(News Focus) Moon forges deeper ties in clean energy, defense during Middle East trip
By Kim Deok-hyun
CAIRO, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in used the just-ended, three-nation swing through the Middle East to forge deeper cooperation with the region in the fields of clean energy and defense.
In every stop of the eight-day trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Moon pitched for cooperation in the field of hydrogen, which he believes will become a key energy source in the era of carbon neutrality.
Also, Moon tried to boost defense cooperation with the Arab and African nations.
And his push yielded tangible results.
Under the biggest single arms contract South Korea has ever won abroad, Seoul signed a preliminary deal with the UAE to sell midrange surface-to-air missiles to the Persian Gulf nation.
The deal was signed after Moon held talks with UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Dubai.
Although Moon's office did not provide details, including the value of the memorandum of understanding, media reports have indicated the deal is likely to reach US$3.5 billion.
The M-SAM system, called Cheongung II, is a core element of South Korea's multilayered anti-missile program. Cheongung means heaven's bow in Korean. Employing "hit-to-kill" technology, the missile is designed to intercept hostile missiles coming in at altitudes below 40 kilometers.
South Korea and the UAE have strengthened defense cooperation since 2011, when Korean troops of the Akh unit, which means brother in Arabic, were on a mission in the Gulf nation to train the nation's service members and protect Korean nationals in emergencies.
Kang Eun-ho, head of South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration, told reporters the deal marked Korea's biggest deal for exports of a single weapon, but he declined to reveal the value of the deal, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
In Dubai, Moon also emphasized the need to bolster cooperation with the oil-rich UAE in the fields of carbon neutrality and hydrogen.
Hydrogen is an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, as automobiles running on the resource only create water in the process of generating power. Hydrogen can be produced as a by-product of industrial facilities, including petrochemical plants as well.
In Riyadh, Moon held talks with Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and agreed to work together in areas related to the hydrogen economy.
During the talks, Seoul and Riyadh signed preliminary deals to jointly develop green hydrogen, which is produced from renewable energy sources, especially solar and wind, and jointly build a hydrogen ecosystem.
Under the deals, South Korea can secure a supply of carbon-neutral hydrogen and ammonia from Saudi Arabia. In return, Seoul can help Riyadh operate hydrogen-powered cars and hydrogen fueling stations.
Moon and the crown prince also discussed potential deals on defense and weapons systems as well as Korea's nuclear fusion reactors, according to Moon's spokesperson Park Kyung-mee.
South Korea has been in negotiations with Saudi Arabia to sell advanced weapons to Riyadh. Moon told the crown prince he expects positive results from the negotiations, Park told reporters.
Moon also expressed his confidence that South Korea will become an "optimal partner" for Saudi Arabia's plans to build nuclear power plants, Park said.
Economy was high on the agenda in Riyadh. South Korea and the regional union of six Gulf Arab nations agreed to resume their free trade negotiations in the first quarter of this year, with the aim of completing the negotiations as early as possible.
The agreement was reached at a meeting between Moon and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General Nayef bin Falah Al-Hajraf.
South Korea and the GCC had agreed to push for a free trade deal in 2007. The two sides held three rounds of talks until 2009, but the negotiations have since stalled after the council announced the suspension in 2010.
Trade volume between the two came to US$46.6 billion in 2020. The GCC, which has six member nations -- the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait -- supplies 68 percent of South Korea's crude oil imports.
In Cairo, Moon held summit talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and agreed to conduct a joint feasibility study on a bilateral free trade agreement.
If realized, an FTA with Egypt would mark South Korea's first free trade pact with an African country. Bilateral trade between South Korea and Egypt has been on the rise in recent years and stood at US$2.3 billion last year.
Also, Moon said he agreed with the Egyptian president to make joint efforts for the conclusion of negotiations for a deal to sell Seoul's K-9 self-propelled howitzers to the African state.
Moon made the remarks during a joint announcement on the conclusion of his talks with the Egyptian president, raising hopes for another K-9 howitzer export deal, following a 1.9-trillion won contract signed during Moon's visit to Australia last month.
The two leaders agreed that a deal on K-9 howitzers is "an achievement of defense cooperation based on mutual trust between the two nations and K9 self-propelled artillery greatly contributes to enhancing the Egyptian military's power," Moon said.
Besides, Moon and the Egyptian president signed a memorandum of understanding that calls for Seoul to provide a soft loan worth $1 billion to Egypt over the next five years.
The loan is expected to fund construction and infrastructure projects in Egypt, including upgrading railway networks and building desalination plants, according to Korean officials.
Moon's visit to Cairo marked the first trip by a South Korean president to the North African nation in 16 years.
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