A portrait of a Kazakh dissident

Herman Kim in his office in Almaty. Photo: Knut Erik Aagaard /steigan.no

Second day

Almaty 07.01.2021

Knut Erik Aagaard

By Knut Erik Aagaard.

Pål Steigan (the Editor) and the interpreter/photographer (me) are in Kazakhstan to try to make sense of this far-away country in the middle of Asia, about as far from any ocean as you can get. Kazakhstan is the biggest, but not the most populous, of the five Central Asian republics that more or less willingly left the Soviet Union as it decided to implode in 1991. We are not here as election observers – the only voter we ever saw vote, was actually the president of Kazakhstan voting twenty-five feet from my mobile phone camera. We are here as independent analysts paid for by the Republic to make our own objective analyses of the country at this crossroads in time. So are we objective? Who is objective? Nobody is objective, not even (or especially not) science. But we try to be honest. We stay at the best hotels, we have an official servant at each finger, they get us all we need or ask for, drive us wherever we want to go, so to question our objectivity is just being objective. In order to counter such misgivings, we have interviewed not only a host of officials, but also three dissidents, two that we dug up ourselves, and one who was helpfully supplied for us by the government.

Today we are interviewing one of our own dissidents, in Almaty, the former capital, just down from Medeo, where the photographer had the dubious pleasure of trying a 1959 pair of Russian speed skates, which may have been, but probably were not, Boris Zhilkov’s. Dubious pleasure, as the photographer hasn’t stood on a pair of skates since (approximately) 1959, and found his ankles are more shaky now than they used to be.

Our chosen dissident today is Professor Dr. German Nicolayevich Kim, director of The International Center for Korean Studies at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty. He works in a classical Soviet style university from the sixties or seventies, strictly functionalist but not very functional, nor beautiful. These universities look exactly the same in Vladivostok, Kaliningrad or in Tashkent, to mention just three USSR cities very far away from each other. In short, they look very dull.

Professor German Kim is originally a germanist and speaks fluent and elegant German. But as some know, anybody born Herman will in Russia automatically be called German. So to evade misunderstanding we have restored his European name Herman for the occasion. Herman speaks a lot of languages, European and Asian, as will become clear. We had decided to conduct this interview in Russian with me as interpreter, as I speak Russian tolerably well. One possibility was German, a language Pål knows well and I do not. And it seems Herman doubted my proficiency in Russian as much as I distrusted his pronunciation of English (both rightly), but the editor (Pål) decided for that language. That is why this interview appears in English in a Norwegian newspaper. We apologize, but it was simply too laborious to transcribe the interview twice. Happily, both Herman’s and my English show up substantially better on the printed page than they actually sounded.

This interview was enlightening to Pål and to the photographer. We learnt much more about a rather small part of a rather typical Post Soviet Central Asian republic, and we learnt a little more about the large world surrounding it. The discussion centered on two topics, Kazakhstan and Korea, so possibly the interview will have been clipped in two by the time you read it. We let Herman introduce himself:

HK: My main academic interest from early days, was the Korean community, the Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan. But at that time, the Soviet period, it was prohibited to study the history of the deported people, the «unreliable people». So my first dissertation was about the history of Soviet Koreans in Kazakhstan. Then I got an invitation from the South Korean government – at that time my Korean language was like zero – for they several times presented my papers at international conferences. They wanted to help me. You know, at this time, late eighties, it was impossible in this country – the old Soviet republic – to do this type of research.

So I spent 6 months learning the Korean language at the Seoul National University. After one year, they invited me back as a researcher. At that time my teacher, the famous scholar and professor Yi Kwanggyu (1932-2013), a germanist educated in Austria, at the Vienna University – he insisted that I study not only the Koreans in the Post-Soviet space, but worldwide. He said: You know several languages, so for you it will be easy. For I had also studied Latin for four years, I know Spanish, French, Russian, and a little Italian, but no Ancient Greek. You know, in the early seventies, in Europe and also in The Soviet Union, for classical world history studies, all students were still required to know Ancient Greek or Latin – so I was studying Latin. That was a good basis for easily learning the European languages. The Korean language was not a heritage language for me, my parents did not speak Korean to me, no school, no education, no nothing.

Photographer: But your family roots are Korean?

HK: Yes .. I am a Korean abroad, born in the Soviet Union, in Almaty, capital of the Kasakh Soviet republic. I am a fourth generation Korean abroad. That is, my great grand-parents moved in the early wave of Koran migration to the Russian Far East. My grandparents were born there, in the Far East, and also my parents were born there. They lived about eighty years, but were internally deported during the war. Because Korea had been a Japanese colony, the Koreans were seen as suspicious by the communists. I was born here in Kazakhstan, I belong to the first generation of Koreans here in Kazakhstan.

Photographer: So you have been studying, so to speak, your own people, as a first generation Korean immigrant to Kazakhstan due to deportation during the communist era ..

HK: Yes. That’s why I wanted to study the history of my people, the Korean diaspora, in Kazakhstan, but also in The Soviet Union, starting from the very early history, that is, the Korean migration to the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire. That is why I wrote a lot of books and articles about Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet Koreans. This is the first field of my activities.

Secondly, you know, I published this book: The History of Korean Immigration (to Kazakhstan) in three volumes, that covers the period from the late nineteenth century up to the year 2000. This book has been translated into Korean and published in Korea. That is my second great academic interest.

And third – because I am very much involved in diaspora life here in Kazakhstan – I have served 24 years as vice-president of The Korean Association in Kazakhstan. And this ethnic association is very strong compared to other ethnic organizations. There are in Kazakhstan over 40 ethnic associations, and our association is the strongest, well established, with a lot of activities. For: Also we have two Koreas. It is something very unique, that the diaspora has two kin-states, two fatherlands, North Korea and South Korea. So we (the association) are in between. And these two Koreas (in Kazakhstan), they are in conflict. We are in the middle and we have a mission. A very special mission: To be the mediator between two Koreas, since for us Korea is two motherlands. We have initiated a number of projects, many within the conceptualization of public policy as a soft power. We have done what the politicians could not do.

For example, we organized several contests of Taekwondo, two versions of Taekwondo, North Korean Taekwondo and South Korean Taekwondo. We invited competitors from both countries. We invited .. and we paid. We have invited singers and dancers, like the Pyongyang ensemble – 18 people. Fifteen actors and three from the North Korean KGB (laughs). But we paid for them, and the Grand Prix went to the North Korean female singer – ten thousand dollars. They were so happy!

Pål: Excuse me, Herman. At this point I would like to interrupt you for a moment. You see, since my visit to Korea I have followed the situation there, and among other things I made a very nice interview with a South Korean bishop, a protestant bishop, who was arrested because he called for Korean unification. He was in prison for fourteen years or so, and he never gave up this idea of unification. Now, in the Trump era, with his overtures to the North Korean leader, I also followed the talks between the two countries. And the Vladivostok meetings between Vladimir Putin and the South Korean Premier. They have a grand strategy of infrastructure, trade etcetera – I don’t need to tell you about all that .. (a reunited Korea will have an explosive economic potential combining Japan, China, Russia and South-East Asia in one transport and trade sphere) .. but I am quite exited about the perspectives that open  up, because a unified Korea will be one of the biggest economic powers in the world, as you well know.

HK: Yes. You know, for six years I have been writing essays for our diaspora newspaper, essays about unification, prospects and problems. I write in Russian, but the editor has my essays translated into Korean. Can you see what is written here? (showing the photographer the frontispiece of a book written by HK).

Photographer: «Объединение Кореи неизбежно». Which (of course) means «Korean unification is inevitable».

HK: I have written around two hundred essays concerning various topics connected with unification. For our people don’t know anything about North Korea, they mostly read Russian language bullshit. These people are not journalists, they are small people who explode small bombs every day to earn a lousy living by bombs. In the course of three whole months they were writing that the South and the North are actually at war. But I explained that there is no war, there will not be a war. And this I do to enlighten our Kazakh public. No war. War is over.

When I plan an essay, I read a lot, in many languages and I try to find the golden middle. And I never directly criticize the North Korean leader. Never. That’s why North Koreans also like it and publish my essays, even on the first pages of the party newspaper. But I write these essays for our half million Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan, to enlighten them. I tell them: Germany is reunited, Vietnam is reunited, China is reunited. Jemen is reunited. Why not Korea? A young person will say – I don’t know, it’s none of my business, I don’t care, it doesn’t interest me – And that is, you know – a shame. A shame of the diaspora, a shame of the people.

Photographer: We perfectly understand, and I understand that it must be difficult to keep up the memory of unity and belonging during four generations abroad. And that it is important to foster and strengthen these ideas of unity, even here in Almaty. It is important to the Korean minority and also interesting to politically minded people in the West, like Pål and me, since the «Korea Question» is of capital geopolitical significance. With my poor knowledge of the history of Korea before the war, and of the war after the war – I actually remember the day it ended in 1953 – I am beginning to wonder: Why did the Koreans start to migrate in the first place? Did it start with the Japanese colonization in the middle of the nineteenth century? Is that correct?

HK: That is one of the reasons. But initially the Koreans began to leave their country from the northernmost provinces, from Hamgyŏng-pukto, at that time very close to no man’s land – no Chinese, no Russians. Then there was a treaty made, and this territory was assigned to Russia. And you know – South Korea is for agriculture. But North Korea is full of mountains and minerals and water, and there are few chances for field agriculture, for rice, grain and so on. All the food was in the South. So when there was a bad harvest in the North, or bad weather or cataclysms, then many people died from hunger. Why? Because at that time there were no communications, no railways, no ships on the rivers, nothing. Transportation of food, grain, rice from the South to the North took two to three months – and so people died or migrated.

And you know, I also studied Japan. I have been to Japan a dozen times. And there I was told that during the colonial rule, twelve years after the annexation of Korea by Japan, the number of mortal cases from hunger was decreasing. Why? The reason was first, vaccination, second, transportation of food. And so, average life expectancy was growing during colonial rule! For 12 years!

When I wrote about this my South Korean professors – didn’t like it. But they had to admit that it was true. I told them to read properly what I had written. The Japanese didn’t do it because they liked the Korean people. They did it because they needed the manpower in the North, where also the minerals are located. It was a virtue by necessity. They built roads, bridges and so on. Why? Because they were preparing for a war against China.

Herman Kim. Foto: Knut Erik Aagaard / steigan.no

Photographer: I perceive that before The Great War Korea was a Japanese colony. When Japan lost the war, Korea was liberated from two sides, from the North and from the South. And what ought to have become one unitary post-colonial state actually became two administrative entities divided along the 38th meridian, where the Chinese and the American forces met each other.  After the armistice, free elections were promised for a free and united Korea, but the promise was never heeded (just as similar promises were never kept in Vietnam in 1954-56, sparking that American war). Consequently, the free Koreans from the North in 1950 attacked the Americans south of the border, in order to regain the other half of the country – a fair demand if you ask me – initiating the so-called «Korean War». In the first phase of the war the Koreans met with success, and drove the southern generals and their American patrons down to a small territory at the tip of the peninsula. So the Americans launched a great offensive, totally superior in troops and weaponry. The US aggression even had UN backing. It so happened that the Soviets for some obscure reason this year boycotted the Security Council and so the American aggression became part of International Law. In face of the massive US offensive China intervened, with some Soviet assistance, in favor of the Koreans.

The result was militarily a stalemate, a status quo ante along the 38th meridian, socially a catastrophe, economically a ruin, and politically a divided Korean people pawned to two new colonizers, the communists and the imperialists. The Chinese soon went home, leaving behind a strong patriotic, communist regime. The Americans did not go home – they are still there – but established the brutal puppet dictatorship of Syngman Rhee (the  exiled Korean president between 1919 and 1925), in 1961 replaced by the no less brutal General Park (Park Chung Hee) as a dictator after a military uprising, until he was murdered in 1979. Needless to say, these two dictators pursued policies aimed at furthering American interests in the West Pacific, a hegemony felt ever since, not least at the present time.

(At this point in the interview Pål cuts the photographer short, apparently sensing some muddled thinking from his side, and embarks upon a lecture about the Chinese, who doubtlessly did much good for Korea, and about Kim Il Sung, who was not at all as bad as he usually is portrayed in the West. Pål also reminds us that Chinese troops in Korea were volunteers, that the northern leader Kim Il Sung had his bases in China, and also that the Americans a few years ago had dropped two atomic bombs over Japan and were planning to use this weapon again, in the Korean war. Point taken and granted, the photographer resumes the thread he was in the process of spinning).

Photographer: Now, to resume my preparation for the question to you, Professor Kim, I would make the point that any Norwegian politician, or newspaper editor, or man-in-the-street, would tell you today that the Korean War was fought between the North Koreans and the South Koreans. I see it differently. It seems to me that the so-called Korean War was fought by the Korean people against American aggression. Am I on the right track? A side question: A friend of mine and a colleague of yours, professor Vladimir Tikhonov at the University of Oslo, told me he is inclined to believe that the present Korean urge for reunification is stronger in the North than in the South. Your comment?

HK: Let me start with Knut Erik’s (the photographer’s) remarks before I respond to those of Pål. I agree that the Korean War   .. or The Unknown War .. took place on Korean soil, but this war was fought between capitalism (or imperialism) and communism. There was no conflict between Koreans. Of course, Syngman Rhee, the leader of South Korea, and Kim Il-Sung, they both wanted to control the whole Korean peninsula. That is true. Both of them. It is true that both prepared for the war. That’s also true. But I am sure that this war would never have happened if Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung had said to Kim Il-Sung: No! Don’t touch South Korea!

You know, Mao Zedong and Kim Il-Sung visited Stalin two times, asking him: Please, permit us to attack South Korea. We are sure that we shall overcome the South. We shall win! The first time, Stalin asked: Are you sure that you shall win? But Mao Zedong was not completely sure, so Stalin said: Go! Come back when you are prepared! Then, the second time they came, Stalin said: OK. You may attack. But The Soviet Union will not take part in the war. We shall assist you with infrastructure and arms. That’s why the Chinese volunteers, under Peng Dehuai (general and defense minister of China), they should keep their word. They were the ones involved in the war, not the Chinese army.

And you know, this was during the long epoch of The Cold War. I guess that South Korea was the focus or epicenter of The Cold War.  For several reasons. And the Kim Il Sung regime was unique. Not like Erich Honecker’s regime in Berlin. Honecker was a good guy compared to Kim Il Sung. The conflict between the two Germanies was an artificial conflict maintained by the Soviet Union and the US. As soon as the socialist camp collapsed in 1989, there was no German opposition to reunification.  Korea is a totally different case. German reunification was much easier than Korean reunification is likely to be.

This means: I never talk of the reunification of Korea in ten, fifteen or even 25 years. It is not possible, because reunification through war is not the model. No country outside can influence or impact to reunify this country. It is not comparable to Germany and Gorbachev. It will take quite a long time for North Korea to develop and change. But in the end the difference (of the economies) will be small .. and only then will the relation be normalized, so that people can travel and visit each other. But for that to happen, the gap between the economies must be reduced. I think, like you, Pål, that a united Korea will be a very strong country. I agree. But it will take .. maybe a hundred years.

But what is a hundred years? A hundred years in the history of Korea is nothing. Korea has been one country for 3000 years (laughs). A hundred years is nothing. This is what I mean when I write that reunification is inevitable.

But this idea of Kim Il Sung of a confederative reunified Korea at once .. First, the South Koreans said no, no, no, find a better idea! But now they say: It’s a good idea! Let’s think about it! Like: «Two states, one country», with normalized relations. When North Korea becomes an economic success, becomes like, or similar to South Korea .. it can happen. The Chinese leaders insisted that Kim, the young new leader, follow the Chinese model, but he did not want that. He was afraid of losing control. «First economy and then ideology» (laughs). But now .. in his last speech .. when all directives and all 5-year plans have collapsed .. now I note: He is going to change.

The word that the North Koreans most dislike is the word reform. I used the word once, several years ago in North Korea. They said no, no, no! We don’t use that word. Changes, changes, not reform (laughs). When they hear the word reform they think of something bad. I suspect that in the near future, we will see big changes in North Korea.

Photographer: I find it funny that change and reform – two identical words – are verydifferent.

HK: Yes! That’s funny! Change is a euphemism for reform or vice versa (laughs heartily). In the future, in the far future – reunification will be and should happen. In the far future, not in the near future.

Let us imagine that North Korea collapses. What will happen then? This will be a big headache for China, because of refugees, an influx of people flowing over the border. North Korea can collapse. The South Korean economy is not strong enough to absorb the North Koreans. The West German economy was much stronger, and better able to absorb the East German population. 62 million Germans in the west and 18 million Germans in GDR, in the east, and the territory of the west was only twice the size. The East Germans were well educated, qualified people, all had flats, housing and cars and so on. No luxury, but quite OK.

Pål: I have the idea that Korea might have a bearing on a country like Kazakhstan. First, of course, because there are many Koreans here, but also because of the ingenuity and creativity of the Korean people as I have seen them in South Korea. They really created – like the Germans did, and even in a better way, an industrial miracle .. formally as a capitalist system but in reality under a sort of planned capitalism, with chaebol (conglomerate, state/private joint ventures) playing a very crucial role in a state plan (HK: Yes). So we see some similarities to the situation that Kazakhstan is facing. Your immediate roots are in the communist past, you do have a sort of capitalism, but you haven’t yet solved this seeming contradiction between plan and market. It might be that Koreans are better positioned to solve this riddle for Kazakhstan than the Chinese are. For they have a different experience. What do you think?

HK: Yes. You are looking in the direct direction, Pål! South Korea still has very good prospects for a strategic relation and partnership with Kazakhstan. Formally, the agreement of this strategic partnership was signed in 2009. But this partnership exists only on paper! For there are no activities to underpin this strategic partnership. I was working for  the Kazakh Institute for Strategic Studies under the president of Kazakhstan when I came home from abroad in 2006. I received an invitation from the Think Tank of Kazakhstan to cover the relations of Kazakhstan with north east countries, mostly with Korea. The Think Tank has been working for four years and has produced many reports (gets up, gets a book by HK). This book is for the government, for the ruling party, for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I wrote monthly, every month. And this is my book in two volumes ..

Photographer: A good book cannot be too long. A bad book cannot be too short ..

HK: (laughs) The first volume is a monograph. The second volume is a collection of my reports.

Since the early nineties they invested a 100 million dollars. For the newly established republic this was big money, a hundred million dollars. But this investment came from South Korea. And then, there was this financial crisis in Asia. Many South Korean companies left Kazakhstan, in the nineties, in 1997-1998. But then they came back, I mean the small and middle sized companies. And new people came. Although, strictly speaking, only a few actually came back, mostly they were new people.

But since then, from the middle of the first decade after 2000, Kazakhstan receives a flow of Chinese investments. South Korea has lost its position in big business, governmental business. State business. Oil. Precious, metals and so on.The biggest buyer and seller in Kasakhstan is the state.

South Koreans are now only to be found in small and medium-sized business. There are no big projects. This means that South Korea and Kazakhstan missed the chance to become strategic partners.

In my opinion, the focus of interest of the South Korean government and leadership has switched from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. During the last visit of president Moon Jae-in to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 2018, in Tashkent they concluded trade agreements and investments for eleven billion dollars. In Kazakhstan only for $900 million, not even one billion.

Why? Because (Uzbek) President Mirziyoyev had continued the policies of the first president, Islam Karimov, that Korea is Partner Number One! And they have an agreement of a special, a very special cooperation. They have given South Korean companies so many preferences. The relation is so close! So I am afraid the chance was missed for Kazakhstan.

Photographer: So the Kazakhs slept in class and let the Uzbeks take the advantage!

HK: Yes. There are several reasons for this. There is the immanent or local reason. Next, what has Uzbekistan actually been doing? The hospitality of the Uzbek people is so sophisticated that all South Koreans .. not only Koreans, but all foreigners who visit Uzbekistan .. they all become fans of Uzbekistan. And the culture of Uzbekistan is so different from the one in Kazakhstan, and the food. If you look at Almaty, you will see that here in Almaty there are more Uzbek haut cuisine restaurants and cafés than Kazakh! The natural beauty of Uzbekistan, and the fruits and vegetables, from the Fergana valley, they were famous in the whole Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan we import a lot of food, fruit and vegetables, from Uzbekistan. Which means: If South Korea decides to invest a bulk of money in Central Asia, then, from now on, it will be in Uzbekistan.

But there are also other reasons for the success of Uzbekistan. The population of Uzbekistan is bigger, it is the biggest in Central Asia. The Uzbeks learn the Korean language very quickly. It is much easíer to find a translator or interpreter from Korean in Tashkent, or in any Uzbek city or town, than here. Why? Because Uzbekistan and Korea long ago signed an agreement on migrant workers. Every year five thousand Uzbeks go to work in the plants and factories of South Korea for two or three years. In this period, they learn the Korean language very fast, very well! When they come back with revenues, or they send revenues to their relatives, they establish small businesses. They establish small businesses. Therefore, maybe one tenth of the Uzbek population is grateful to the Koreans, who gave them a chance to work, to establish businesses and learn the language.

Photographer: Was it Islam Karimov, the first president who died in 2010, who was so farsighted?

HK: Exactly, Knut Erik. And therefore, in Uzbekistan, the respect for the local Korean diaspora is very high among the Uzbeks. I would myself not like to give a characteristic of the Koreans, what is good in a Korean. But all, you know, not only Uzbek, but also other people, typically say that Koreans are reliable people, they are hard working people, they are clever and smart, they understand how to make money, they share the money: They make money and they share money! They are very successful, in all spheres they are successful, in politics, culture, economy and sports and so on.

Photographer: This is extremely interesting, Pål. Should we now try to direct the discussion a little toward Kazakhstan?

Pål: Yes. This was all very unexpected for me. I did not know this. Since you say that Kazakhstan missed this chance, how do you view the possibilities and prospects for Kazakhstan in the present difficult international situation? If you were to be asked by the president of Kazakhstan, what would be your advice?

HK: You know, we are again in a transition. It is a quite curious situation, since we have two leaders in the country now. One is in the Library and one is in the Presidential Palace [meaning the first president Nazarbayev and the president elect Tokayev]. For the first, the former, president has his residence in «The Library». And people say: This is a decision of the Library, or: This is a decision of the Palace. «The Library» is the First President, you know, it’s a euphemism ..

Photographer: It reminds me of Jorge Luís Borges ..

HK: Yes (laughs). And you know, sometimes the intentions and the opinions of the Library and the Palace are different. And The Palace «should» look to the Library when deciding what to do, what to say. But the image of the second president now, among the people  .. is very good. This is the impression. The people just hope that he will be strong enough.

We have to change a lot. In my opinion, and I can be wrong, in my opinion we have to make changes in the international relations, in the economy ..

Photographer: These are very enticing words. We are here to try to try to understand the future of Kazakhstan, situated in the center of a triangle, consisting of a powerful China, a technological and enormous Russia, an industrial powerful and populous India, in addition to your own traditional neighbors Iran, Turkey, and the other Central Asian republics. I suspect all of these countries would like to be a friend to Kazakhstan because of its strategic position, its natural wealth and its energy. And I suspect Kazakhstan will try to harvest the benefit of such an ideal situation, a sort of win-win situation.

Could the ideal position of Kazakhstan turn into a sleeping pillow for an aspiring power with a potentially enormous revenue? Should you spend the money or let the money work? I feel it must be very important for Kazakhstan to translate this promising position into a strengthening of the country’s own productive power, and strengthening the home market of Kazakhstan, increasing the purchasing power of the Kazakhs, to paraphrase a line of thought from Lenin’s not very revolutionary1899 book «The Development of Capitalism in Russia». In order not to fall asleep on the golden pillow, in order not to live by revenue alone?

HK: Yes, Knut Erik, you are totally right! The importance of natural resources, oil, metal and gas, is already in the past, or almost in the past. Every year we have some new technology, and the value of these natural resources is decreasing. Our older generation in the leadership, and also in the elites, the middle level elites, like governors and so on, think that we are here forever. By just sitting here, we have the grain, the oil. If you need money you simply sell more. For many years we have had a proficit budget – can you imagine! – not a deficit budget.

A lot of money was coming in – often we didn’t need all the foreign investments, we had our own money! And we also lost our own money! So much lost money! For example the Pension Foundation! We lost a lot of money because it was invested in bad projects. And one of the biggest problems ensuing from this situation is corruption! Now all people are talking about corruption. The state, they say, is totally corrupt. This is one of the biggest problems.

First of all, what should be changed is the economy. The economy is the most important. For ordinary people some questions are not so important. Do we have more freedom, more democracy or less? Some people say: We shall have another president, not a governor, but a Sultan, an emperor. For if we live, have enough to eat, a good job, a high salary, a house and everything: Let him rule! It doesn’t matter!

Economy is first and the second is democracy. I am not an economist. But you are right, Knut Erik, that we have to establish our own production of goods and commodities. Like China did. All the «brand» companies established production in China. Because the self-cost was very low. We can do the same in Kazakhstan. For we are also in a very profitable geo-political and geo-economical situation. We are situated between two big countries, and the relation with these two countries is good, we have no problems with them, no problems with Russia, no problems with China. Just now there is a somewhat tense moment, because some stupid Russian politician just declared that the northern territory of Kazakhstan belongs to Russia. With China there is absolutely no problem. The whole extent of the border is delineated, fixed, not one problem. In Russian Siberia there is a large population. That is a market, a consumer’s market. And there is no agriculture there. We have to produce agricultural goods, process them ourselves, and sell them to Russia – everything to Russia and to China, also an enormous market.

What was done wrong in our economy? South Korea, for example, gave all preferences to chaebols conglomerates of joint ventures). Second: They made a plan: How to develop the economy step by step. First light industry. And the light industry was quickly established, with cheap labor, manufacturing, and marketing the produce. Then, «dirty industry» – chemistry, fertilizers and so on. Then heavy industry, after that electricity, and last electronic industry.  And thus they made it, step by step. And made money make money! They made money also abroad, by selling people, in the Gulf War, for instance – the even made money during the Vietnam war, selling South Korean military hospitals.

Why should we establish our own car production? Why? We are not competitors in that field. There are so many car plants, in Russia and China (even in Uzbekistan – the biggest: Daewoo). But we spent much money establishing very small companies, to produce screw-drivers for these cars. Dozens and dozens. We still don’t have our own auto industry. We don’t need our own auto industry. We just import the cars. That is: we should develop those branches of industry that are the best for Kazakhstan. And we should further develop agriculture. There is our best chance, the consumer market in China and Russia taken into consideration. We can do it, we can do it!

Photographer: The things you are telling us, would you be able to say the same things in the public space?

HK: Yes, of course!

Photographer: But remember, we don’t know Kazakhstan. You have been talking of corruption, of muddled, old-fashioned thinking in the elites, hopeless state investments, ruining of the pension foundation and so on, actually explaining how one should not sleep on a pillow carelessly inflated with revenue. Not only muddled thinking, but also bad morals, to put it bluntly. In some countries you could go to jail for such use of free speech. To me this indicates that the second president is far-sighted, maybe also the first president – both the Palace and the Library?

HK: Yes, that is correct.

Pål: Yesterday I had a conversation with a couple of representatives from the Administration of Almaty. They were in their early thirties, and they told me that this country has a lot of good scientists, but that they have not been able to create products based on this science. Is this correct? Do you agree?

HK: Yes, I agree. Twenty years ago, when I was in South Korea, where I have been many, many times, over two hundred times, where I have spent altogether maybe seven or eight years years .. Twenty years ago I saw these young Korean guys, six or seven of them at a time, hundreds of such groups, they established ventures companies. They had the idea of producing something very practical. For example, a stick to retrieve your parking-lot ticket while leaving the parking lot sitting in the car. Like a scissors or something. It is often so difficult to take it with your hand from the driver’s seat, this card from the machine .. (laughs). They made it and they made money.

Or, another example: Much equipment for sports activities. So they produced a sample, which they sold to the big companies, who commercialized the product, made money from it and left the young men with a profit from the idea. These young men were creative and found careers for themselves by themselves. Our thinking in Kazakhstan was very different. This is a legacy of Soviet communism: We had lost the habit of creative thinking.But now is the time for creative thinking. We need a creative economy.

Do you know what is bad in socialist compared to a capitalist society? In socialist countries, science is well organized. The science is well founded. Well founded for fundamental science and for applied science. But then, from idea to experiment there is a very long way. From experiment to production and market there is an even longer way. But in the West, if you have an idea, everything goes very fast. The first step is idea, the next step is production and marketing.

Our best university is located in the capital Nur-Sultan, The Nazarbayev University. You have not visited this university?

Photographer: We haven’t been in the capital yet. Is it good? Is it worth visiting for us?

HK: I was there two years after it was built. Somebody asked me how it was, and I answered: No comment! Then several years later, I was invited to give a public lecture at the Institute for Sociology at The Nazarbayev University. And that was really something. I was surprised. From the architecture of the campus, the establishment, equipment, staff of professorship, credit system, and very good students, all English-speaking.

Photographer: So what looked like a bad idea turned out to be a good thing?

HK: Yes (with a smile). And a lot of money is invested in this university. Now the number of students is seven thousand, when I was there the first time, there were only four hundred.

Pål: What you are saying, is that there is a change going on.

HK: Yes. Some things are changing in Kasakhstan so fast and gets so well established. For example the bank system and the «home-bank system» in Kazakhstan. Incredible. And this internet shopping – it is incredible! Last year I was in Kyoto University for six months. And still, for Japan, it is not easy to access the internet, or to get a mobile for foreigner (laughs). In many way ways, Japan is so old-fashioned! Yes, many things are changing in Kazakhstan.

Pål:  It’s strange with the Japanese. I had a Toshiba portable computer when I went to Japan, but the Japanese didn’t have one. They had created the computer, but their own system was so backward.

HK: One example of this: You know, to struggle against the total corruption of the small man who is given a piece of paper to sign, some very small thing in a bureaucracy. He will have a very small salary. He says: This will take a long time. But you can get it faster, it will just cost you a small sum. His secretary will do it, there is a long line, and he is making money while at the same time simplifying his work. So the government established a program of electronic procedures in such matters. That is a good idea, the E-Government Portal. So everything you have to pay, taxes, parking tickets, electricity, rent, heating and so on, is done more effectively and in a less corrupt way. people can do more useful work. This is anti-corruption struggle.

Pål: Have you any idea about a field, a technology or a line of  production in which Kazakhstan could be one of the best countries in the world? Are we talking about electronics, robotics, such things, or ..

HK: I don’t think we can be good competitors to the developed world in these sectors, because we are .. behind. These countries are moving, they are developing. So we will always be behind. We can’t be number one in any branch of economy. I think that for Kazakhstan it is crucially important to develop agriculture. Everybody needs food. Food will be a global problem. And organic food is crucial.

Having such a big territory, and clean air on the steppe, clean water and so on, the South Korean technology of «smart green-house», will be a useful direction for us. And we have cheap man-power, cheap energy and also alternative energy. Not only to produce food, but also process it in stead of selling off the raw produce. And we must learn to process meat also. The Uzbeks are good at it. We have nothing of that in Kazakhstan, mostly milk products and just a few varieties of processed meat. But there are so many other agricultural products that we might process. For instance hard cheese. We have no kinds of hard cheese in Kazakhstan. Everything is imported. But this is just a question of technology!

Photographer: You know, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and the EU met with Russian counter-measures against import of food from these countries. This became an impulse for Russia to enhance its own food processing techniques and technologies. The country has become much less dependent on food import. The Russians now feed themselves, they import less, produce and process more and more varied, and make more money. So what was meant as a punishment, turned out to be a bonus for Russia and instead, like a boomerang, hit the countries responsible for the sanctions. The sanctions have been a good thing for Russia and a bad thing for Europe!

HK: The problem is: When we want to establish some production, let’s say something big, like a nuclear power plant – billions of dollars involved – or, a small production line for hard cheese – then we have a conflict of interests. Russia wants us to have their nuclear plants. The South Korean plants use light water and are much safer. South Korea spent a lot of money, sent us dozens of delegations, had negotiations, and we thought, maybe a South Korean plant would be a good thing. Then the Russians gave us a good price. But some high official said: No! Russians are bad, Russians are dangerous. And then, local people started saying, stop, why do we need nuclear power anyway? A power plant is dangerous for the population and so on. And to this day we have no nuclear power station. Conflicts of interest can stop initiatives.

With cheese it is the same thing. We want to have this production line .. it was a Turkish company. The Russians said: We will do it. And the Dutch made a bid. But then the local, municipal authorities made trouble, each looking to his own interest, so: It takes time! In the Soviet period, a good thing was that the head of the establishments kept their positions for many years. If he was good, he stayed in the job for maybe twenty, twenty-five years. The result was that that this man knew everything that was to know about the production, about his University, his Plant, his Ministry. Now everything is changing. In these thirty years of Kazakh independence, we changed the Minister of Education seventeen times  ..

Pål: A last question: How is the power structure in this society, Is there only one power group, or are there other power groups involved in a sort of power triangle? Do you understand what I mean?

HK: Yes .. It is quite tricky. It is tricky because we still carry the legacy of former times.

First: The relationship among the Kasakh people, or nation as we say: In pre-revolutionary times we were divided in three groups, tribes or Zhúz .And then this Zhúz  was inherited by different tribes. All Kazakhs still remember the old tribe. You know, some fifty years ago, there was not even an ethnonym Kazakh. There was no Kazakh!

Several years ago I was invited to a Pan-Turkic Congress in Istanbul with four hundred delegates from all over the world. I met Kazakhs from Germany, from Mongolia, from Iran, from China, and so on, whose parents had emigrated around the time of the revolution. So I asked them: Are you Kazakh? And they said: No, I’m Argym. Are you Kazakh? No, I am Kipchak. They used the old tribe names, not Kazakh. In Soviet Kazakhstan the Soviet government unified all these tribes to one nation. That is very tricky.

Secondly: Kazakh moslems, Kazakh Islam. There is a small group of holy Kazakhs, who in the old times made Hadj to Mecca – they are holy. They are Hodja. They are very much respected – and very powerful.

So now, answering your question, Pål, what do we have? We have several financial-industrial complexes or groups, conglomerates or chaebola, as they are called in Korea. They are the FPGs .. Финансово-промышленные группы: The Finance-Industrial Complex. We have five, six, seven of them, lead by oligarchs. We have several oligarchs. We have also this Forbes’ list .. the fifty richest .. they are flocking creatures. And so you have this game going on between FPGs and politicians who want to be supported by the FPGs. This is the root of corruption at the high level, not the everyday level, but at the topmost level. All the FPGs should in principle support the president (i.e. the law), but in fact they do not. Some FPGs are critical, not openly, but critically minded toward the policies of the country.

And today, people are (mistakenly) talking only about two great powers in the country. The first is: The «Library» and the First President’s clan, you know, the richest are his daughters, his son-in-law, his nephews and so on and on. Actually, the tribe is quite small. The tribe is small, but the clan is very powerful. And rich, very rich. They also control the important spheres, the key spheres, the police, the army, the mass media and so on: Stop the recording! (laughs) .. Too much for the foreigners! No, please continue, it’s a joke, the video also keeps recording (laughs). The other great power is perceived to be the elected president, Mr. Tokayev.

But in actual fact, there are no conflicts or discrepancies between the Library and the Palace, between the First president and the Elected president. The actual negotiation of power and capital, and therefore also the direction of the country in the future, takes place between the government, or state, and the FPGs, in a very intricate game  .. a three-dimensional vector conglomerate game. We have, just as you correctly called it, Pål, a tricky political triangle for the negotiation of power. Still, the first president (Nursultan Nazarbayev) is retaining control. But the transition period has begun.

You know, there was a chance, as in Russia. Yeltsin left the power to Putin and resigned from ruling the country. Putin became a hundred percent leader in Russia. And some people may be hoping that Nazarbayev will step down from the leadership of this country. Some ten years ago, we experts were talking about «the post-Nazarbayev period». But now: Nazarbayev is not president anymore, and still there is no «post-Nazarbayev period» (smiles). Yeltsin threw in his towel in the nick of time. Nazarbayev has not done that, not yet, and we cannot say for certain what his plans are.

Pål: Are there other strong clans?

HK: Not really. We have the tribes, but that is more symbolical, a thing of the past, without present political weight. The tribes are organized culturally, ethnically, genetically, socially, as a reality, but not politically. The clan of the first president is organized politically and economically.

Photographer: You have the Library and the Palace, which are more or less the same ting, and you have the powerful, effective and rich FPGs. So it is not so much a political struggle between the Library and the Palace, not so much a struggle between clans and tribes, but in reality a tug-of-war between the state and the financial-industrial complex, the FPGs.

One question I would like to ask, concerning Yeltsin/Putin and Kazakhstan. Under Yeltsin, the government of Russia was actually lost to the whims of an in-fighting corrupt mafia oligarchy, pushing the state to the brink of catastrophe and the loss of statehood. Putin, once elected, reestablished rule of law and the sovereign state. He told the oligarchs bluntly: Well – you may have stolen your money, but keep it, provided you stay out of politics. And the oligarchs grudgingly had to stick to this new order of things, or else lose their money. For the first two or three years I was not not much impressed by Mr. Putin. But after I for the first time in 2004 listened to his yearly press conference, I realized that this is a wise man, a point of view I have retained since.

And as Putin’s presidency proceeded over the years – accomplishing great progress for a ruined Russia, I began to think: Why doesn’t he start a fight against corruption? I did not realize at the time, that endemic Russian corruption, at the everyday level and at the national and regional levels, was the oil in the state machinery, the bureaucracy and the economy. It was the very air they were breathing. To start his reforms with a fight against corruption, would have been to shoot himself in the foot, and condemn his own enlightened way to dusty death immediately. Which would have helped nobody. And there was almost no talk about corruption during Putin’s first five or six years.

But then it started, around 2007, and that is my question: Obviously, there is a public debate on corruption in Russia, obviously, the Russians have begun to investigate, prosecute and jail corrupt people high and low, in their thousands, every year and increasing. Maybe not the right people every time – I suspect some innocent people are in jail – but the trend is overwhelming. Obviously, there is a war on corruption being waged in Russia. What are the perspectives of a war on corruption in Kazakhstan?

HK: You are right, Knut Erik. Putin, as well as the first president of Kazakhstan, they can be very effective in the struggle against corruption. Because they and their close people, the relatives, are involved in it. Already now, every day, very high, in Kazakhstan, top officials in the government, in the army, in the economy, in the cultural space and everywhere, corrupt people are being imprisoned. People like governors, vice-ministers, three star army generals and so on. Every day, every day several people, some times groups of people are arrested and imprisoned. This is a sign of a real struggle. The war on corruption has begun in Kazakhstan.

We just hope, the people is hoping, that the acting president (Tokayev and his close people), is not corrupt. Why? Because he spent so many years abroad as a diplomat. His possibilities to even become corrupt were very small. That’s also why his economic power was very small, and even politically he was not very widely known in the country. Tokayev has a very good image, or status abroad, but less in Kazakhstan. In fact, that Tokayev became the president was quite unexpected (as was also the case in Russia with Mr. Putin). I just hope that president Tokayev will continue the struggle against corruption.

You know, in oriental countries, Asian countries, in fact in all countries, there is corruption. Can you imagine a European country fifty years ago with no corruption? But these are countries with limited corruption, regulated corruption. On the other hand, unregulated corruption, total corruption, this is a problem. I guess that with time the corruption in Kazakhstan will be more or less regulated. The president of The United States may receive a gift worth forty dollars. If more, he must declare! (giggles).

Photographer: You have a hope for that, a hope for victory against corruption in Kazakhstan? Are you optimistic?

HK: I hope, I hope. I hope that president Tokayev will overcome corruption. I am more optimistic than pessimistic. The Kazakh people still retains its traditional respect for the elder. In two or three years, the power will be fully in his hands. He will by then have enough supporters in all spheres of Kazakh government, parliament, and society.

Photographer: So the older he gets, the more he will be respected!

HK: Yes. Only, we still don’t know: Will he run for a second term? That is one important question. My personal view is that the constitution should be changed to permit only one term for a president.

Photographer: Sad to have to lose a good president, sometimes, for a clause in a constitution ..

Pål: Well, thank you very much, professor Kim. I am very satisfied with this interview. You have given us so much more than we had expected – excuse our lower expectation.

Photographer: And the pictures are great! 

Forrige artikkelArbeidsløysa etter lockdown vil krevja fleire liv enn Covid 19
Neste artikkelTusenvis demonstrerte for Navalnyj i mange russiske byer
Knut Erik Aagaard
Knut Erik Aagaard, f. 1947, cand. psychol. 1974, spesialist i klinisk nevropsykologi NPF 1999, dr. philos. 2011. Avhandling UiO: "Den språklige faktor". Pensjonert etter 40 år i stat og kommune. Innehaver av Spellemannsprisen 1985 med gruppen Kalenda Maya. Flittig bidragsyter i samfunnsdebatten for Arbeiderbladet og Dagbladet fra tidlig nittitall. Språkmektig. Bidrar hos steigan.no særlig med rapporter om russisk samfunnsdebatt. Website: keanoter.no