Some time ago I brought up 와크 wakeu, a mysterious North Korean loanword, in the comments to a Language Log post by Victor Mair on NK attitudes to borrowings and regionalisms. Wakeu refers to a sort of trade license, often resold in the black market as a useful tool for obtaining foreign currency. A conversation with Jongseong Park ensued. Jongseong knows a lot about Korean transcriptions of foreign words and often writes about them. This post summarises what we said in that exchange.

Both of us vaguely recalled 와크 being based on a Russian initialism. At least in my case, the ultimate source for that assumption was likely a Dong’a Ilbo story that asserted 와크 came from Russian for ‘foreign trade committee’. To complicate matters further, as Jongseong noted, the story actually transcribed the alleged Russian form 바트 bateu, which looks like a typo (but you never know).

To end up as 와크 in Korean, a Russian initialism should have been something like (in Cyrillic) ВАК or maybe ОК. The final к for комитет ‘committee’ would make sense, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) come up with a plausible Soviet initialism. Jongseong initially suggested the Высшая аттестационная комиссия (Higher Attestation Commission), which is indeed known by its initials ВАК (transliterated VAK). The problem is that the VAK has little to do with trade. The VAK is an academic institution charged with overseeing dissertation committees. It’s functions include issuing and revoking the highest academic degrees (DSc (доктор наук) and PhD (кандидат наук)) and eventually overriding the decisions of thesis committees. The Soviet VAK was established by Stalin and survives in some post-Soviet states, including Russia, where suspicions exist about its role in the fake degree industry. The VAK is nowadays subordinate to the education ministry, but back in Stalin’s day it had a more powerful position and was used to refuse academic degrees to political or ethnic undesirables (here’s a first person account of how that worked). It’s unclear to me if North Korea has or ever had a similar institution (China, for example, doesn’t have an analogous centralised degree-issuing organ), and at any rate the connection to trade permits would be unclear. The etymology of 와크 is still a mystery.

Besides 와크, Korean-language sources often give another word for those trade licenses: 지표 jipyo. 와크 and 지표 might refer to two different types of license, to the organ issuing the permit and the permit itself, or just be roughly synonymous. Maybe 와크 is frowned upon as ‘foreign’ while 지표 is acceptable in official context as a pure (Sino-)Korean (yeah, I know). It’s not just me being confused; this authoritative-looking report (page 14 of the pdf) from the Korea Development Institute (한국개발연구원, KDI) isn’t sure about how to distinguish the two terms either. Whatever its precise semantics, 지표 is also something of an etymological puzzle. The most common word pronounced 지표 is probably the one spelt 指標 in hanja and meaning ‘index’, but its homonym 紙票 ‘paper slip’ looks like a better candidate for ‘permit’. Jongseong quotes the entry for this second 지표 from a 1992 North Korean dictionary, where one of the definitions is ‘banknote’, marked as obsolete.

Yakutia: enter China, Korea

After a well-deserved extended Spring Festival holiday, followed by a bout of the dreaded lurgy, I’m back to add a few snippets about non-Western investment in the Sakha Republic in far-eastern Russia, also known as Yakutia.

In an interview he gave last month to news portal yakutia.info, Aleksey Zagorenko Алексей Загоренко, head of Yakutia’s investment agency, addressed worries that Zhuoda 桌达 Group’s planned $500m investment to build and renovate homes and social infrastructure in the Republic’s capital might crush the local construction industry. Local home prices in Yakutsk are just as high as in Moscow, he retorts, and that can hardly be blamed on the trickier environment since other northern regions have more reasonable real estate prices. Zhuoda’s entry will likely harm some local actors, but the best will survive and as a result the market will be more “efficient”, and cheap. It’s a “change or die” question.

This echoes what we saw when I first wrote about Zhuoda’s Yakutsk project, where I quoted Aysen Nikolaev Айсен Николаев, the town’s mayor, who highlighted precisely such a desired effect on the local home prices: Zhuoda’s new homes might help certain local developers “sober up” and start selling a bit cheaper.

Chinese and other non-Western investment in Russia and specifically in regions like Yakutia is being increasedly sought for since the start of the Ukraine crisis, and Zhuoda is by no means the only big Chinese company with an interest in the area. I’ll hopefully find the time to refer to several others in future posts, but to stay within the topic of recent contacts with Sakha Republic authorities let’s mention state-owned conglomerate China Poly Group (保利集团), who met with Zagorenko in January to talk about potential investments in infrastructure.

Anyway it’s not just the Chinese who are increasingly attracted to the area. Contacts are also increasing with South Korean companies. Sakha Republic officials are scheduled to travel there in March, and further exchanges are planned during this year. Vladimir Vasilyev Владимир Васильев, the Republic’s minister responsible for foreign contacts, mentions Korean interest in biotechnology and health care.

According to Zagorenko, no less a company than Korean-Japanese conglomerate Lotte Group is considering taking part in local “medicine projects” and the construction of a hotel in Yakutia. I haven’t seen anything about this in Korean-language sources, but for one thing Lotte has been active in Russia for several years. They have built large malls in Moscow and are planning to acquire another one.

South Korea has produced some less-than-entirely-friendly statements towards Russia after the annexation of Crimea, and disagreements on political and military issues between the two countries do occasionally appear, but economic relations seem to have received a boost from Russia’s worsened relations with the West. Russian officials (specifically the Sakha Republic officials quoted above) talk of what I’d paraphrase as a need for non-Western industrial countries like China, Japan or Korea to fill the vacuum left by Western investors, given that foreign investment is absolutely necessary to develop Russia’s Far East.

A recent article by Hyun Seung-Soo 현승수 on Korean-Russian relations during the last year (“2014 한러 관계, 동북어 전력 환경 변화 속 지속 가능한 협력 모색”), in Russia-Eurasia Focus, published by Hankuk University’s Institute of Russian Studies, lists recent exchanges between the two countries, and points at Russia’s increased cooperation with North Korea as favouring the South’s “Eurasian Initiative” and creating business opportunities, especially trade in Russian natural resources through North Korea. Despite an increase in business exchanges, overall trade between Russia and the South remained stable during 2014, and Korean exports to Russia actually decreased.

My previous post on Yakutia has, to my great delight, attracted the attention of Mia Bennett’s Cryopolitics blog of which I’m a frequent reader.

[Updated on March 11 to add the link to Hyun Seung-Soo’s article.]