South Korea, 1953. A brutal three-year war between north and south ends in stalemate, impoverishing South Korea. But in just five decades, the Asian country emerges as one of most powerful economies in the world.
As Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed pays a visit to the country, it seems fitting that echoes of this story are also familiar in this region. That same year, much of what would become the UAE was desperately poor. The collapse of the natural pearling industry, upon which the region depended for survival, had devastated communities. Oil would not be discovered in Abu Dhabi until 1958 and the future looked uncertain.
But in less than 20 years, the Trucial States had become the UAE, Sheikh Zayed was president and currents of oil revenue were surging into the country, lifting people out of poverty.
It seemed only natural, then, that in 1980, diplomatic relations between the UAE and South Korea were established. The UAE opened its embassy in Seoul a few years later, political and cultural relations flowered in the years that followed while in 2001, Sheikh Zayed met then South Korean prime minister Lee Han-Dong in Abu Dhabi as part of the Asian leader’s Arabian Gulf tour. Shipments of oil flowed to Asia, while cars and electronics travelled the other way.
“South Korea and the UAE belong to two different parts of the world geographically,” said Kwon Tae Kyun, South Korea’s ambassador to the UAE, recalling this history in 2010.
“But the two countries have a lot in common, especially in terms of national development.”
But it was South Korean expertise in nuclear energy that took bilateral relations to another level. South Korea in 2009 won a $25 billion contract to build the first nuclear power plant in the Arab world. And it is not hard to see why. Its APR-1400 nuclear reactor is one of the most advanced in the world, with a lifespan of at least 60 years.
The UAE ordered four for the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant in Al Dhafra. Construction started at the site, about 280 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi, in 2011. A joint venture between Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and Kepco, the Korean Electric Power Company, the first of four reactors have now been completed.
The date for generating electricity has been pushed back to this year or even next year but when all four reactors are working the plant is set to contribute about a quarter of the UAE’s electricity needs. Its workforce is about 60 per cent Emirati. And a quarter of these are women.
The President, Sheikh Khalifa, and South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, also in 2009 agreed a “strategic partnership” between the countries to boost economic co-operation. This was followed by several trips to South Korea by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
Since that deal in 2009, the relationship has deepened to encompass health, sports, education and culture. Zayed University offers Korean language classes to the public, travellers enjoy direct air links and visa-free travel in both directions. About 200 South Korean companies operate in the UAE, while the numbers of Korean citizens here have surged to about 12,000. In 2016, the Korean Cultural Centre was opened in Abu Dhabi – a first in the Middle East. Two-way trade stands at $14 billion (Dh51bn).
The trends even extend to food – the increasing numbers of South Korean restaurants in the UAE are a testament to the dedicated work of the early diplomats, businesspeople and scientists who laid the foundations for today’s partnership.