President Lee will fly to the capital for talks with Sheikh Khalifa as part of a three-day visit to the Emirates
South Korean leader to arrive
ABU DHABI // South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak is to arrive in the capital today for talks with Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Mr Lee is on a three-day visit to the Emirates, his second since 2009. The visit comes at a high point in relations between the two countries.
Elite South Korean troops arrived in the UAE in January to train Emirati special forces.
And Kepco, a South Korean consortium, is building the UAE's nuclear power plants in the once tiny seaside village of Braka, with the first plant expected to become operational by 2017. If the US$20 billion (Dh73.5bn) project proceeds according to its timetable, it will become the Arab world's first civilian nuclear programme.
"The South Korean government is very much interested in making this nuclear deal a success as a symbolic case for supplying its nuclear technology and reactors to other countries," said Dr Hak-soon Paik, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think-tank.
South Korea beat competition from American and French companies to clinch the contract.
Mr Lee will attend the ceremony for the first nuclear plant at Braka. He will also meet Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. On the last day of his visit, he will meet Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and prime minister of the UAE, in Dubai.
Co-operation with South Korea heralds stronger ties with South East Asia as a whole, diplomats said. "South-east Asian countries are closely connected and economically linked to China and India," one Asian diplomat in the UAE said. "The UAE can leverage on South East Asia's connection to gain access to these two giants."
The diplomat said the UAE offers the region a politically stable gateway with mature infrastructure for expansion in the Middle East, one that Asian companies are eager to exploit. In 2009, the two countries upgraded their relationship to a "strategic partnership", further deepening ties.
"It can't be better," Kwon Tae-kyun, South Korea's ambassador to the UAE, told the state news agency WAM early this year regarding the relationship between the two countries.
The UAE joined other nations in condemning an artillery attack by North Korea on the South's islands, signalling a closer political alignment.
In the first 11 months of 2010, trade volume between the two countries reached $15.7bn. The UAE is South Korea's largest export market in the region. South Korea imports more oil from the UAE than any other country except Saudi Arabia.
There are currently 5,500 Koreans in the UAE. Bilateral co-operation extends to education, scientific research, tourism, training, urban planning and clean energy, said one Asian diplomat.
Mr Lee will receive the Zayed Prize for the Environment during his trip.
"This [visit] is very important in showing Korea's willingness to strengthen the bilateral relationship," said Dr Jeong-min Seo, a professor of Middle East politics at Hankuk University in Seoul. "Korea wants to develop the relationship in many areas."
Daniel Bardsley reported from Beijing.