South Korea president, in UAE, backs return to nuclear power

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said Monday that his nation's efforts to be carbon neutral by 2050 would rely in part on returning to nuclear power, even though his predecessor had tried to move away from atomic power.

Yoon's comments at a summit in the United Arab Emirates, made in front of the country's leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, served to underline Seoul's commitment to nuclear power as it works to finish the Arabian Peninsula's first atomic power plant. That could see South Korea in line for lucrative maintenance contracts and future projects in the UAE, which Seoul has grown closer to over recent years.

“Korea has … declared its 2050 carbon neutrality goal," Yoon said in an address at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. "To achieve this goal, we are working to rapidly restore the nuclear power system, which supplies carbon-free electricity.”

“If our two countries join efforts in clean energy development … it will not only enhance our two countries energy security but also will contribute to global energy market stability,” Yoon added.

Yoon's predecessor, President Moon Jae-in, sought to move South Korea away from nuclear power amid safety and graft scandals and Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. But the renewed global focus on climate change — and the surge in fossil fuel prices after the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia's war on Ukraine — has some reconsidering nuclear power.

The UAE also promises to be carbon neutral by 2050 — a target that remains difficult to assess and one that the Emirates still has not fully explained how it will reach. The $20 billion Barakah nuclear power plant, Seoul’s first attempt to build atomic reactors abroad, will one day account for nearly a quarter of all of the Emirates’ power needs.

Yoon traveled later Monday to the Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi’s far western desert near Saudi Arabia with Sheikh Mohammed before a planned business summit back in the capital.

On his arrival back, Yoon told the summit that, using the Barakah plant as an example, he hoped the Emirates and South Korea could expand this “new model of cooperation” to include nuclear fuel, small reactors and other joint advances to third countries.

“Through the construction of the Barakah nuclear power plant, we were able to develop relations that are now genuinely like brothers,” Yoon said.

Yoon's embrace of nuclear power also provides a guarantee of sorts that South Korea remains invested in servicing the Barakah plant. France, also home to nuclear power plants and another Emirati business and military ally, has sought contracts here as well.

Already, Yoon's four-day trip the UAE has seen a promise from Sheikh Mohammed to invest some $30 billion in the country. Heavyweight business leaders from Hyundai, Samsung and other companies also are taking part in the state visit.

On Sunday, Yoon also visited South Korean special forces stationed in the United Arab Emirates, a murky deployment that grew out of Seoul's deal over the nuclear power plant. The Akh unit is comprised of some 150 troops.

“The UAE is our brother nation. … This isn’t a foreign country called the UAE — this right here, is your country,” a hawkish Yoon told the gathered forces. Both he and his wife, who accompanied him on the trip, wore desert fatigues.

“The security of our brother nation is our security. The enemy of the UAE, its most-threatening nation, is Iran, and our enemy is North Korea. … We are in a very similar situation with the UAE,” he said.

Yoon's comments comes as the Emiratis have been trying to hedge in its relationship with Iran, a major business partner. The UAE also is home to around 3,500 American troops at Al Dhafra Air Base, a naval outpost in Fujairah and other locations.

Already, the Emiratis have paid $3.5 billion for the Cheongung II, or “Heaven's Bow,” surface-to-air missile system from South Korea to protect itself against aerial threats. Emirati officials have grown increasingly concerned about protecting their airspace after being targeted in long-range drone attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels — drones likely built by or with Tehran's help.

South Korea has found itself squeezed by the tensions over Iran's collapsed nuclear deal with world powers. Billions of dollars in Iranian funds remain in Seoul, frozen by American sanctions. Iran held a South Korean oil tanker for months in 2021 amid the dispute.

On Tuesday, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said Tehran was “investigating” Yoon's "interfering statements."

Yoon's wife Kim Keon Hee, meanwhile, had a different question for the troops. She asked if the soldiers had seen foxes in the Emirati desert.

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Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.