Im Jong-seok takes trip to UAE

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Im Jong-seok takes trip to UAE

Former presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok wrapped up a two-day visit as a special envoy to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Thursday, raising speculation that a major bilateral arms deal may be in the works.

According to a Foreign Ministry briefing on Thursday, Im discussed bilateral cooperation with a number of top officials and power players in the country like Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, head of an Emirati sovereign wealth fund and close adviser to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The two sides agreed to strengthen their special strategic partnership in tandem with the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and the UAE. The delegation later paid a courtesy visit to Crown Prince Al Nahyan Wednesday afternoon.

While scant additional details were provided, the Foreign Ministry said in an earlier briefing that the visit’s main focus was to foster cooperation on defense matters.

Accompanying Im were officials from Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, Ministry of Trade, and the national arms procurement agency, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration as well as the Blue House’s point man on defense reform, Gen. Kim Hyun-jong.

Im, who served as President Moon Jae in’s first chief of staff from 2017 to 2019, has served at the forefront of the Blue House’s foreign relations with the UAE, the third largest exporter of oil to Seoul, and played a key role in dousing tensions between the two countries as a result of the Moon government’s decision to phase out its nuclear industry in 2017.

In 2011, the Lee Myung-bak administration signed a landmark nuclear power plant deal with the UAE, which contained a clause obligating Korea to come to the UAE’s defense in a contingency as well as consistently supply military equipment.

This most recent visit, however, comes with little prior notice to the public, after the UAE allegedly canceled a trip to Seoul by its foreign minister due to the coronavirus outbreak.

With the Blue House working to expand Korea’s global arms exports, speculation is rife that a major weapons deal with the UAE could be looming. Last month, the Blue House created a new position to handle cooperation with private arms producers under the office of the secretary for defense reform, while financial support for research and development in the defense sector has leaped under the Moon government.

Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo also met with the UAE’s Minister of State for Defense at an exposition in India earlier this month.

Hanwha Defense Systems, the maker of the profitable K9 self-propelled howitzer, is currently seeking to export the weapon to more countries in the Middle East while building on its sales successes with countries like Turkey and India.

If progress was made on a major arms deal with Im’s visit, the Blue House may organize a presidential visit to the UAE sometime next month, sources say, which would be Moon’s second visit to the country in his term. In February last year, Moon received Crown Prince Al Nahyan in Seoul, pledging bilateral cooperation on nuclear power for the next century. Domestically, such a move could help bulk up the administration’s foreign policy credentials ahead of the general elections in April.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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