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Defense chief takes flak for leaving Seoul amid N.K. threat

Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin left for Saudi Arabia on Monday night for a defense cooperation deal despite growing tensions over North Korea’s preparations for a third nuclear test.

Seoul officials defended his three-day visit, saying that the military was fully ready for all possible contingencies. They underscored that the bilateral pact would help bolster Korea’s defense industry and enhance its energy security.

“We are all ready prepared for an emergency as we have made all the arrangements for the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and the vice defense minister to handle all possible contingencies in place of the minister,” a senior Defense Ministry official told reporters.
Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin (Yonhap News)
Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin (Yonhap News)

“Saudi Arabia wanted to ink the treaty before Seoul’s incumbent government ends its term as it has strived for the pact. Saudi is one of the world’s largest defense markets, and the pact is meaningful as it would help us secure a bridgehead into the market.”

Kim and his counterpart Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Tuesday signed the agreement to institute a regular vice-minister-level strategic dialogue, expand high-level, people-to-people exchanges and bolster cooperation in the defense industry, officials said.

“The defense minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia will serve as an opportunity to take bilateral cooperative ties in defense and military sectors to a new level,” Defense Deputy Minister of Policy Lim Gwan-bin told reporters.

“On top of that, it will also contribute greatly to bolstering bilateral practical cooperation in energy security and other areas.”

Lim added that the agreement would be the foundation upon which the two countries can spur other types of cooperation including the sharing of military intelligence and the acquisition of military products.

After signing the pact, Minister Kim was also to meet Minister of State Miteb bin Abdullah and award him Seoul’s order of diplomatic service merit to recognize his contribution to enhancing the two countries’ relations.

Last June, Saudi Arabia set up a contingent of military attaches in South Korea, paving the way for deeper bilateral defense cooperation.

Five Middle East states including Saudi Arabia have such defense cooperation pacts with South Korea. Israel and Kuwait have lower-level agreements with Seoul, which are not binding under international law while Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have treaty-level pacts which are binding, officials explained.

Saudi Arabia is a lucrative defense market for South Korea. Its defense spending for 2011 was $46.2 billon. Saudi Arabia has some 315,000 troops, Seoul officials said.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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