South Korea Strengthens Defense Ties With Saudi Arabia

In an attempt to diversify oil imports, South Korea is reaching out to the Arab Gulf states.

With South Korea having cut ties to Iranian petrochemical and oil imports after American pressure, it was a forgone conclusion that Seoul would be looking for new suppliers to fill the resulting void.

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak toured the Middle East last week, including stops in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in hope of brokering agreements to alleviate that recent loss of Iranian crude oil and petrochemical exports, as well as to increase South Korean defense exports to the region.

The trip shapep up to be a successful one for President Lee.

South Korea and Saudi Arabia agreed Wednesday to significantly bolster their defense cooperation to elevate relations in noneconomic sectors to match those of their prospering business ties, an official said Wednesday.

A defense cooperation pact could be signed if and when the Saudi minister visits Seoul, Choe said. If Salman is unable to pay a visit to Seoul, South Korea’s defense minister Kim Kwan-jin will visit Riyadh for talks, the official said.

“The focus of this visit is to lift cooperation in noneconomic areas to the level of the economic sector,” the press secretary said. “What is important is that the two sides agreed to elevate defense cooperation as well to match such a level.”

Choe declined to offer specifics on cooperation in the defense industry but sources said the two sides have been in talks on weapons projects, such as exporting ammunition and howitzers to the Middle Eastern nation.

While howitzers and ammunition aren’t big ticket items in the grand scheme of the $3 billion dollars in arms sales that South Korea is hoping to export in 2012, President Lee headed home with both a pledge from the Saudi government of a secure oil supply and a foot in the door to new venues for South Korean arms exports. His visit has to be considered something of a great success.

It will be interesting to watch South Korea venture further into the region, how they handle the many layered politics of the Middle East, and their ability to balance their growing relationship with Israel and their blossoming ties with other surrounding Middle Eastern nations. It will also be worth noting how far Seoul dives into the region with or without the assistance of the United States, though one can imagine that the ROK won’t be selling arms to states that lack American approval.

Worth watching will also be how these international deals affect President Lee’s popularity in Seoul during his final year in office and the ramifications these developments will have for his party in the coming 2012 elections.

This story first appeared at Asia Security Watch, February 9, 2012.