a South Korean soldier standing by a Cheongung medium range surface-to-air missile system during a media day presentation of a commemoration event marking South Korea's Armed Forces Day at the Second Fleet Command of Navy in Pyeongtaek. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-Je

SEOUL – In a deal hailed as the biggest single defense equipment export ever by South Korea, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will reportedly buy a surface-to-air-missile system for 4 trillion won (US$3.3 billion).

According to South Korean reports from the Middle East, the two countries exchanged preliminary contracts on Sunday (January 16) for the Cheongung-II M-SAM system made by South Korean firms LIG Nex1, Hanwha Systems and Hanwha Defense.

The contracts were exchanged in the presence of visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in and UAE Prime Minister and Vice-President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The system is designed to combat lower-tier ballistic missiles at altitudes of less than 40 kilometers. The two countries also signed memoranda of understanding on the sharing of defense techn0logies.

Separate reports also stated that Moon’s meeting with the country’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, had been canceled for unexplained reasons – an “unforeseen matter of state.”

The duo of events – a massive deal and a surprise non-meeting – are somewhat emblematic of the two countries’ defense partnership.

That relationship was pioneered in opaque circumstances by former President Lee Myung-bak, who under Moon was jailed for corruption and admitted to hospital for a chronic illness on Monday.

South Korean commandos board a stranded submarine in 1996. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

Nuclear reactors, commandos and a secret pact

In 2009, South Korea and the UAE signed an agreement under which Seoul would sell the Emirates nuclear reactors priced at $18.6 billion. The South Korean offer beat bids from French and US rivals.

However, it was revealed in a media interview in 2018 that the deal was supposed to be a secret pact between the two parties.

In 2011, South Korea deployed the Ahk (‘Brotherhood”) unit to the UAE, comprising approximately 150 men from both the army and naval special forces. Their deployment was approved after a legislative vote in 2010, but the deal to assist the UAE in combat did not pass the National Assembly, despite being a de facto defense treaty.  

The 2009 deal was undertaken under conservative President Lee Myung-bak as part of his so-called “Energy Diplomacy.” Then and now, the UAE serves as a major supplier of crude oil to South Korea, a net energy importer. The deal was reportedly followed up by his successor, Park Geun-hye, who took office in 2013.

The liberal Moon, who took office after Park’s overthrow in 2017, vowed to clear up the “deep-seated evils” of past, conservative Seoul administrations.

He made clear that he would work to revise what some media characterized as “unauthorized” or “illicit” agreements with the UAE that might jeopardize the safety or lives of South Koreans. As part of this, a prosecution investigation was conducted and a security task force in the UAE was reportedly deactivated.

These house-clearing moves by the Moon administration were not welcomed by the UAE, which reportedly pressured South Korean firms SK and GS, both engaged in projects in the Emirates, while a shadow was cast over the nuclear plant deal.  

A flurry of diplomacy followed. Embarrassingly, a number of allegations were raised by lawmakers during a 2018 visit to Seoul by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s aide, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak.

However, the disagreements were apparently patched up after diplomatic trouble-shooting missions undertaken by Im Jong-seok, a close Moon aide, in 2018.

The Ahk unit remained in the UAE, and, according to Sunday’s news, relations between the two countries’ defense establishments continue to flourish.

Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak arrives at a court in Seoul on September 6, 2018. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Arms sales explode

Moon, who took office in 2017 and leaves office next spring, has overseen a massive expansion of South Korea’s overseas arms sales.

South Korea was the world’s 9th largest arms exporter between 2016 and 2020, accounting for 2.7% of the global market.

That figure marks a 210% increase over the period 2011-2015, according to a fact sheet from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI entitled “Trends in International Arms Transfers 2020.

Meanwhile, Lee, the ex-president who oversaw the original power plant-defense pact with the UAE, was, during Moon’s Blue House tenure, sentenced to a 17-year jail term for corruption.