[TODAY]A big world, full of opportunityIn Almaty, Kazakhstan, there is an elite university called the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research, or KIMEP. where all of the courses are taught in English. Of its 170 professors, 98 percent have degrees from foreign universities; 53 of them are actually foreigners.
Tuition is expensive, but 60 percent of its 3,100 students are on scholarships. The finest high school graduates from Kazakhstan and its neighboring countries come to KIMEP, and almost every one of its graduates finds employment not long after graduation.
KIMEP’s president is Bahng Chan-young, a Korean economics scholar. Professor Bahng was a professor of economics at San Francisco University when the former Soviet Union collapsed; between 1991 and 1993, he played a leading role in Kazakhstan’s changeover to a market economy as the vice chairman of the economics specialist committee, which was headed by Kazahstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Mr. Bahng returned to Korea in 1994 to teach at Hanyang University. But he returned to Kazakhstan the following year, after losing his wife, son and daughter in the collapse of Sampoong Department Store in southern Seoul.
Mr. Bahng worked as an education policy advisor for the Kazakhstan president, and then, in 1998, undertook the transformation of a school that had formerly been used as an institute for training Kazakhstan’s Communist Party cadets.
With the aid of the European Union, the Soros Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Mr. Bahng slowly developed KIMEP into an elite university ―something that’s rarely seen in other parts of the world.
The overseas aid has since stopped; the university is financially independent now. In a country with a population of 15 million, KIMEP has been producing 600 excellent graduates per year since 2003. It is only a matter of time until graduates of KIMEP become the leaders of Kazakhstan.
Mr. Bahng has also demonstrated his management skills by succeeding in furniture manufacturing, construction and a bonded warehouse business. The high-ends residential housing units he built in Almaty are now home to the ambassadors from Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom and Turkey.
His bonded warehouses are said to be the best in Kazakhstan. He is pouring money he makes from such private businesses into KIMEP. The one flaw in this otherwise perfect situation is that a boiler company he established in collaboration with Korea’s Kyungdong Boiler is now involved in a legal dispute over management rights.
Mr. Bahng’s success story is the result of the courage and adventurism he demonstrated when he left behind a comfortable life in the United States to jump into an unknown world, at a time when Central Asia was in a state of confusion.
Had he not experienced the misfortune of losing his beloved family members, and had he led a less risky life in Korea or in the United States, Bahng Chan-young would not be the person he is today. And he would have missed the chance to establish a university whose standards are equal to those of Europe and the United States.
Looking at people like Mr. Bahng causes us to think about our own values and our ideas of success. We work hard to become a president, a general, a lawmaker, a manager of a large company, a judge, a prosecutor or a doctor in this small land.
It seems as though many young people are drifting, without any dreams for the future. Some of our young people should strive to become politicians and government ministers. But shouldn’t many young Koreans also leave this crowded country for bigger places like Eurasia, to make their dreams unfold?
Professor Lee Poong, an economics scholar who was a senior researcher at Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade and the director of the Modern Economic Society Research Institute, has successfully settled down in Kyrgyzstan. He manages a car maintenance plant, lectures at universities and leads a nongovernment organization.
Much the same goes for Kim In-tae in Uzbekistan. Professor Kim is living a very satisfing life as head of the Korean studies department at a foreign studies university in Samarkand, which is a famous city on the Silk Road. He teaches Uzbek students about Korea and the Korean language, and guides visiting Koreans on tours to see the remains of the Timur Empire.
Many young Koreans are also active in Central Asia. There are about 100 volunteers working in the area. Some work for the Korea Overseas International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), which teaches Korean language and computer skills to local students and coordinates horticultural and environmental projects in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Others are volunteers at nongovernment organizations who treat patients at Korean-Kazakhstan friendship hospitals.
Central Asia’s politics, societies and economies are in the midst of a whirlwind of change. As the cases of Bahng Chan-young, Lee Poong and Kim In-tae demonstrate, the countries in which these changes are happening offer Koreans with courage and dreams opportunities to advance onto a bigger stage. Central Asia and the Caucasus is less than seven hours from Seoul by plane, and, with its 400,000 ethnic Koreans, a land with a great deal of interest in our country. It is a big place, with a great many opportunities for us.
* The writer is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie