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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

South Korea’s president heads to UAE for arms sales

South Korea’s president heads to UAE for arms sales

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — South Korean President Yoon Hee-yeol was greeted by a guard of honor during a visit to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, where he hopes to expand arms sales.

Yoon’s visit comes as South Korea makes multibillion-dollar business deals and sends special forces to defend the UAE, an arrangement that drew criticism under his liberal predecessor. Now, however, the conservative leader appears to want to double down on those military ties, even as tensions between Tehran and neighboring Iran have already led to Tehran seizing a South Korean oil tanker in 2021.

“I think in terms of geopolitics, the situation in the Middle East is changing rapidly,” said June Park, a fellow at the Schmidt Futures International Strategy Forum. “So South Korea wants to secure some strategic partnerships and components with the UAE.”

Yoon arrived at the Qasr Al Watan palace in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Emirati leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who took office in May after years as the country’s de facto ruler, greeted him.

An Emirati guard of honor in traditional dress greets Yoon and his wife, Kim Kun-hee. They wheeled model Lee-Enfield rifles beside troops on camel and horseback. Inside, a military band played the national anthems of South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.

After the ceremony, Yonhap quoted Sheikh Mohammed as saying that the UAE plans to invest $30 billion in South Korea. “We have decided to invest in the Republic of Korea, which keeps its promises under any circumstances,” he said.

The report did not elaborate.

While energy-hungry South Korea does rely on the UAE for less than 10 percent of its crude supplies, Seoul has struck a series of deals far beyond oil with the country of seven emirates, which have strong ties to Abu Dhabi. South Korea’s trade with the UAE involves billions of dollars worth of autos, materials and other goods.

Before Yoon’s trip, officials described the trip as seeking to cement an already existing relationship between the two countries.

“The visit will strengthen strategic cooperation with our brotherly country, the UAE, in the four core cooperation areas of nuclear power, energy, investment and defense,” said Kim Sung-han, director of the National Security Bureau of the Yin government.

On Saturday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed presidential official as saying an arms deal was also planned.

“The atmosphere between South Korea and the UAE for security or military cooperation involving the arms industry is very mature,” the official said, according to Yonhap news agency.

South Korea has already struck a $3.5 billion deal with the UAE in 2022 to sell M-SAM, an advanced air defense system designed to intercept missiles at altitudes below 40 kilometers (25 miles). UAE officials have grown increasingly concerned about protecting their airspace after being targeted by long-range drone strikes by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

While U.S. forces fired Patriot missiles in combat to defend Abu Dhabi for the first time since the Iraqi invasion in 2003, the UAE has avoided reliance on U.S. military support since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But South Korea’s biggest project remains the Barakah nuclear power plant, Seoul’s first attempt to build an atomic reactor abroad. The $20 billion facility, which will eventually have four reactors and is located in the UAE’s western desert near the Saudi border, will one day account for nearly a quarter of all the country’s electricity needs.

It is also key to the UAE’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2050, a pledge that looms large as it prepares for the UN’s COP28 climate talks, which begin in Dubai in November.

Yoon may want to reassure the Emiratis that South Korea wants to participate in lucrative maintenance contracts after his predecessor, President Moon Jae-in, said Seoul wanted to move away from nuclear energy.

Analyst Parker said there was a “180-degree turn in energy policy” after the election. “So South Korea is now pro-nuclear, and I guess the Yoon government wants to reassure the Emiratis that people aren’t worried about a policy shift or anything like that.”

And then there’s the nuclear tensions with North Korea. Former top prosecutor Yoon became president in May, promising a tougher stance against Pyongyang. Until recent years, hundreds of North Korean laborers were believed to have worked in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf Arab states, providing a flow of funds for Pyongyang as it sought to evade increasingly tough sanctions over its nuclear program.

However, their numbers have plummeted as countries stopped renewing visas. A recent UN expert report did say that high-end camera gear bought in the UAE ended up in North Korea, while another mentioned a North Korean national living in Dubai who obtained foreign exchange through an online application by falsely stating his nationality.

The U.N. also said that as recently as 2021, it had information about gold smuggling by North Korean diplomats in Iran aboard the Dubai-based long-haul airline Emirates.


Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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