A top South Korean official told reporters on Sunday that his government is in the “final stage” of an agreement to foster “large-scale defense industry cooperation” between Seoul and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo made the remarks after his president, Yoon Suk-yeol, held an extensive meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his ongoing visit to Riyadh, the first-ever state visit to Saudi Arabia by a South Korean president.
Under Yoon, a pro-American conservative, South Korea has dramatically expanded its economic relationship with Saudi Arabia. South Korean companies are heavily involved in the development of Mohammed bin Salman’s flagship infrastructure project, the promised resort city of “Neom,” and bin Salman signed agreements worth $75 billion with Korean companies during a visit to the country in November.
The reported defense cooperation agreement would expand Seoul’s ties to Riyadh beyond the commercial, into potentially filling the void in Saudi offensive weapons sales left when American President Joe Biden halted such American sales when becoming president in 2021. As a presidential candidate in 2019, Biden promised that he would turn Saudi Arabia, a key American partner in the Middle East, into a “pariah” state in response to the killing of Islamist Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh’s foreign policy turned frigid towards the United States following Biden’s ascent to the presidency, including after Biden visited the country and greeted Mohammed bin Salman with a fist-bump, an awkward gesture that has become iconic of the bilateral relationship in the Biden era.
“The defense industry is emerging as a blue ocean in our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” Kim, the national security adviser, told reporters, according to the South Korean Yonhap news agency. “Large-scale defense industry cooperation discussions are in the final stage, in various areas such as antiaircraft defense systems and firearms.”
Kim, who is in Saudi Arabia with President Yoon, suggested that the cooperation would be in the form of selling each other state-of-the-art military gear.
“We intend to cooperate so that our weapons systems using our excellent defense industry technologies help strengthen Saudi Arabia’s defense capabilities,” Kim continued, “and this will serve as a strong force for further expanding our achievements in defense industry exports.”
“After accomplishing a record-high $17.3 billion in defense exports last year, Europe, the Middle East and other parts of the world are showing growing interest in Korea’s weapon systems,” Kim boasted. “We believe Yoon’s trip will be a catalyst to expand the scale of our defense export market.
Speaking anonymously, an alleged official working in Yoon’s office told the Korea Times that the government could not officially announce the details of the cooperation as contracts had yet to be finalized for what gear is being sold and at what price.
“There are threats that Saudi Arabia is recognizing near its territory,” the Korea Times quoted the official as saying. “Revealing the type of weapon system and the value of the deals will allow other nations to gauge how many units Saudi Arabia is purchasing. This is a very sensitive matter.”
The newspaper reported that among the potential purchases by Saudi Arabia is “Korea’s Cheongung-II surface-to-air missile defense system,” which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has reportedly purchased. The system would help protect the Saudi interior from rocket and missile attacks by the Houthi terrorist organization in neighboring Yemen. The Houthis, a Shiite terrorist gang, seized power in Sana’a in 2015, toppling the Saudi-backed Yemeni presidency, and have been waging a civil war to prevent the government from returning to power since then. In recognition of Riyadh’s support for the Yemeni government, the Houthis have launched rocket attacks into Saudi Arabia, bombing critical oil facilities and threatening the country’s burgeoning tourism and sports industry.
Biden removed the Houthis – whose slogan is – from the list of U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 2021, shortly after his inauguration.
Saudi Arabia was left significantly more exposed to such terrorist attacks after Biden cut sales of offensive weapons to the country in 2021. The Biden administration, anonymous reports have claimed in the past, has considered resuming such arms sales in an attempt to get Riyadh to increase its oil production, but has yet to restore the sales as they were before Biden took office.
Reports of expanded defense cooperation followed what both sides reported was a productive and positive meeting between Yoon and Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday that resulted in the signing of several agreements, including the development of “green hydrogen,” expansion of Korean cultural programs in Saudi Arabia, and “a memorandum of understanding to enhance cooperation in the fields of food and medical products.”
“Korea is Saudi Arabia’s optimal partner in the post-oil era,” Yoon said during his meeting with the crown prince. “It is encouraging to see the bilateral relationship develop from the traditional sectors of energy and construction to a cutting-edge industrial partnership that jointly produces automobiles and ships, as well as cooperation in the areas of tourism and cultural exchanges.”
The crown prince, on his end, called South Korea a “key partner country in Saudi’s Vision 2030 national development strategy,” Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and turn it into a global economic and cultural power.
A core part of the “Vision 2030” strategy is to turn Saudi Arabia into a luxury tourism destination on par with neighboring Dubai. Rather than rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s existing cities, Mohammed bin Salman is building a city in the northwest he has called “Neom,” which Yoon specifically urged the crown prince to involve Korean companies in. Neom is expected to cost $500 billion and feature over-the-top projects such as a desert festival and “wellness” hub and a completely “green” hundred-mile-long skyscraper that millions of prospective residents will never need to leave. Korean companies, most prominently Hyundai, have signed agreements with the Saudi government to help build out the future mega-city’s infrastructure.
Hyundai Motor Group signed a new agreement this weekend with Riyadh to build a car manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia expected to produce 50,000 cars and electric vehicles (EVs) a year. According to Yoon, Production would yield completed cars and EVs beginning in 2026.