January 25, 2023

IntelBrief: South Korea and the United Arab Emirates Promote Nuclear Power

AP Photo/Jon Gambrell

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The January 2023 visit of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) showcased both countries’ interest in expanding nuclear power use to combat climate change.
  • President Yoon, who took office in March, has abandoned his predecessor government’s plans to phase out nuclear energy.
  • South Korea, agreed to expand energy cooperation with the UAE, including by jointly marketing nuclear power to third countries.
  • During the bilateral summit, Yoon also visited South Korean special forces deployed in the UAE, and received rebuke from Tehran by highlighting Iran’s threat to the UAE.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeo mid-January visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) showcased both countries’ commitment to expanding nuclear power use and to discussing potential future cooperation in and beyond the energy sector. Like South Korea, the UAE has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Its leaders have also faced public concerns about nuclear power, given the country’s location across the Gulf from Bushehr, where Iran’s nuclear plant is located. The United States has clashed periodically with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy forces in the Gulf over the past four decades, and the IRGC Navy has attacked foreign tankers in UAE waters. Moreover, fighting between Ukraine and Russia around two Ukrainian nuclear power plants has heightened public concern about nuclear accidents. Yoon’s visit came three months after Seoul and Warsaw signed outline agreements to develop nuclear power in Poland, furthering his pledge to revive South Korea’s nuclear power industry.

The visit indicates that Yoon envisions broadening ties with the UAE, and furthers the UAE President Mohammad bin Zayid Al Nahyan’s (MbZ) efforts to portray his country as a leader in the transition to a clean energy future, despite its status as a major oil exporter. Yoon said he hoped both countries could expand this “new model of cooperation” to include nuclear fuel, small reactors, and other joint advances to third countries. Pointing to the United Kingdom as a potential customer for a UAE-South Korea nuclear power joint venture, South Korean officials added that joint efforts would benefit from the UAE’s ample reserves of capital. During the visit, Yoon’s office also announced the UAE’s commitment to invest $30 billion in South Korea’s nuclear power, defense, hydrogen, and solar energy industries. Business leaders from major South Korean firms like Hyundai, Samsung, and others accompanied Yoon on the trip, while Samsung C&T Corporation, the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), Korea Western Power, and UAE's Petrolyn Chemie signed an agreement on the sidelines of the summit to build a $1 billion green hydrogen and ammonia production plant in the UAE.

Yoon has reversed the nuclear phase-out policy of his predecessor government in response to energy price spikes caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, aiming to provide at least 30% of the country’s electricity via nuclear power by 2030. South Korea boasts an advanced nuclear power sector, already generating 27% of its electricity through 25 nuclear reactors, and markets its nuclear technology abroad Nonetheless, South Korea is expected to remain heavily dependent on imports of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas. Fossil fuels constitute more than 80% of the country’s total energy consumption, and more than 90% of its fossil fuels are imported.

Its oil and gas needs have led Seoul to engage extensively with countries in the energy-rich Persian Gulf region. Over the past decade, progressively tighter sanctions on Iran’s exportation of oil have prompted Seoul to build new partnerships with the Gulf Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprised of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman. Qatar is a major exporter of the natural gas that is vital to South Korea’s economy. South Korea has also built extensive ties to the UAE based on their common interest in nuclear and other alternatives to fossil fuels. Under a $20 billion deal announced in December 2009, four commercial nuclear reactors are to be built in the UAE desert by a consortium led by KEPCO. Three of the nuclear units have been connected to the power grid, and the plant is expected to supply 25% of the UAE’s electricity needs once completed. The project also advances the UAE leadership’s goal to help lead a global transition to clean energy while freeing up more of the country’s ample crude oil reserves for export in the short-term. Barakah is the first nuclear power station in the Arabian Peninsula, the second in the Persian Gulf region (the other being the Russia-built nuclear plant at Bushehr, Iran), and the first commercial nuclear power station in an Arab country. It is also the first nuclear power plant built abroad by South Korean companies.

Beyond energy cooperation, Yoon’s recent visit exposed little-known and still low-level strategic cooperation between the South Korea and the UAE. During his trip, Yoon visited the 150-person “Akh unit” of South Korean special forces stationed in the UAE—a deployment that has received little prior public attention. While visiting the Akh forces, Yoon described the UAE as a “brother nation” tied by growing economic and military cooperation. By comparing the threat UAE faces from Iran to the threat South Korea faces from nuclear-armed North Korea, Yoon attracted rebuke from Iranian officials, who called it an “interfering statement.” However, South Korea, which abides by U.S. sanctions on the importation of oil, has little to lose by publicly isolating Iran. South Korea shares with the United States an intent to counter any further influence of Russia and China in the Gulf region. Yoon’s reference to the Iranian threat tracks with his country’s efforts to sell additional military equipment to the UAE. The Emiratis paid $3.5 billion for the South Korea-made Cheongung II, or “Heaven’s Bow,” surface-to-air missile system to enhance its defense against Iranian missiles and armed drones. Although neither Iran, Russia, nor China may not yet have cause for concern about the expanding relationship between the UAE and South Korea, the summit suggests the two countries’ may become strategically significant for both the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia in the not-too-distant future.