Korea, UAE discuss desert missile tests

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Korea, UAE discuss desert missile tests

ABU DHABI - Korea and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are discussing plans to bolster cooperation in advanced weapons projects, including a test of a Korean-built missile interception system at a site in the Middle Eastern country, the JoongAng Ilbo reported Tuesday. “Speedy progress is seen in the discussion between the two countries about defense cooperation,” a source in the UAE’s capital city told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday. “The discussion includes a plan to conduct a test in the UAE of an antimissile system being developed as a part of Korea Air Missile Defense [KAMD] program,” he said.

KAMD is one of three key projects being pursued by the Korean military to defend against North Korean missile threats. The military is investing in a “Kill Chain” pre-emptive system to deter the North before its missile attacks. KAMD will be used to shoot down incoming missiles. The so-called Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) operation is designed to attack the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and its ruling regime through intense bombing.

KAMD is a terminal-phase, lower-tier missile defense system. It will use U.S.-built Patriot missiles and Korean-made medium-range surface-to-air missiles (M-SAM) for lower-altitude interception. Korea is also developing long-range surface-to-air missiles (L-SAM) for medium and high altitude interception.

Cooperation between Korea and the UAE is possible for the M-SAM system, capable of intercepting incoming missiles at altitudes of 20 to 40 kilometers (12 to 25 miles). It is the core system of KAMD, and the Defense Acquisition Program Promotion Committee decided last month to start mass production. L-SAM is still at an early stage, with a goal of deployment by 2022.

“The missile cooperation project between Korea and the UAE has reached a final stage,” said the source. “Discussions are picking up to conduct an interception test in the UAE.”

He said the UAE is an optimal location because test sites are in underpopulated desert areas. The UAE also has ample experience in operating U.S. Patriot missiles, he said.

A Korean government official told the JoongAng Ilbo that the M-SAM missiles only went through domestic evaluations. “If it is tested in the UAE, it will be helpful for foreign sales,” he said. Another source in the defense industry confirmed that Seoul is pushing a plan to conduct an interception test in the UAE. “It is true that the plan is a key part of defense cooperation with the UAE,” he said. “But I am not sure how far it has progressed. Because defense cooperation with a Middle Eastern country is a particularly sensitive topic, I doubt the two governments will formally confirm the plan.”

While Korea is investing in its own missile defense system, the UAE also needs to expand its air defense, including a shield against ballistic missiles. Since 2015, the country has been participating in the Saudi coalition to fight Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Earlier this month, the rebels said they had fired a cruise missile at the Barakah nuclear power plant being built by Korea in Abu Dhabi, but the UAE’s state-run news agency denied the claim, according to the New York Times.

The Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) won an $18.6 billion deal in 2009 to build the UAE’s first nuclear plant and another bid in 2016 to operate the plant. The deal is expected to bring $49.4 billion in revenue to Kepco over the 60-year contract period.

The UAE is the world’s third largest arms importer, according to the Defense Agency for Technology and Quality’s latest report. It is still increasing investments in defense systems, particularly focusing on indigenous technologies. The state-run Emirates Defence Industries Company (EDIC) has affiliates producing unmanned vehicles, munitions, ammunitions and guidance systems, but advanced weapons are being imported.

According to 2017’s “The Military Balance,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual assessment report, the UAE deployed Patriot interceptors in 2009 and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in 2015 to counter ballistic missile threats.

Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that the Pentagon approved exports of 60 PAC-3 interceptors and 100 GEM-T missiles to the UAE. The deals are valued at $2 billion. The UAE already purchased 288 PAC-3 interceptors and 216 GEM-T missiles in 2007.

The UAE’s cooperation with Korea, currently in the process of building its own missile defense shield, is seen as beneficial for both countries, as the Middle Eastern nation can secure technology while Korea can sell arms.

Korea’s defense cooperation with UAE rapidly progressed after it dispatched the Akh Unit to the Middle Eastern nation. The UAE Military Training Cooperation Group was dispatched in 2011 at the request of Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

The crown prince was impressed with a Korean special forces’ demonstration during his visit to Korea in 2010. The Akh Unit includes about 150 troops, including special forces and counter-terrorism forces.

According to the Ministry of National Defense, Korea’s arms exports to the UAE were worth 39.3 billion won from 2006 to 2010, and skyrocketed to 1.2 trillion won over the five years since the deployment.

The Ministry of National Defense does not release specific information on arms exports to the UAE. “As a seller, which has to sell weapons to all countries from around the world, we cannot make public supply contracts,” a senior government official said.

President Moon Jae-in has been treating relations with the UAE as a high diplomatic priority. Moon took office on May 10 after a snap election victory and his first phone call with the crown prince took place on June 7. It was the 17th phone call with a state leader and the first phone call with a leader of a Middle Eastern country.

“I understand bilateral defense cooperation is ongoing in various areas, and I hope to develop the ties to a mutually beneficial relationship,” Moon said at the time. The crown prince, according to the Blue House, said he prefers carrying out armament projects with countries that are good friends.

A series of high-profile contacts were also made between Korea and UAE over the recent weeks. Defense Minister Song Young-moo visited the country on Nov. 4, and Moon sent his chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, to the UAE for a meeting with the crown prince on Dec. 9, on a visit that remains murky in its intent.

A major policy shift was made shortly after Song’s visit. Three days after his return, he ordered mass production of M-SAM missiles, the kind that may be used if an interception test takes place in the UAE. Previously, Song supported production of attack missiles over interceptors, but changed that position after his visit.

The Blue House has been tight-lipped about the details of Im’s trip, inviting much speculation. Opposition politicians argue that Im was sent because Korea’s ties with the UAE were in jeopardy due to the Moon administration’s campaign against former President Lee Myung-bak. They said the UAE was furious that Korea was spreading rumors about corruption in the nuclear plant deal, which was signed under the Lee administration.

The Blue House on Tuesday sent Han Byung-do, senior presidential secretary for political affairs, to the National Assembly to meet with opposition leaders and officially rebut their claims. “Im’s visit was to deliver Moon’s letter to the crown prince to improve the two countries’ strategic partnership,” Han said after meeting opposition leaders. “Too many suspicions were raised and amplified, and we are very concerned about this political situation.”

Another senior Blue House official held a media briefing on Tuesday and asked the journalists to stop reporting rumors. “Im’s visit was not about the Barakah nuclear plant project,” he said, adding that construction is progressing smoothly.

The official said the Blue House made the decision to not elaborate on Im’s meeting with the crown prince because of diplomatic sensitivity.

“It is true that the visit was to bolster the bilateral strategic partnership, but we cannot reveal the contents of the conversation because it involves the other side,” he said. “I assure you that our silence is not intended to hide something.”

BY CHAE IN-TAEK, PARK SEONG-HUN AND SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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