South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol
South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol, who arrived on state visit to the UAE on Saturday, said that bilateral talks during his visit would focus on four key areas, such as nuclear power plants, energy, investment, and defense industry. Image Credit: Reuters/file

Abu Dhabi: South Korea-UAE cooperation in clean energy will help stabilise global energy market, Yoon Suk Yeol, President of the Republic of Korea, said, adding that both countries together could contribute to global smart market as well.

South Korean President Yoon, who arrived on a state visit to UAE on Saturday, detailed on bilateral cooperation in economy, climate action, energy transition, hydrogen and smart farms, in the context of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ASDW), an annual global event for accelerating the world’s sustainable development; and COP 28.

“We will support the success of the UAE’s hosting of COP 28 [the UN Climate Conference to be held in Dubai] at the end of this year and work together in that regard,” he stressed.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, President Yoon said that bilateral talks during his visit would focus on four key areas such as nuclear power plants, energy, investment, and defence industry.

Emphasising that infrastructure cooperation in large-scale construction is the driving force behind economic development of South Korea and the UAE, President Yoon revealed that “approximately 30 per cent of the overseas orders our construction companies received in 2022 were from the Middle East.”

Relations with the UAE and other Gulf countries are crucial for South Korea’s energy security with over 50 per cent of its oil imports coming from the Gulf, said the President who also detailed about the ongoing the ongoing talks on Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

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Would you like to talk about your expectations about this first state visit to the UAE? Since your visit underscores Korea’s keenness to strengthen and expand the existing bilateral relations, would you like to talk about the potential new areas of cooperation between the two countries?

President Yoon: President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and I took office at approximately the same time in May last year. Since our inaugurations, we have sent special envoys to each other’s country and exchanged letters, affirming our determination to advance bilateral relations.

I am very pleased that I will finally meet with President Sheikh Mohamed in person during my visit. I look forward to two of us building a solid friendship and trust.

My visit carries a special meaning, in particular because it will be the first state visit since the UAE and the Republic of Korea established diplomatic relations in 1980.

Our discussions during the summit will focus on how to enhance strategic cooperation in four key areas: nuclear power plants, energy, investment, and defence industry.

Also on the table are ways to elicit forward-looking cooperation across all sectors where our two countries can create synergy, including climate change responses, science and technology, future new industries, and health care as well as cultural and people-to-people exchanges. The potential for Korea-UAE cooperation will be substantial, and doors for bilateral cooperation will be left wide open in all available areas.

As I am accompanied by a huge delegation of over 100 Korean business leaders, in addition to key government officials, I am convinced that the scheduled summit will serve as an important opportunity to produce significant results that further advance bilateral relations and to take the relationship between our two countries to a new level.

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You are expected to attend the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week that is being held ahead of COP 28, the UN Climate Conference to be held in the UAE later this year. Can you please talk about the significance of the ADSW and COP 28 in the present global context and potential Korea-UAE cooperation in climate action?

This year’s COP28 will, for the first time, assess the progress of joint efforts to reach the Paris Agreement Goals by conducting the global stocktake (GST). It will mark a crucial turning point for further strengthening of climate action worldwide.

In particular, the UAE, a leading oil producer, became the first country in the Middle East to declare its carbon neutrality goal and is pursuing a transition to a clean-energy-focused economic and industrial structure. In this regard, it is incredibly symbolic that the UAE is hosting COP28 this year.

The ADSW has been held since 2008 as a venue to gather the wisdom of experts on technology development and international cooperation from around the world for the transition to clean energy. Therefore, the event is expected to be a bridgehead that secures the success of COP28.

Korea and the UAE have maintained a long-standing strategic partnership, and I intend to use my upcoming visit as an opportunity to expand our countries’ friendly cooperation to encompass our efforts to achieve carbon neutrality and strengthen climate action among the world’s nations.

The leap forward in bilateral cooperation that our countries saw with the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant will be expanded to all sectors related to a fair and sustainable clean energy transition, including renewable energy, hydrogen, and carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS). In doing so, we will jointly enhance the stability of the energy market in both countries and across the globe as well as identify new economic opportunities.

In addition, when the UAE’s experience in constructing and operating Masdar City [one of the world’s most sustainable urban communities] is combined with Korea’s world-class IT, infrastructure building and green technology, our two countries are expected to produce significant achievements in the global smart city market.

How do you view the strategic importance of Korea’s relations with the Arabian Gulf countries, especially the special strategic partnership with the UAE?

Korea and the Gulf nations have experienced many cases of mutually beneficial cooperation centred on energy, construction, and infrastructure.

Korea is one of the world’s top five crude oil importers. With over 50 per cent of our imported oil coming from the Gulf, relations with Gulf countries are of enormous importance in terms of our energy security.

Moreover, Korean businesses have made important contributions to the expansion of national infrastructure in the Middle East. Approximately 30 per cent of the overseas orders our construction companies received in 2022 were from the Middle East. Infrastructure cooperation, like in large-scale construction, can be seen as the driving force behind our two countries’ economic development.

Recently, Gulf countries have been developing future industries in an active and enterprising manner to prepare for the post-oil era. Given Korea’s world-class technological prowess, the experience and know-how that we accumulated carrying out projects around the Gulf and the common vision we share with Gulf countries, both sides are optimal partners for each other.

Starting with the construction of the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, the UAE is a key partner in future industries, including space, health care and medical services, smart farms, and hydrogen.

Korea is strengthening its relations with regional blocs such as ASEAN, which is accentuated by free trade agreements (FTAs). How important are the ongoing negotiations on the Korea-Gulf Cooperation Council FTA?

Korea and the GCC agreed in 2007 to push for an FTA. The negotiations are currently ongoing with a view to reaching an agreement.

As important partners in terms of economic cooperation, Korea and the GCC have built a long-standing cooperative relationship in such areas as energy and construction. More recently, the scope of our cooperation has expanded to include advanced industries, defence industry, health care, agriculture, and culture.

I believe the Korea-GCC FTA, if concluded, will establish a comprehensive legal foundation to support bilateral economic and trade relations, making enormous contributions to not only expanding trade and investment between our two countries but also diversifying the ways in which we cooperate.

Most of all, I hope that the Korea-GCC FTA will become a forward-looking agreement that contributes to our two countries’ joint endeavours of responding to new challenges including climate change, supply chain crises and the digital transition as well as technological and industrial cooperation.

Korea is among the few countries in the world with which the UAE wants to expand trade relations as part of the Emirates’ “Projects of the 50” initiative. In this context, how do you assess the progress in bilateral economic and trade ties and future prospects?

Building upon our existing cooperative relations in nuclear power plant, our two countries have been collaborating across diverse fields including defence industry, agriculture, health and medical services and culture. Looking ahead, we envision to strengthen cooperation notably in space, digital and new industries.

I would like to see this visit help bring economic cooperation between Korea and the UAE to a higher level.

What about the prospects of Korea-UAE cooperation in regional and international issues of mutual concern?

Peace and stability in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula are important factors for global peace and prosperity.

The UAE is advancing rapidly under future-oriented leadership and increasing its contribution to regional and international issues. Korea is also pursuing responsible foreign policies commensurate with our changed status under the vision of becoming a global pivotal state.

In this regard, there is great room for Korea and the UAE to expand our cooperation in the region and global community.

The UAE has been actively working as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2022-23. Korea is also seeking a non-permanent member seat on the UN Security Council in 2024-25, and we will work together more closely on the international stage, including at the United Nations.

Moreover, both sides have considerable room to work together based on a common stance in response to such global challenges as climate change, humanitarian aid and global economic recovery.

We will support the success of the UAE’s hosting of COP 28 at the end of this year and work together in that regard.

How do you view the importance of cultural and people-to-people relations and the contribution of the Korean expatriate community in the UAE in this regard?

Cultural and people-to-people exchanges between Korea and the UAE have provided a solid base for the advancement of Korea-UAE relations. I am pleased that this deepening relationship has helped us close the emotional and cultural distances between our two peoples.

I am especially happy to hear that global K-Pop stars are popular with the youth of the UAE, who have joined in the Hallyu wave sweeping across the world and that Emiratis are showing great interest in K-dramas, games, and other content.

Amid the construction boom in the 1970s, the UAE’s Korean community began to form in tandem with construction of the Mussafah Bridge in Abu Dhabi and other infrastructure projects. Today, this harmonious community of professionals from various fields, ranging from scientists, physicians, nurses, and flight attendants to entrepreneurs, contributes to the country’s social and economic growth.

The dedication and exemplary lives of these Koreans have served as the bedrock for mutual trust and respect between Korea and the UAE as well as soil for growing the friendship that exists between our two brotherly countries.

The UAE is home to the only Korean Cultural Centre in the Middle East. The Korean Government will redouble its efforts to ensure that the Centre plays a pivotal role in promoting more cultural exchanges and cooperation as well as people-to-people exchanges.