The Middle East is a region which contains 6% of the world’s population, 60% of the world’s oil reserves and 45% of the world’s natural gas reserves. Due to its abundant natural resources and strategic importance, the security of the Middle East region is closely linked to the stability of the rest of the world and global security.
In 1960s, in the midst of the détente between East and West and the birth of newly independent nations in the Middle East and Africa, the ROK Government established diplomatic relations with the Middle Eastern countries, initiating from the consular relations with Egypt in 1961.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran in 1962, the Republic of Korea has continued to expand its diplomatic ties with the Middle East and North Africa. Korea has diplomatic relations with 18 Middle Eastern countries, where there are seventeen Embassies and two Consulate Generals. Countries with which Korea has diplomatic ties include : Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Bahrain, the UAE, Algeria, Oman, Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, Tunisia and Yemen.
The economic cooperation has been developed remarkably along with the development of the diplomatic relations of the ROK with the region. During the 1970s and 1980s, the economic ties between the ROK and the Middle East were concentrated in the field of the oil industry, infrastructure, and plant construction. Two oil shocks in the 1970s prompted the ROK Government to serve to emphasize the strategic importance of the Middle East; thereafter it started to pursue amicable foreign policies toward the Middle East countries in order to secure a stable oil supply and construction projects from which the ROK economy benefited.
Since the 1990s, The ROK Government has been exerting efforts to lay the foundation of sustainable cooperation with the Middle Eastern countries in response to economic strategies of the Middle East countries to prepare the post-oil era. Korea has expanded the range of cooperation with Middle Eastern countries into higher value-added business including traditional cooperation in the energy and construction fields.
In token of the ROK Government’s endeavor to strengthen its ties with the Middle East in various fields, the President of the ROK visited the region recently. In 2015, President Park Geun-hye paid a visit to four GCC countries: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Arab United Emirates and Qatar. In 2016, President Park visited Iran, and it was a historical event as it marked the first presidential visit since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Iran in 1962.
Korea has been importing the majority of its energy from the Middle East and Korea-Middle East trade has been expanding in recent years. In 2015, the trade volume between the two totaled US$ 98.9 billion (Exports : $30.4 billion (5.8%of total exports) / Imports : $68.5 billion(15.7% of total imports)). In particular, regarding the energy trade, Korea imported 82.3% of crude oil and 53.1% of natural gas from the Middle East in 2015.
The ROK Government has been expanding its contributions to peace and stability in the Middle East. Korea has provided humanitarian assistance to support Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Yemen, confronted with difficult political and humanitarian situation. Furthermore, Korea’s Cheonghae(“Blue Sea”) naval unit is participating in international anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon(Dong-Myung Unit) has been engaging in peace-keeping operations in Lebanon.
To promote people to people exchanges between two regions, the ROK Government opened Korean cultural centers in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.