Uzbekistan, S.Korea sign deals worth $12bn during Moon visit

President Moon Jae-in is looking to reduce South Korea's reliance on traditional partners Beijing and Washington

South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday signed deals worth $12 billion with Uzbekistan during a week-long tour of Central Asia, as he seeks to ease reliance on China and the US.

President of commodity-rich Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev praised his country's "strategic partnership" with Seoul as the leaders signed documents following talks.

Moon credited Mirziyoyev for "leading Uzbekistan into a new era" with a series of bold reforms.

The nature of the deals were not specified during the press briefing.

Trade between Uzbekistan and South Korea in 2018 was just over $2 billion.

Uzbek leader Mirziyoyev is looking to break out from the economic straitjacket imposed by his late hardline predecessor Islam Karimov and encourage more foreign investment and trade.

Karimov ruled Uzbekistan from before independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 until his death in 2016.

Moon's office confirmed at the beginning of the week that economic affairs would dominate talks during his eight-day regional tour that began in gas-rich Turkmenistan and will finish in oil power Kazakhstan.

But Moon also gave a nod to the cultural ties shared by the two countries when he referenced Uzbekistan's 180,000-strong ethnic Korean population in an interview with Uzbek state media on Thursday.

In 1937, suspecting divided loyalties, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had the entire ethnic Korean population of the Russian Far East -- around 172,000 people -- transported to Central Asia on cattle trains.

Stalin saw the Koreans as a threat, as the peninsula's colonial ruler Japan was hostile to the Soviet Union -- although some of the deportees were exiles fighting for independence from Tokyo.

Moon thanked Uzbekistan, saying the country "warmly received citizens of Korean descent who lost their home more than 80 years ago," in the interview.

Moon is looking to reduce the reliance of the world's 11th-largest economy -- stuttering on 2.7 percent annual growth -- on traditional partners Beijing and Washington.