The Republic of Korea and the Middle East: Economics, Diplomacy, and Security
South Korean–Middle Eastern relations have been neglected in the literature throughout the years, mainly owing to the focus on Korea’s relations with the United States and Asian states and the attention given to the North Korea–Middle East military trade. This paper sheds new light on this issue by analyzing South Korea’s Middle East policy. Until the 1960s, the Middle East was of low importance to South Korea because of Korea’s lack of economic and political interest in the region. The Cold War division dictated with which Middle Eastern countries Seoul could trade and establish diplomatic relations, but within these boundaries it was South Korea’s developing economy that defined the policy toward the region and the importance of the Middle East to South Korea.
Since the mid-1970s, the economic importance of the Middle East to South Korea’s economy has increased gradually along with Korea’s increased importance to several Middle Eastern nations.
The economy influenced Seoul’s sensitive policy toward Israel throughout the years. Although South Korea’s economic involvement in the region increased over the years, its diplomatic and military policy toward the region was very restrained and limited until the 1990s. The new millennium heralded a change in South Korea’s involvement in the Middle East. Its economic involvement now includes major nuclear energy projects. For the first time, Seoul also became militarily involved in the Middle East, including sending troops to Iraq and Lebanon, and it began to play a more active political role in the region, which might increase further if Seoul decides to become a more dominant player in the region. These changes will have implications on Seoul’s policies beyond this region.