The Korea Herald


Yoon wraps up tour tainted by Iran remarks

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Jan. 20, 2023 - 14:41

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President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks at the World Economic Forum on Thursday in Switzerland. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks at the World Economic Forum on Thursday in Switzerland. (Yonhap)

DAVOS, Switzerland -- President Yoon Suk Yeol wrapped up his eight-day visit to the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland by seeking to boost the economy by drawing massive investments and encouraging global entrepreneurs to invest in Korea. His foreign policy moves, however, have been tainted by a diplomatic spat with Iran after calling the country "the UAE's enemy."

Iran went further and raised issue with its frozen funds in Seoul as well as Yoon's recent remarks on nuclear armament.

When asked by reporters about the growing tension with Iran, a senior official of the presidential office said in Davos, Switzerland, on condition of anonymity on Thursday night, "I felt that the focus of the matter is getting blurred when I saw (Iran) taking issue with the frozen funds issue and President Yoon's remarks related to nuclear armament."

"Since it was paradoxically proven to be a misunderstanding, we know that the Iranian ambassador to Korea was also invited and explained (the situation) clearly,” he said. “If the misunderstanding is resolved, I think normalization will come soon.”

"We believe neither side will intend to make the problem difficult by amplifying misunderstandings,” he added.

When asked whether the government plans to send a special envoy to Iran or has other high-level talks in mind, he answered, "I think it's an act of overdoing it."

Iran’s anger began when Yoon visited the Akh Unit of Korean troops stationed in the UAE to train special forces on Jan. 14. He told Korean soldiers, “The security of our brother country is our security,” and “The UAE's enemy, the most threatening country, is Iran."

The president's remarks triggered a stiff response from Iran.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister on legal affairs, Reza Najafi, lodged a “strong protest” over Yoon’s “interfering statements.” He urged the Korean government to immediately explain and correct its position, saying the remarks disturb these “friendly” relations and harm regional peace and stability.

Najafi also accused Seoul of pursuing an “unfriendly approach” toward Iran, citing Korean government measures such as freezing Iranian funds. Iran has repeatedly demanded that Korea release some $7 billion of its funds frozen under US sanctions.

Korea's Foreign Ministry sought to soothe Iran's anger by repeatedly saying Yoon’s comments were meant to “encourage our troops” serving their duty in the UAE, and had nothing to do with foreign relations with Iran.

President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is on a state visit to the United Arab Emirates, greets soldiers during his visits to the Akh unit dispatched to the area on Sunday (local time). (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is on a state visit to the United Arab Emirates, greets soldiers during his visits to the Akh unit dispatched to the area on Sunday (local time). (Yonhap)

What he achieved at UAE, Davos

Overall, the visits to the UAE and Switzerland were marked by Yoon's efforts to boost South Korea's economy that has been struggling with recession fears and inflation, by meeting with global entrepreneurs to promote the Korean investment environment and to attract investments from the Middle East and Europe.

Yoon drew $30 billion in investments during a summit with Emirati leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, agreeing on stronger strategic cooperation in various sectors, including nuclear energy, conventional energy and defense.

He also attracted an investment of $300 million from Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas during his trip in Switzerland.

Yoon touted himself as a salesman for South Korea, emphasizing the economy throughout the overseas trip.

The president promised Korean business leaders accompanying him that the government would do its best to support companies to overcome challenges in the global market. Yoon also met with foreign entrepreneurs at Davos and encouraged them to invest in Korea, telling them his office is always open for them.

Yoon particularly sought to refocus on nuclear power plants.

During his visit to the UAE, he visited the Barakah nuclear power plant accompanied by Sheikh Mohammed and leaders of Samsung and Hyundai.

The Barakah nuclear power plant was the first nuclear power plant in the country and the first overseas nuclear power plant designed and built by Korea.

At the site, Yoon showed a solid willingness to win more orders from the UAE, which is reviewing the construction of additional plants. He also seeks to enter other markets, including the UK and the UAE, based on their cooperation experience.

In his speech at Davos, the president reaffirmed the nation’s willingness to refocus on nuclear power.

“As a key means to bolster our energy security while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, we must turn our attention to nuclear power and clean hydrogen,” he said.

In a question-and-answer session after Yoon’s speech, Klaus Schwab, chairperson of the World Economic Forum, asked about Korea’s future nuclear power plant strategies.

Yoon replied that Korea’s nuclear power ecosystem had faced difficulties due to past phase-out policies, but the country will expand nuclear power generation in the future.

“We also wish to share our nuclear power technologies with other countries through various exports and cooperation,” Yoon said.