What the Heck is Going On with South Korea and the UAE?

Given that all eyes are focused on the inter-Korean talks at the moment, I imagine the amount of English-speaking Korea-watchers with the bandwith to focus on Korea’s second biggest political story is probably somewhere in the low single digits. That said, just in case there are people out there for whom following Live-Tweets from Panmunjeom is just not enough Korea, I’ll attempt to explain in as few words as possible what is quickly becoming one of the more convoluted political scandals in a country that really, really likes its convoluted political scandals. (Deep breath)

South Korea and the UAE have a secret military alliance.


Yeah, I know. But South Korea and the UAE really do have a secret military alliance. Well, sort of. Sit down, I’ll start from the beginning.

(Disclaimer: all of this information is from second hand media reports, so approach with caution.)

Way back in 2010, KEPCO — an energy conglomerate owned by the Korean government — was in competition with a French consortium for the rights to construct a nuclear reactor in the UAE. Given that the French had much more experience in exporting reactors, things were not looking great for relative newcomer KEPCO. The triumph of the French bid seemed certain.

Enter President Lee Myung-Bak, a business magnate turned conservative superstar who fancied himself as Korea’s great negotiator (…yeah, we had one of those too.) Determined to show off his negotiating chops, Lee fired up the presidential jet and went off on an impromptu two-day state visit to Abu Dhabi to hash things out with the Crown Prince Mohammed (the UAE’s de-facto head of state) himself.

You may be wondering at this point why the heck the UAE — a country where oil is literally cheaper than drinking water — even wants nuclear power anyway. Well, it just so happens that the Crown Prince was a forward-thinking individual who had been pushing a sweeping policy initiative to ensure that his country would remain globally relevant even after their oil runs out. One piece of that initiative was securing sustainable energy through nuclear power. Crucially to our story, strengthening the UAE’s ability to defend itself against foreign incursion was another.

During their meeting, the Crown Prince told Lee that France had offered significant military incentives as a package deal with the reactor contract — perhaps even a pledge to make the UAE part of their nuclear umbrella. Given that the French reactor was probably also a superior product to begin with, the only thing that could change his mind was if Korea offered something even better. Namely, a defense treaty: the UAE wanted Korea to come to its aid if it ever found itself at war.

Fortunately, Lee respected the rule of law just enough to realize that this was not something he could give. A treaty had to be ratified by the legislature, after all, and given Korea’s half-century long policy of abstaining from military entanglements with anyone but the United States, there was no way that sort of thing was going to fly. Unfortunately, Lee also disrespected the rule of law just enough to devise a workaround.

So instead of a defense treaty, Lee agreed to insert an automatic intervention clause into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). An MOU is the commitment-free version of a treaty — the “moving in together” phase that may or may not eventually lead to popping the question. It is not legally binding, and can only be enforced in the sense that the other side will probably be really, really ticked off if you unilaterally abrogate. As a result, an MOU does not need to be ratified by the legislature or — critically — even be made public at all.

Because of this, most MOUs in the military sphere are confined to relatively innocuous topics, such as logistical support or joint training. The series of agreements signed between the UAE General Staff and the Korean Ministry of National Defense in 2012 would include all of this, but thanks to Lee’s willingness to go way, way out of the box just to tie up a business deal of questionable value, it also included a secret clause that committed Korea to joint defense with the UAE. In case you’re wondering, yes, this exactly the sort of thing that started World War I.

Lee and his advisers seemed to have justified their decision by arguing that because the MOU itself was not legally binding, the legislature would be able to come to their rescue and block an actual deployment even if the unthinkable happened. Besides, who was the UAE ever going to go to war with anyway? (what’s that about Qatar you say? …oh.) So the secret clause was signed and KEPCO won the bid. Nobody knew exactly how except for Lee, his inner circle, and a small group of high-level officials at the Defense and Foreign Ministries.

So how did this all come out?

Last December, Lim Jong-Seok — President Moon’s Chief of Staff — peeled off from Moon’s state visit to China to make a low-key stop at the UAE. Lim was being so low-key, in fact, that the secrecy itself aroused suspicion. Initially, the conservative opposition latched onto a theory that the UAE had lost confidence in KEPCO because of Moon’s commitment to move Korea itself away from nuclear energy. In retrospect it seems implausible that the UAE would care that much about a half-baked campaign promise that Moon was already distancing himself from. But opportunities are few and far between for Korea’s beleaguered opposition these days, so they decided to run with it. Several news cycles of political carnage ensued.

But as the truth began to emerge, the conservatives would quickly find themselves desperate to change the subject. Well-connected cable TV pundits (possibly with a hint or two from administration officials) started running with the theory that while Lim had indeed gone to the UAE to talk down a very seriously ticked off Emirati leadership, it was actually because the President was trying to walk back some sort of special agreement signed by the Lee Administration. Amazingly, nobody in politics — conservative or liberal — seemed to have any idea what this was actually about. Most people just assumed that it was garden-variety corruption, a depressingly common feature of Korean presidencies.

All of this was blown out of the water yesterday when, Kim Tae-Young, Lee’s former Defense Minister (and prior to this, probably the closest thing modern Korea has ever had to a universally respected general), turned whistleblower with a bombshell tell-all interview about the secret clause. It has since emerged that the Moon Administration itself only discovered the clause several months after moving into the Blue House, and were about as excited to find out about it as you would expect. Lim’s visit was most likely an attempt to discreetly negotiate down the clause to something that wasn’t a blatant violation of the Constitution and international law.

What does this mean anyway?

Uh… probably nothing.

Well, not quite nothing, but it’s hard to see how there are any real consequences for Lee or his advisors. If Lee had still been in office there would almost certainly be calls for impeachment, but he’s been out of the public eye for years now, and is also facing potential criminal investigation for any number of more convictable offenses. There’s not really a statute on the books for “president who signs a totally unconstitutional secret military alliance with a foreign power,” unless people are interested in making treason a thing again. As far as this issue is concerned, the court of public opinion will be the only court Lee will face.

More importantly, nobody has an incentive to make a big deal out of this. Conservatives, for obvious reasons, would now like nothing better than for everyone to forget that the UAE even exists. The Moon Administration, in turn, can’t allow this scandal to go viral because that could torpedo Korea’s relationship with the UAE — a relationship into which, like it or not, the country has already invested a huge amount of time and resources.

Indeed, the way the news came out yesterday seems to hint at some sort negotiated settlement between all parties involved. Kim’s confession coincided with the visit of a high-ranking UAE official, signaling that the two countries have put aside whatever misgivings they might have had. Both events were strategically positioned adjacent to the inter-Korean talks, which quickly pushed the UAE-related developments out of the news cycle. Some independent-minded lawmakers are pushing for an investigation, but for the most part, the story is rapidly running out of oxygen in the midst of more important developments on the Peninsula, such as trying to avert a nuclear holocaust.

Anything else?

Oh yeah, I haven’t even mentioned the craziest part yet. A couple weeks after Lim’s initial visit, when everything was still just unsubstantiated rumors, one of the Crown Prince’s nephews made an unannounced visit to Seoul. Just as everyone was beginning to jump to conclusions about a new round of clandestine negotiations, a local paper reported that the young royal had actually come to court a twenty-six year old K-Pop singer who he had become smitten with after meeting at a party in Hong Kong.

In retrospect, this could have been a red herring planted by one political faction or another to distract us from the truth. Just as likely, it could be 100% true.

Welcome to Korean politics.

Christopher Jumin Lee (@oldtype) is a Korean. He has no other relevant qualifications.

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