The governments of South Korea and Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly research and develop new weapons technology, the two parties confirmed on Monday.
The agreement is the latest expansion of defense cooperation between Seoul and Riyadh, which has exploded as conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol expands efforts to elevate South Korea as a major military technology provider. Yoon has found a willing partner in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is endeavoring to diversify his alliances in the face of the catastrophic deterioration in relations between Saudi Arabia and America under leftist current President Joe Biden. Particularly aiding Saudi-South Korean ties was Biden’s decision to stop selling “offensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia in 2021, caving to pressure from pro-Iran groups to stop supporting Saudi efforts against the Iran-backed Houthi terrorists of Yemen.
Anonymous reports in the past year have indicated that Biden has toyed with the idea of restoring those weapons sales, but he has yet to do so. In the meantime, the Houthis have launched a terrorist campaign against commercial shipping in the Red Sea that has devastated global commerce, and Saudi Arabia has inked numerous deals to buy South Korean weapons.
The latest agreement surfaced following a visit to Saudi Arabia by South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik this weekend to attend the World Defense Show, a military industry showcase in Riyadh. The World Defense Show gave global investors and interested state parties the chance to discuss collaboration in defense technology and related topics with Saudi authorities, who expressed enthusiasm about military development becoming a formidable part of the Saudi economy.
“The sector is expected to contribute as much as $25 billion (93.75 billion Saudi riyals) to the country’s GDP by 2030,” the Saudi news outlet al-Arabiya reported. “It is also expected to support 40,000 direct and 60,000 indirect job opportunities, according to government estimates.”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is banking on the defense industry as a key pillar of “Vision 2030,” his long-term plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from near-complete reliance on oil.
On the sidelines of the event, Shin, the South Korean defense minister, met with several high-ranking Saudi officials, including his counterpart Khalid bin Salman al-Saud and the Minister of the National Guard Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz al Saud, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
“On the margins the defense exhibition, South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) and Saudi defense ministry signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to pave the way for cooperation in the defense industry and joint weapons development,” Yonhap reported. “Under the MOU, the two sides will launch a bilateral committee to jointly conduct research and development of weapons systems for continued cooperation in the defense industry, DAPA said.”
The minister in charge of DAPA, Eom Dong-hwan, confirmed the agreement on Monday, celebrating it as an “opportunity to enhance practical cooperation.”
“We hope that the partnership will solidify the future-oriented strategic partnership relationship between the two countries,” Eom’s statement read.
Neither side revealed any details regarding what kind of “weapons systems” their joint working group would be working to design, or who would be participating in working group activities. The committee will, however, be focusing on large projects described as “mid-to-long-term.”
Defense Minister Shin’s visit to Saudi Arabia is part of a Middle East tour that will also include stops in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where Yoon has also prioritized selling South Korean weapons. Yoon’s plan to expand the percentage of the defense market controlled by South Korea has relied heavily on the Middle East. According to Reuters, South Korea’s “weapons exports to the Middle East grew nearly tenfold between 2013 and 2022, according to the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry” – and arms sales generally increased by nearly $10 billion between 2021 to 2022. Yoon took office in 2022.
Yoon made the first-ever visit by a South Korean president to Saudi Arabia in October, engaging in meetings with Mohammed bin Salman that prioritized “large-scale defense industry cooperation.”
“The defense industry is emerging as a blue ocean in our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo, who traveled to Saudi Arabia with Yoon, said at the time. “Large-scale defense industry cooperation discussions are in the final stage, in various areas such as antiaircraft defense systems and firearms.”
“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 asserted. “We believe Yoon’s trip will be a catalyst to expand the scale of our defense export market.”
Meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, Yoon emphasized economic cooperation generally, not necessarily in just defense.
“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.”
Yoon’s visit reciprocated a trip by Mohammed bin Salman to South Korea in November 2022 in which the crown prince secured $75 billion in investment agreements from Korean companies, many of them for “Neom,” a proposed futuristic city in what is now a sparsely populated chunk of northern Saudi Arabia. Emerging from meetings with the crown prince and his officials at the time, South Korean energy minister Lee Chang-yang said “Korea’s state-of-the-art architecture” would play a major role in the development of Neom.