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(LEAD) (News Focus) Outcome of summit points to change in S. Korea-UAE ties, without repercussion

All Headlines 20:43 March 25, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES with remarks from President Moon in paras 16-17)
By Byun Duk-kun

ABU DHABI, March 25 (Yonhap) -- President Moon Jae-in appeared Sunday to have gotten what he came here for: a change to what he earlier acknowledged as a secret agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that could jeopardize the safety of South Koreans.

And the outcome of his bilateral summit with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi suggests he may have done so without seriously damaging South Korea's diplomatic or economic relations with the important Middle Eastern country.

The two leaders agreed to further upgrade their countries' relationship into a "special strategic partnership."

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan shake hands before the start of a bilateral summit in Abu Dhabi on March 25, 2018. (Yonhap)

In addition, they have agreed to quickly launch regular, vice ministerial-level foreign-defense talks, known as the Two Plus Two dialogue, along with strategic talks between their top diplomats.

Officials from Moon's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae have said the four-way dialogue of foreign and defense officials is only normally held between key allies. South Korea and the UAE established diplomatic ties in 1980, which were upgraded to a strategic partnership in 2009 when Seoul was awarded the near US$19 billion project to construct four nuclear reactors in Barakah, UAE.

Considering the reason the South Korean president had to make the trip to the UAE, despite his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that could very well alter the future course of the country, such an understanding signifies great success, South Korean officials noted.

"Saying they will upgrade their relationship to a special strategic partnership may be diplomatic wordplay, but it has great significance when it comes at a time when everyone expected the relationship to go sour," an official said, asking not to be identified.

Moon was forced to send a special envoy to the UAE late last year at what Cheong Wa Dae officials earlier called an "urgent" request from the highest leaders of the UAE to discuss bilateral issues.

The president refused to disclose details of such urgent issues but noted they may have had to do with what was reported as unauthorized, if not illicit, agreements entered into by his country's former conservative Lee Myung-bak administration.

The reports suggested the Lee government had signed an agreement that would lead to automatic and unconditional involvement of the South Korean military in any military conflict affecting the UAE. Such an agreement requires parliamentary ratification, but Kim Tae-young, who was then serving as defense minister, has said the former government kept the deal a secret.

In a New Year's press conference, Moon said his government will honor a non-disclosure agreement with the UAE but that it will work to revise any deals that could put the safety or lives of South Koreans on the line.

"Basically, I believe foreign relations too must be carried out transparently, but if the former government has agreed not to disclose the information, I believe we also need to respect such agreement. But should there be a flaw in the undisclosed agreements or MOUs, we will consult with the UAE to revise and improve such parts," he said when asked if there was any agreement with the UAE that might jeopardize the lives of South Korean people in any way.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) inspects Wahat al Karama, a monument built to pay tribute to the ultimate sacrifice of UAE heroes, during his visit to Memorial Plaza in Abu Dhabi on March 24, 2018. (Yonhap)

On Sunday, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi said his country's relationship with South Korea has remained "very strong" and "special."

"As you may well know Mr. President, the relationship between our two countries is already very strong and special," he told Moon at the start of their bilateral summit.

"However, I hope the two countries will not be satisfied and endlessly study ways to further develop their relationship," he said, according to Cheong Wa Dae pool reports.

Moon insisted the recent "noise" over the secret military agreement only made the countries' relationship stronger.

"The issue did cause some noise but the relationship between the two countries has not been damaged at all. Rather, the South Korea-UAE defense cooperation gained more support from the people of the two countries, and thus we were able to strengthen this defense cooperation," he was quoted as telling the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

South Korea has maintained some 130 troops in the UAE since January 2011 under an agreement to help train UAE service members.

Apparently reaffirming his administration's commitment to the joint training program, Moon will visit the Akh unit during his four-day visit here that will end Tuesday, according to Cheong Wa Dae.

He is also set to visit the construction site of the four nuclear reactors that led to the evolving friendship, and apparently to disputes as well, between the two countries.

The South Korean president will also visit Dubai for a meeting with Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the UAE, before ending his official visit.


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