South Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Saudi Press Agency/Reuters)

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Saudi Press Agency/Reuters)

With South Korea having cut ties to Iranian petrochemical and oil imports after US pressure, it was a forgone conclusion that Seoul would be looking for new suppliers to fill the resulting void.

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak has been touring the Middle East since Tuesday, including stops in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in hope of brokering agreements to both alleviate that recent loss of Iranian crude oil and petrochemical exports, as well as to increase South Korean defense exports to the region.

The trip is shaping up to be a successful one for President Lee:

RIYADH, Feb. 8 (Yonhap) — South Korea and Saudi Arabia agreed Wednesday to significantly bolster their defense cooperation to elevate relations in non-economic sectors to match those of their prospering business ties, an official said Wednesday.

A defense cooperation pact could be signed if and when the Saudi minister visits Seoul, Choe said. If Salman is unable to pay a visit to Seoul, South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin will visit Riyadh for talks, the official said.

“The focus of this visit is to lift cooperation in non-economic areas to the level of the economic sector,” the press secretary said. “What is important is that the two sides agreed to elevate defense cooperation as well to match such a level.”

Choe declined to offer specifics on cooperation in the defense industry but sources said the two sides have been in talks on weapons projects, such as exporting ammunition and howitzers to the Middle Eastern nation.

While howitzers and ammunition aren’t big ticket items in the grand scheme of the three billion dollars (US) in arms sales that South Korea is hoping to export in 2012, President Lee is heading home with both a pledge from the Saudi government of a secure oil supply and a foot in the door to new venues for South Korean arms exports. His visit has to be considered something of a great success.

It will be interesting to watch South Korea venture further into the region, how they handle the many-layered politics of the Middle East, and their ability to balance their growing relationship with Israel and their blossoming ties with other surrounding Middle Eastern nations. It will also be worth noting how far Seoul dives into it the region with or without the assistance of the United States, though one can imagine that the ROK won’t be selling arms to states that lack American approval.

Worth watching will also be how these international deals affect President Lee’s popularity in Seoul during his final year in office, and the ramifications these developments will have for his party in the coming 2012 elections.

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Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 82 post(s) on Asia Security Watch