In his 2002 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush lumped in Iraq, Iran and North Korea together as an “Axis of Evil.” At the time, many criticized the speech, wondering what North Korea had to do with Iran or Iraq – but at least one person was listening, apparently.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol was visiting South Korean special operations forces in the United Arab Emirates on January 16, 2023. There, he gave a speech that described the UAE as South Korea’s “brother nation” and compared the threat Iran posed to the UAE to the the constant threat South Korea faced from North Korea.
“The security of our brother nation is our security,” Yoon said. “The enemy of the UAE, its most-threatening nation, is Iran, and our enemy is North Korea.”
Iran wasn’t thrilled with the comparison, and the Islamic Republic’s foreign ministry called the speech “interfering statements.” Later in the same week, the leadership of both countries summoned each other’s ambassador. Iran summoned the South Korean ambassador to protest the remark, while South Korea summoned Iran’s ambassador to explain the remarks further.
“As we explained several times, [Yoon’s] reported comments were meant to encourage our troops serving their duties in the UAE, and had nothing to do with Iran’s foreign relations, including South Korea-Iran relations,” said South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk. “Our government’s will to develop relations with Iran remains unchanged.”
South Korea and the UAE, which consists of seven emirates, notably the capital of Abu Dhabi and its most populous emirate, Dubai, have grown closer in recent years. The two countries have signed multiple military and economic cooperation agreements. The UAE also shares a maritime border with perennial bad neighbor, Iran.
Around 150 South Korean troops are currently stationed in the United Arab Emirates, and have been there since 2011. The cooperation calls for special operations training and joint military exercises. It’s all a part of South Korea’s agreement to build the Middle Eastern country’s first-ever nuclear power plant.
Iran and the Emirates share a much more peaceful border than that of North and South Korea’s, but only just barely. Three islands in the Persian Gulf are disputed territory between the two countries, which have been under Iranian control since 1971. Iran is also critical of UAE inviting Western powers like France to establish permanent bases within its borders.The UAE is also closely tied to Saudi Arabia, Iran's chief regional rival in the Middle East.
The biggest and most recent rift in relations between the two is the 2020 Abraham Accords, wherein the UAE joined other Arab countries in normalizing relations with Israel. Iran viewed the deal as a stab in the back to the Palestinian cause. IRan leveled numerous threats against any participating country, including the UAE.
In making the deal, Iran said it would place blame for any attack on the Islamic Republic on the UAE and that it considered the Emirates a “legitimate, easy target.”
While inflammatory, it pales in comparison to the harsh rhetoric North Korea bombards South Korea with on any given day. Still, South Korea’s special forces are training UAE’s forces to defend against potential attacks from terrorists and rogue actors.
In the Middle East, most of these are trained and funded by the Iranian regime, so despite the talk of de-escalation, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol may have been closer to the truth than South Korea’s Foreign Ministry would admit.