+ A

Chief of staff’s UAE trip still roils Blue House

Dec 20,2017
The presidential chief of staff’s suspicious trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) remained in the headlines Tuesday after it was revealed that a senior intelligence official, who once served as an adviser for Korea’s state-run energy company, was a member of his entourage.

Suh Dong-gu, the first deputy director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), accompanied Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok on the trip and was in the Korean delegation’s meeting with the UAE’s leader, video footage released by media in the Middle Eastern country showed. The Blue House confirmed Tuesday that Suh accompanied Im, but dismissed speculation that he was there to discuss alleged troubles with the nuclear plant project Korea is building for the UAE.

President Moon Jae-in sent Im as the special envoy to the UAE and Lebanon from Dec. 9 to 12. The trip stirred controversy due to the Blue House’s dubious explanation.

It said the trip was intended to cheer up Korean troops in the two countries and improve bilateral ties with the Middle Eastern countries. But Defense Minister Song Young-moo visited those troops just last month, and the Blue House only announced Im’s trip on Dec. 10, after his departure.

The Blue House initially said Im was accompanied by Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk, Assistant Foreign Minister Yoon Soon-gu and two staffers from the Presidential Secretariat. An additional member of the Korean delegation, however, was spotted in a report from a UAE media outlet, Sharjah24, released on Monday. The NIS’s first deputy director, Suh Dong-gu, was present when Im met the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Moon appointed Suh as one of the three deputy directors of the NIS in June to oversee intelligence operations on North Korea and overseas affairs. Suh, a former diplomat, once worked as the overseas resources development adviser for the Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) from July 2008.

In 2009, Kepco won the $18.6 billion deal to build the UAE’s first nuclear reactor. Kepco is building four 1,400-megawatt reactors simultaneously, the world’s largest single nuclear project. The deal was clinched during the Lee Myung-bak presidency.

The Blue House said Im met with the crown prince on Dec. 10, but withheld other details, including Im’s delivery of a personal letter from Moon to the UAE leader, remarks made during the meeting and a full list of participants.

“Collecting overseas intelligence is a duty of the first deputy director of the NIS,” a Blue House official said.

“Suh’s participation has nothing to do with his past job.”

The UAE media report also showed that Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, participated in the meeting. The Blue House has said he attended in his capacity as chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi, not as chairman of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation.

Opposition politicians argue that Im was sent to the UAE because Korea’s ties with the Middle Eastern nation were in jeopardy due to the Moon administration’s campaign against former President Lee. They said the UAE was reportedly furious that the Moon administration was spreading rumors about corruption in the nuclear plant deal.

They also said the UAE was concerned about operation and maintenance of the reactors because of Moon’s policy to phase out nuclear energy in Korea.

The Blue House said Tuesday it was customary to keep quiet about a senior intelligence official’s travel. “That’s just a norm,” a Blue House official said Tuesday. “But he appeared in the UAE media report because it wasn’t a top secret.

“There is no trouble with the nuclear plant project,” he said. “Since there is no problem, all speculation linking Im’s trip to the project is wrong.”

He refused to elaborate on any specifics of the discussion between Im and the crown prince. “The UAE is a monarchy, and it is the country’s principle to not make public remarks of top leaders,” he said.

The source also said the UAE is a strategic partner to expand Korea’s diplomatic influence in the Middle East. “The partnership was strong when the Lee administration carried out a national project a decade ago,” he said. “The relationship was maintained until the early days of the Park Geun-hye administration, but weakened later in her tenure.

“Restoring that partnership was Im’s mission as the special presidential envoy, and information exchange was a part of it,” he said. “That was why Suh accompanied him.”

Another senior Moon associate said the president has always treated the UAE as a high diplomatic priority. “Moon had a series of phone calls with leaders of major countries after he took office, and the call with the crown prince was one of the early calls,” he said. “The UAE also had multiple contacts with the Blue House in addition to the leaders’ phone conversation.”

Moon took office on May 10 after a snap election victory and the phone call with the crown prince took place on June 7. It was the 17th phone call with a state leader and the first phone call with a leader of a Middle Eastern country.

At the time, Moon stressed his commitment to the nuclear plant project. The crown prince invited Moon to attend the construction completion ceremony for the plant.

The two leaders also had a discussion on defense cooperation. Moon vowed to put more efforts into improving bilateral defense cooperation.

The crown prince, according to the Blue House, said he prefers carrying out armament projects with countries that are good friends and asked Moon to visit Korea’s contingent stationed in the UAE. The UAE Military Training Cooperation Group, Akh Unit, was dispatched to the country in January 2011 at the request of the crown prince, after he was impressed with a Korean special forces’ demonstration during a visit to Korea in 2010. The unit includes about 150 troops, including special forces and counter-terrorism forces.

Moon continued to put efforts into defense industry cooperation with the UAE. The Middle Eastern country dispatched its defense minister and head of the state-run defense company Emirates Advanced Investments Group (EAI) to the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition in October, and Moon attended the event.

At the trade show, Moon met with an UAE official and promoted Hanwha Techwin’s newly developed Chunmoo rockets for possible sale.

“The biggest goal for Im’s trip was to improve relations with the UAE for the projects that are currently being pushed forward,” a senior official at the Blue House said. “Moon has a strong belief that bilateral ties must be stronger than during the Lee presidency in order to push forward many other projects. Although we cannot say in detail what those deals are, Im was sent as a special envoy because the timing was urgent.”

He added that Im did not talk about specific projects because his goal was improving ties generally.

According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UAE was one of the world’s largest arms importers from 2012 till 2016. India was ranked No. 1 and Saudi Arabia, China and the UAE followed.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly held a House Steering Committee meeting on Tuesday on the demand of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, as it wants to summon Im to answer questions. The ruling Democratic Party, however, boycotted the session.

Im is currently on annual leave until Thursday.

BY SER MYO-JA, KANG TAE-HWA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]