Nursultan Rakysh

Don’t Discount the Power of Educational Diplomacy

Kazakhstan, the largest and most economically developed Central Asian state, is working to strengthen ties with its East Asian counterparts. While much attention is often given to China, South Korea plays a significant role in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy priorities. In 2023, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared South Korea a “key partner in Asia.”

In early June, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol embarked on a week-long tour of the region, including Kazakhstan. Bilateral trade between the two nations reached $6.1 billion in 2022, and South Korea’s emphasis on Kazakhstan as a crucial Central Asian partner has spurred an increase in foreign aid to the country. While analysts typically focus on economic and diplomatic agreements, less conspicuous initiatives, such as educational diplomacy, deserve attention.

Seoul and Astana have fostered strong educational ties. Although the benefits of this form of cultural diplomacy may not be immediately apparent, the long-term impact on bilateral relations is significant.

A country’s ability to attract international students reflects not only its global popularity but also the quality of its higher education system. International students often build relationships with peers and mentors, enhance their linguistic skills, and gain deeper insights into the cultural norms of their host country. These experiences can have a multiplier effect, as students who return home with positive impressions of their host country often encourage others to study abroad. Moreover, they continue to engage with their host country throughout their professional lives, strengthening both personal and institutional connections.

South Korea has become a leading player in international educational exchanges, attracting students from Kazakhstan and beyond through various scholarship programs, including the Korean Government Scholarship Program (KGSP), the Overseas Koreans Foundation (OKF) Scholarship, and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) Scholarship Program. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is emerging as a popular study-abroad destination, thanks to government initiatives, drawing more students from Korea and other countries than any other nation in Central Asia.

Despite this growing trend, more Kazakh students study in South Korea than vice versa. In 2018, 681 Kazakh students were studying in South Korea, making it the ninth most popular destination for Kazakh students that year. According to 2022 data from the Korean Ministry of Education, this number increased to 862, and by 2024, it had reached 1,255. The rising popularity of South Korea among Kazakh students is evident.

Several factors contribute to South Korea’s appeal as a study-abroad destination. The financial support offered by South Korean scholarships is a primary draw. Kakim Danabaev, a Kazakh student, shared with RFE/RL that the prospect of free education, monthly stipend, and annual Korean language courses motivated his decision to study in South Korea.

“I went to South Korea to study. I chose this country because the South Korean government annually provides grants for undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral studies to international students. And I was lucky enough to become one of the owners of such a grant. Approximately 700 grants are issued annually, which entitle you not only to free study but also to a monthly stipend. In addition, this program provides one-year courses in the study of the Korean language,” said Kakim.

The widespread popularity of South Korean culture in Kazakhstan also plays a role. The state-sponsored “Hallyu,” or “Korean wave,” has led many young Kazakhs to develop an affinity for South Korean cultural products like K-pop, K-dramas, cuisine, and beauty trends, which in turn influences their choice to study there. The presence of a significant ethnic Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan further strengthens these cultural ties, with educational exchanges helping to deepen these connections.

Another factor driving the acceptance of international students, including those from Kazakhstan, is South Korea’s declining birth rate. As the number of students at local universities decreases each year, Korean institutions compensate by admitting more international students. The General Director of the Korean Association of Foreign Student Administrators highlighted this issue at a symposium in Seoul, noting the strategic importance of international students in maintaining university enrollment numbers.

Kazakhstani political and educational leaders have acknowledged South Korea’s appeal and are working to bolster educational links. During a visit to South Korea in April, Sayasat Nurbek, the Kazakhstani Minister of Science and Higher Education, emphasized the need for Korean expertise in education, research, and technology. Nurbek signed several agreements with his South Korean counterparts to expand collaborative opportunities, including sharing best practices in STEM and establishing joint language and area studies programs. Asel Bulekbaeva from Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education urged leading Korean institutions to actively organize internships for Kazakh scientists, with financial support from Astana.

Kazakh students who have studied in South Korea have shared how their experiences have influenced them. Ayauzhan, a Kazakh national, told how she fell in love with the Korean language and developed a deep respect for the Korean medical system, leading her to pursue a career in the medical field, including translating Korean medical terminology.

“I am in love with the Korean language. I don’t know and don’t remember when it started. In Korea, I have the opportunity to read all my favorite books in Korean. I think that’s what attracts me to Korea. And on the other hand, I have great respect for Korean medicine, which is why I worked at a medical center in Almaty. And in the future, I also want to continue working in the medical field, since I really like translating Korean medical terms,” said Ayauzhan.

Another Kazakh student, Askar Kali, expressed admiration for the career opportunities available to Kazakhstani graduates in South Korea. Companies like Google, LG, Samsung, and Audi hire graduates. Another Kazakh student highlighted the transformative impact of studying in South Korea, describing it as a place with ample opportunities for self-reflection, growth, and professional development.

“Students have the opportunity to decide on a specialty during the entire period of study at the university. Training is conducted in English. The university offers an excellent scholarship system. After graduation, there is an opportunity to work in large companies such as Google, LG, Samsung, and Audi,” said Askar.

When examining bilateral relations, there is a tendency to focus on diplomacy and foreign policy, often overlooking the importance of soft power. Educational diplomacy is a long-term strategy that fosters closer people-to-people connections. South Korean diplomat Cho Tae-ik emphasized the value of investing in education for future development, referring to it as “investing for the next 100 years.” By prioritizing educational ties, South Korea and Kazakhstan are wisely investing in the future of their bilateral relations.