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Experts from Central Asia, S. Korea talk rare minerals

June 25, 2024 - 11:46 By Sanjay Kumar
Attendees pose for a group photo at 2024 Korea-Central Asia Next-Generation dialogue at Westin Josun Seoul in Jung-gu, Seoul on Monday. (Sanjay Kumar/ The Korea Herald)

Experts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and South Korea discussed the region's mineral resources at the 2024 Korea-Central Asia Next-Generation Dialogue on Monday.

The "Korea-Central Asia Next-Generation Dialogue" is part of an annual initiative under the Korea Foundation launched in 2017 to enhance cooperation by inviting emerging leaders from Central Asia to Korea.

This year, the dialogue focused on global supply chain cooperation, with "core minerals" aligning with President Yoon Seok-yeol's agenda during his recent visit to Central Asia.

Opening the forum, Lee Jong-kook, the executive director of the secretariat of the Republic of Korea-Central Asia Cooperation Forum, highlighted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's recent visit to three Central Asian countries and his plans to strengthen regional cooperation.

The Korean government plans to enhance cooperation in key mineral supply chains with Central Asian countries through the "K-Silk Road" initiative to bolster supply chain cooperation with resource-rich Central Asia and is the Yoon administration's third regional strategy, following the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative.

South Korea's new diplomatic strategy seeks to connect Asia and Europe by deepening ties with Central Asia. “Central Asian countries are rich in oil and gas, as well as key minerals such as uranium, nickel, chromium, and lithium," said Kim, underscoring the need for raw materials to support industries such as automobile manufacturing, battery production, housing, and semiconductors in the region.

Cho Seong-jun from the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM) highlighted the challenges in the battery mineral market, describing it as policy-driven rather than demand-driven.

Cho emphasized that battery minerals face significant supply chain deficiencies, especially with a heavy reliance on China in the midstream sector. Meeting the increasing demand for these minerals requires substantial expansion in both upstream and midstream capacities. To effectively tackle these challenges, Cho underscored the critical need for precise analysis and strategic investments.

He also suggested making preparations for policy changes resulting from the upcoming US elections.

Speaking with The Korea Herald on the sidelines of the forum, Kazakhstan's Deputy Chairman of the Industry Committee, Turar Zholmagambetov, discussed Kazakhstan's ambition to become a midstream country in battery materials and plans to establish five plants producing lithium cathode, nickel, and cobalt within the next four to five years.

“KIGAM is currently exploring lithium in Kazakhstan. After this, we plan to produce pyroxene in spodumene and eventually lithium cathode,” Zholmagambetov told The Korea Herald.

Spodumene is a lithium aluminum silicate mineral crucial as a commercial source of lithium.

“Currently, we produce high-purity manganese cathode, holding a 5 percent share of the global market. Next year, we aim to increase this share to 11 or 12 percent with two highly anticipated projects,” Zholmagambetov added.

The forum is seen as a step forward in South Korea's strategy to build stronger supply chain partnerships with Central Asia to connect Asia and Europe through enhanced cooperation in the key mineral sector.