What happened with the UAE?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It is a mystery to me that President Moon Jae-in’s former chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, was appointed as special diplomatic envoy to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Jan. 21. Im resigned from his Blue House post on Jan. 9. It is unprecedented for a Korean president to name a special envoy to a specific country, especially a small country in the Middle East. It is widely known Im made a secret visit to the UAE as a presidential envoy in late 2017. At the time, the opposition Liberty Korea Party’s (LKP) floor leader, Kim Sung-tae, engaged in a bloody argument against Lim over the issue.
The former floor leader insisted Im’s trip to the UAE was a result of the Moon administration’s diplomatic disaster after trying to scrap a military deal made during the Lee Myung-bak administration. Kim had a 90-minute meeting with Im at his office on Jan. 13, 2017. During the meeting, the two agreed to make bipartisan cooperation for a nuclear power plant contract and continuity of diplomacy for national interests. I asked Kim about the UAE case. He revealed what happened between him and Im at the time.
A. I told him the Moon administration’s diplomatic play to eradicate so-called deep-rooted evils should be stopped. I also argued the government’s nuclear phase-out policy should be withdrawn. Seemingly desperate, he said he would propose it to the president. He begged me not to mention the UAE issue anymore.
Was the UAE issue so urgent?
That’s right. The situation could have led to a diplomatic disaster in the Middle East. I told Im how dangerous what they were doing was.
Were our relations with Saudi Arabia really going to worsen?
I lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Saudi Arabia and the Middle East hold a society where you can kill someone for breaking a promise. Emiratis grew mad because the promise made by former president Lee Myung-bak was about to be retracted. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are like brothers: If the UAE breaks relations with Korea, Saudi Arabia would have to follow.
What did the administration do that made the UAE so angry?
The UAE is afraid of Iran, a neighbor with a nuclear program. The Lee Myung-bak administration offered military assistance, including training of airborne troops, in return for a nuclear power plant contract. The UAE seemed to like the deal and signed a military cooperation memorandum of understanding (MOU) in exchange for awarding Korea the contract over France.
Why did the MOU become an issue?
The Moon administration wants to retract everything done by the Lee administration and tried to scrap the MOU since it was signed without the agreement of the National Assembly. The UAE grew angry and resisted by bringing Saudi Arabia around. Companies in the UAE were about to be kicked out, payment was not made, and even Saudi petroleum was about to be stopped. I think it really happened. If it was false, the government would surely sue the media, but it remained quite.
That’s why Im flew to the UAE as Moon’s chief of staff?
Yes. The Blue House was surprised and sent him to settle the issue instead of going through an official diplomatic channel. After that, Khaldoon Khalifa Al-Mubarak — chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi — visited Korea. President Moon also visited the UAE last year.
The discord seems to be resolved. But why has Im been named the special envoy to the UAE.
The UAE may not have been assured and have demanded revisions, such as adding phrases the likes of making the military cooperation period “indefinite” in the MOU. The Moon administration may have refused the demand and tried to keep the existing wording. Under such circumstances, even Im — a major channel between the UAE and the Blue House — left the Blue House.
Middle Easterners grow suspicious when people are replaced. They are concerned Korea could change positions as Im left public office, so the UAE could have sent the Moon administration a message to back up its promise. So the president may have appointed Im as a special envoy to reassure the UAE.
Did Im admit the government’s diplomatic mistake?
He admitted what he had to. The Blue House realized what it had done was serious. If not, why would the chief of staff come to the office of the opposition floor leader and talk for an hour and a half?
Any lessons from the fiasco?
I think a case that could have been passed for the national interest was raised as revenge against the previous conservative government and caused trouble. The biggest cost is that the UAE lost trust in Korean nuclear power. As far as I know, the contract payment has not been fully received. It will be difficult for the time to come. I find it painful Emiratis have begun to think they cannot trust Korea.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 31, Page 28