in March 2006, Uzbekistan and Korea officially named their relations a strategic partnership.
2011 Lee Myung-bak in Tashkent
President Lee Myung-bak visited Tashkent in August 2011, which was his second state visit to Uzbekistan during his presidency. The two leaders signed six agreements in the fields of labor and employment, energy and on the construction of a gas chemical plant in the Surgil Field. His visit was followed up by President Karimov in 2012 and 2015. President Park Geun-hye visited Tashkent in June 2014.
2019 Special strategic partnership
On the occasion of a state visit by President Moon Jae-in to Tashkent in April 2019, Uzbekistan and Korea elevated their relations to a special strategic partnership. Moon visited Tashkent as part of his trip to the Central Asian region and discussed Korea’s New Northern Policy with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who had visited two years before. Mirziyoyev met with Moon in Seoul in 2021.
2022 Anniversary of 30 years
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s diplomatic relations with Korea, this year was declared the “Year of Mutual Exchanges between Uzbekistan and the Republic of Korea” by the two governments.
On March 21 and 22, “Uzbekistan Culture Festival” was held at Keimyung University in Daegu. Sadiq Safoev, the first deputy chairman of the Senate of the Oliy Majlis, took part in the inauguration ceremony of the elected President of the Republic of Korea Yoon Suk-yeol in May.
From Aug. 2 to 6, a delegation led by the chairman of the Korea-Uzbekistan inter-parliamentary friendship association, Rep. Park Kwang-on, visited Uzbekistan. On August 23, the Institute of Strategic and Interregional Studies, in cooperation with the secretariat of the Korea-Central Asia Cooperation Forum, held an Uzbekistan-Korea Forum of Experts on the topic “Republic of Uzbekistan-Korea: Looking to the Future” in Tashkent.
On Sept. 7, the National Folklore Museum of Korea opened a special exhibition dedicated to the 30th anniversary called “Koreyslar, Koryo Saram.” The exhibition included photos of Viktor An, who worked as a photojournalist for many years, dedicated to the life of ethnic Koreans.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]