South Korea, UAE enhance security relationship
Building closer, more developed defense relations was the main topic of discussion when Mohammed Al Bowardi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) minister of state for defence affairs, hosted Song Young-moo, Republic of Korea (ROK) minister of national defense, in Abu Dhabi on April 16, 2018.
Song’s visit was on the heels of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to UAE in late March. (Pictured: South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks at a forum in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on March 27, 2018.)
Song was accompanied by Jeon Jei-guk, minister of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, and Nam Sae-kyu, president of the Agency for Defense Development, reported Yonhap, the government-affiliated South Korean news agency.
“Defense Minister Song’s visit to the United Arab Emirates aims to solidify the diplomatic relations between the two countries,” Moon Seong-mook of the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy told FORUM, “as both are already cooperating in the military, for example, the Akh Unit, which has been dispatched to the UAE for training and protection duties.”
The ROK military unit known as Akh — which means “brother” in Arabic — is composed of 139 special operations troops. Akh has been deployed to UAE since January 2011, according to Yonhap, to train UAE special forces and to ensure the security of South Korean citizens living there. About 1,600 ROK Soldiers have been stationed in UAE since the deployment began.
Jeon’s presence at the April 16 meeting showed South Korea’s interest in advancing cooperation in defense procurement and weapons research and development, Moon Seong-mook explained. This followed the two countries’ agreement to upgrade their bilateral relations to a “special strategic partnership,” as announced during Moon’s March 2018 summit with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, UAE’s head of state.
The March summit included a visit to UAE’s Barakah power plant, reported Yonhap, which is scheduled to begin generating electricity from nuclear power in May 2018. Barakah was constructed by a consortium of South Korean companies headed by the Korean Electric Power Co. as part of a U.S. $20 billion deal to build four such plants in UAE, according to Reuters. Started in 2009, the nuclear project suffered various delays. According to Moon Seong-mook, however, the countries have put related tensions behind them and are ready to move on.
“The UAE is a key foothold in the Middle East for Korea,” said Moon Seong-mook, “and the UAE needs Korea’s advanced military technologies. Although the two countries went through conflict over the nuclear power plants, they will mend the fences and maintain cooperative ties. I think that the recent cooperative move of the two countries might cater to the United States’ interest, too. Korea’s defense industry cannot be separated from the U.S. in terms of the rules and securities. So, we need the U.S.’ cooperation to do that. I think the solid relationship between Korea and the UAE will contribute to the Korea-U.S. alliance and the interest of the Middle East eventually.”
ROK defense exports to UAE rose from U.S. $25 billion between 2006 and 2010 to U.S. $31 billion in the 2011-2016 period, Yonhap reported. Diplomatic ties have also been strong with 10 summits conducted involving leaders from both countries since 2009, according to ROK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Korea and the UAE need to expand cooperation in the military sector,” concluded Moon Seong-mook. “The region where the UAE is located is geographically important as there are many things at stake for Korea, for example, oil imports or the Korean military units operating in the Middle East.”
Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.