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Yoon Comment Sparks Diplomatic Row Between South Korea, Iran

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Yoon Comment Sparks Diplomatic Row Between South Korea, Iran

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s comments describing Iran as the “enemy” of the UAE during a trip to that country triggered a diplomatic spat.

Yoon Comment Sparks Diplomatic Row Between South Korea, Iran

President Yoon Suk-yeol (center, in white cap) meets Korean troops in the UAE on January 15, 2023.

Credit: ROK Office of the President/ Kim Yong Wii

South Korea and Iran have summoned each other’s ambassadors in a diplomatic spat triggered by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s comments describing Iran as the “enemy” of the United Arab Emirates during a trip to that country this week.

While visiting South Korean special forces stationed in the UAE on Monday, Yoon described the hosts as South Korea’s “brother nation” tied by growing economic and military cooperation, and then compared the threat he said UAE faces from Iran to the threat South Korea faces from nuclear-armed North Korea.

“The security of our brother nation is our security,” Yoon said. “The enemy of the UAE, its most-threatening nation, is Iran, and our enemy is North Korea.”

Yoon’s remarks triggered an irritated response from Iran’s Foreign Ministry, which said it was investigating Yoon’s “interfering statements.” South Korea’s government insists Yoon was trying to encourage the South Korean troops in the UAE and didn’t intend to comment on Iran’s foreign relations, urging against an “unnecessary overinterpretation” of his comments.

About 150 South Korean troops are stationed in the UAE, engaging in combined special forces training and other joint military activities. The deployment, which began in 2011, grew out South Korea’s deal with the UAE to build the country’s first nuclear power plant.

South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong on Thursday called Iranian Ambassador Saeed Badamchi Shabestari to the ministry to explain Seoul’s stance “once again,” ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk said in a briefing.

Lim said the meeting came in response to the summoning of South Korea’s ambassador to Tehran by the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday over Yoon’s comments.

Lim said Shabestari told Cho that he would “faithfully” convey Seoul’s explanation of Yoon’s comments to his bosses in Tehran, but didn’t provide further details about the conversation.

“As we explained several times, (Yoon’s) reported comments were meant to encourage our troops serving their duties in the UAE, and had nothing to do with Iran’s foreign relations, including South Korea-Iran relations,” Lim said. “Our government’s will to develop relations with Iran remains unchanged.”

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said on its website that its deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, Reza Najafi, lodged a “strong protest” over Yoon’s “meddlesome comments” after summoning South Korean Ambassador Yun Kang-hyeon.

Najafi said during the meeting that Yoon’s comments were “tantamount to interference” in what he described as Iran’s friendly relations with most Gulf states and undermined “peace and security in the region,” the ministry said.

Najafi also mentioned friction between Iran and South Korea over billions of dollars in Iranian funds remaining in Seoul, frozen by U.S. sanctions over Iran’s collapsed nuclear deal with world powers. Iran held a South Korean oil tanker for months in 2021 amid the dispute.

Najafi said South Korea’s failure to resolve the issue could prompt Tehran to reconsider bilateral ties, according to his ministry.

Najafi also took issue with separate comments by Yoon on North Korea and questioned whether South Korea is considering acquiring its own nuclear weapons in violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a suggestion Lim dismissed as “groundless.”

In a meeting with defense officials in Seoul last week, Yoon entertained the possibility of South Korea pushing for a redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons or seeking a deterrent of its own if North Korea’s growing nuclear threat gets out of control.

But Yoon made clear those scenarios weren’t part of his official policy and emphasized his “realistic” goal of strengthening South Korea’s defense under its alliance with the United States, including joint military planning potentially involving U.S. assets, and boosting the South’s own capability to retaliate to deter North Korean attacks.

“The comments of our president were intended to (emphasize the importance) of strengthening the effectiveness of the (U.S.) extended deterrence to counter North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats,” Lim said, referring to the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea with the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear ones.

“Our country has been sincerely carrying out our nonproliferation obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and there has been no change to our willingness to carry out those obligations,” Lim said.

Yoon’s comments during his UAE visit, which have been criticized by his political opponents at home as “diplomatically disastrous,” came as the UAE attempts to hedge in its relationship with Iran, a major business partner. The UAE also is home to around 3,500 American troops at Al Dhafra Air Base, a naval outpost in Fujairah and other locations.

The UAE has spent billions of dollars purchasing South Korean surface-to-air missile systems in part of efforts to protect itself against aerial threats. Those threats include long-range drone attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels — weapons likely built by Iran or with Tehran’s help.