Seoul, South Korea – While on a three-country tour of the Middle East this week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has showcased a wide range of exports, a combination of heavy-hitting military hardware and glossy pop culture, demonstrating his country’s growing presence in the fields of entertainment, energy and weaponry.
The trip demonstrates South Korea’s growing partnerships in the Middle East and prioritisation of the region.
On Moon’s first stop in the United Arab Emirates, he signed a deal worth a reported $3.5bn to sell midrange surface-to-air missiles to the Gulf nation. South Korea’s arms procurement agency said in a press release on Tuesday that the deal involves companies such as Hanwha Defense and LIGNex1 and will be a “turning point” towards long-term defence cooperation.
He also took in a showcase of his country’s pop cultural soft power when he attended a concert by K-pop performers including Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame.
After the UAE, his trip continued with stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. South Korea has a growing interest in the Middle East as a destination for its products, including cutting-edge military technology. South Korea currently is the world’s ninth largest arms exporter, with export volumes increasing 210 percent in 2016-20 over the previous five-year period, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“On this trip, Moon is effectively acting as his country’s salesman in chief,” Sean O’Malley, a professor of international studies at Dongseo University, told Al Jazeera, describing the prime objective of the trip as “bolstering arms sales and increasing business opportunities for South Korean companies.”
Moon’s single five-year term as president ends in May, and he is facing the prospect of leaving office without having made significant progress towards two signature goals: lasting peace with North Korea and improvement in the fortunes of South Korea’s waning middle class.
Dialogue with Pyongyang has been frozen since the 2019 summit between North Korea and the US in Hanoi ended in collapse. In the last two weeks, the North has conducted four missile tests that indicate continued advancement of the country’s weapons programs. Pyongyang has repeatedly spurned calls from Seoul to return to negotiations and inter-Korean cooperation projects.
On the economic front, though South Korea has used aggressive fiscal spending to ward off a recession during the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s public is increasingly frustrated over tepid growth and rising housing prices.
That gives Moon a strong incentive to use his remaining time in office to score wins where he can, particularly through measures that provide a boost to the export-reliant economy, the fourth largest in Asia.
South Korea has a long history of commercial ties with Middle Eastern countries. In the 1970s, South Korean companies and laborers worked on construction and infrastructure projects throughout the region.
South Korea, a non-petroleum producing country, has long relied on partners in the Middle East to buy much of the oil required to meet its energy needs, and to supply the country’s large refining industry.
Moon also visited UAE in 2018, where South Korea is constructing its first overseas nuclear power plant. The two countries also maintain deep military cooperation, with South Korean troops having since 2011 run a program in the UAE to train counterpart soldiers.
The visit this week by Moon and his delegation of diplomats and business brass signals advancement of these cooperative ties that fuse security and commerce.
“Moon’s deal with the UAE is his latest addition to the export-led dynamic of the national defence strategy, which aims to emphasize South Korea’s enhanced conventional capabilities, extend their global appeal, and strengthen the nation’s standing as an independent actor,” Sea Young Sarah Kim, a PhD candidate in international cooperation at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, told Al Jazeera.
South Korea has also built partnerships in the instability-prone region by providing assistance in countries suffering humanitarian emergencies, such as Iraq and Syria.
“South Korea is emerging quickly as a rising player of international security, especially in areas traditionally rife with conflict,” Jagannath P. Panda, an analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.
“Korea has used military deployment in the region to get essential advantages and secure its strategic interests which includes a focus on nuclear energy,” Panda said. “The continuous security relationship with the UAE mirrors this outlook.”
Such ties are likely to be maintained after Moon leaves office in May, as the country’s two major political parties concur on the need to capitalize on South Korea’s music and film output, and the sophistication of its technological exports, as sources of economic growth.
Polls indicate that the March presidential election, effectively a contest between candidates from the two big parties, is still too close to call. The eventual victor is likely to follow the lead of previous presidents and continue to treat the blossoming ties with the Middle East as a foreign policy priority.
“On this trip, Moon is laying a groundwork that future presidents could build on, by signing deals that can lead to growth in South Korea’s exports of high-tech products,” O’Malley said.
“In that sense, he is doing a service to his country, and hopefully to the three countries he’s doing business with.”