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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – South Korean President Moon Jae-in's visit to the United Arab Emirates this week shows the Asian nation's deepening cooperation with the Gulf country, from buying its oil to building the Arabian Peninsula's first nuclear power plant and potentially backing it in war.
The defense pact Seoul reportedly struck with Abu Dhabi, decried as a secret deal by opponents in South Korea, further leverages a military arrangement that already has seen South Korean special forces help train the Emirati military.
A former South Korean defense minister has downplayed the chance of entering a conflict alongside the UAE as a "low risk." But Shiite rebels in Yemen, who the UAE is battling as part of a Saudi-led coalition, say they have already tried to target the under-construction Barakah nuclear power plant with a cruise missile.
Meanwhile, hundreds of North Korean laborers are believed to still work in the UAE, even as the country says it stopped issuing new visas. The foreign workers offer a cash stream to Pyongyang as it seeks to evade mounting sanctions over its nuclear program.
"When we think about different kinds of shifting geopolitical games, it gets a little bit out of control," said June Park, a research fellow at the Northeast Asia Center at Seoul National University. "Even if this presidency is not the one that signed the military deal, I think it still says something."
President Moon arrived in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, and was greeted by UAE Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei. South Korea, a major oil and natural gas importer, relies heavily on fossil fuels from the Persian Gulf. The UAE has represented about 10 percent of that market, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Moon's meetings thus far have been held behind closed doors. Responding in writing to questions posed by the UAE's state-run WAM news agency, the South Korean leader said the visit would "boost friendship and cooperation between Korea and the UAE amidst volatile international situations."
Among the biggest areas of cooperation is the Barakah nuclear power plant, Seoul's first attempt to build an atomic reactor abroad. The first of its four reactors, being built in the UAE's western deserts near the Saudi border, is scheduled to come online this year, making it the first nuclear power plant on the Arabian Peninsula.
"The Barakah nuclear power plant is not simply a mega construction project worth $18.6 billion," Moon wrote. "The fact that the UAE put confidence in Korea, which had no experience in constructing overseas nuclear power plants, and signed a contract with us to build one in Barakah was possible only because there was deep trust between our two countries."
Missing from Moon's comments was any mention of the defense pact reportedly signed by the administration of his predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who was just arrested over a range of corruption allegations. Former Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told the JoongAng Ilbo daily newspaper in January that the deal guarantees the Korean military's automatic intervention in what was described as "an emergency" in the UAE.
"The UAE is a country in which a war had not taken place for a long time," he told the newspaper. "There was low risk. Even if a situation arose for deployment, we believed that our response could be flexible depending on the North Korea situation at the moment."
Since the report, activist groups have called on Moon's government to investigate the deal. South Korean special operations forces have been training Emirati forces since 2011 as part of a program called "Akh," the Arabic word for "brother."
It's unclear what would trigger a military response by South Korea. However, Shiite rebels known as Houthis said they targeted the nuclear plant in December during the UAE's National Day celebrations. The Emiratis at the time denied being targeted, though the Houthis repeatedly have threatened Abu Dhabi.
"Now South Korea is in a situation they never really imagined," Park said. "Probably what was envisioned at the time was just a simple economic partnership because it was a no-brainer that the U.S. would do its job in the Middle East," and guarantee the UAE's protection.
Meanwhile, the UAE has its own tangled history with North Korea. The UAE has as many as 1,500 North Korean laborers working in the country while Pyongyang operates three Korean restaurants in the UAE — both lucrative sources for hard currency.
Dubai once purchased Scud missiles from North Korea, according to a 1991 CIA analysis. In 1999, the Emirati military purchased some 30 Scud missiles from Pyongyang, according to a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
In October, the UAE announced it would stop issuing new visas to North Korean workers, following Kuwait, which is also cracking down on Pyongyang's presence.
Asked by WAM about possible peace talks with North Korea, Moon said his government was trying to ease tensions. Moon has said he will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at an April summit, while U.S. President Donald Trump has said he will meet Kim by the end of May.
"A warm, amiable atmosphere has started to build on the Korean Peninsula," Moon wrote. "I ask for continued interest and support from the people of the UAE so that this favorable atmosphere can bear fruit."
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