SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea and Iran have summoned each other’s ambassadors in a diplomatic spat triggered by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s comments describing Iran as the “enemy” of the United Arab Emirates during a trip to that country this week.
While visiting South Korean special forces stationed in the UAE on Monday, Yoon described the hosts as South Korea’s “brother nation” tied by growing economic and military cooperation, and then compared the threat he said UAE faces from Iran to the threat South Korea faces from nuclear-armed 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.”
Yoon’s remarks triggered an irritated response from Iran’s Foreign Ministry, which said it was investigating Yoon’s “interfering statements.” South Korea’s government insists Yoon was trying to encourage the South Korean troops in the UAE and didn’t intend to comment on Iran’s foreign relations, urging against an “unnecessary overinterpretation” of his comments.
About 150 South Korean troops are stationed in the UAE, engaging in combined special forces training and other joint military activities. The deployment, which began in 2011, grew out South Korea’s deal with the UAE to build the country’s first nuclear power plant.
South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong on Thursday called Iranian Ambassador Saeed Badamchi Shabestari to the ministry to explain Seoul’s stance “once again,” ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk said in a briefing.
Lim said the meeting came in response to the summoning of South Korea’s ambassador to Tehran by the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday over Yoon’s comments.
Lim said Shabestari told Cho that he would “faithfully” convey Seoul’s explanation of Yoon’s comments to his bosses in Tehran, but didn’t provide further details about the conversation.
“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,” Lim said. “Our government’s will to develop relations with Iran remains unchanged.”
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said on its website that its deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, Reza Najafi, lodged a “strong protest” over Yoon’s “meddlesome comments” after summoning South Korean Ambassador Yun Kang-hyeon.
Najafi said during the meeting that Yoon’s comments were “tantamount to interference” in what he described as Iran’s friendly relations with most Gulf states and undermined “peace and security in the region,” the ministry said.
Najafi also mentioned friction between Iran and South Korea over billions of dollars in Iranian funds remaining in Seoul, frozen by American sanctions over Iran’s collapsed nuclear deal with world powers.
Najafi said South Korea’s failure to resolve the dispute could prompt Tehran to reconsider bilateral ties, according to his ministry. Iran held a South Korean oil tanker for months in 2021 amid the dispute.
Yoon’s comments, which have been criticized by his political opponents at home as a “diplomatically disastrous,” came as the UAE attempts 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.
The UAE has spent billions of dollars purchasing South Korean surface-to-air missile systems in part of efforts to protect itself against aerial threats. Those threats include long-range drone attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels — weapons likely built by or with Tehran’s help.