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The Peninsula

South Korea's Strategic Partnership in the Middle East

Published March 31, 2021
Author: Korea View

What Happened

  • On March 23, the South Korean Defense Minister met with his UAE counterpart to discuss bilateral defense relations.
  • South Korea’s Akh special forces unit first deployed to the UAE in 2011.
  • In November of 2020, the National Assembly approved extending the Akh unit’s deployment until the end of 2021.

Implications: South Korea is willing to leverage military deployment to secure its strategic interests. The ongoing security relationship with the UAE reflects this capacity. In 2011, Korea sent elite combat troops to train soldiers in the UAE. The deployment of these troops coincided with South Korea securing a nuclear energy construction project with the Middle Eastern country. At the time, President Lee Myung-bak said these troops provided security to Korean interests in the region. With soldiers present in the UAE, Korea can play a larger role in shaping developments in this sensitive region. 70% of Korea’s oil comes from the Middle East, with the Korean government and private companies holding stakes in UAE oil companies. Seoul also deployed its anti-piracy Cheonghae military unit to the Strait of Hormuz, further increasing South Korea’s military presence in this key waterway.

Context: South Korea has a longstanding relationship with the Middle East going back to the 1970s when Korean conglomerates such as Hyundai and Daewoo expanded their businesses through construction projects in countries along the Persian Gulf. Korea’s need for oil further fuels its interests in the area. Though Korea lacks a domestic supply of oil and natural gas, it is the third-largest oil refiner in Asia and the third-largest importer of liquefied natural gas in the world. Therefore, the Middle East remains an important economic region for South Korea’s economic interests.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Melissa Cho and Alexandra Langford. Creative Commons image from Flickr account of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces

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