ABSTRACT

Although many major cataclysmic events in the modern Middle East temporarily attracted – and occasionally engaged – South Koreans, the region largely remained a “dark corner” of the ROK’s foreign policy with little or no serious impact on its national security priorities.1 Even when South Korean policymakers and business elites were truly enmeshed in affairs connected to the Middle East, they did not perceive any particular need to encourage the general public to think of the region as having long-term importance. It took a convoluted combination of internal and external developments to alert them to the necessity, even the urgency, of encouraging South Koreans, particularly the ambitious younger generations, to pursue their dreams in the Middle East. These developments had much to do with the financial crisis that led to dwindling economic opportunities at home and in other well-known destinations abroad – and, hence, to a growing number of university graduates in search of employment. Given the rising economic prospects of the resourcerich yet hitherto largely unexplored Middle East, and the Persian Gulf region in particular, which had already tempted other East Asians to flock to the region in large numbers, many Koreans now started to look westward. Less than three months before the end of Roh Moo-hyun’s government,

Foreign Minister Min-soon Song said, during a trip to the region in early December 2007, that “our country’s next spreading road will be in the Middle East.”2 The task of following through on this concept of a “spreading road” then fell to the subsequent government led by Lee Myung-bak (also widely known as LMB) to frame policies pertinent to South Korea’s new intentions in the region. In addition to being able to capitalize on lessons learned from years of practical experience in the Middle East, Lee began his presidency at a time when oil prices began to skyrocket and a time which therefore saw enormous revenues flow into the coffers of the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf region. By July 2008, oil had reached as much as $147 per barrel, up from about $30 per barrel in 2003 and $50-$60 per barrel in 2005. For many inside the new government, especially Lee himself, this eventuality prompted nostalgic memories of the early 1970s, when petroleum prices

swelled from $3.80 per barrel in October 1973 to $14.70 per barrel in January 1974.3 Although oil prices later plummeted, they never bounced back to their original levels, remaining, on average, at least three times higher than the 2003 benchmark. In the midst of the global financial crisis, when much of the developed

world was stuck in an economic depression, the flow of petrodollars into the Persian Gulf offered attractive business opportunities that were hard to find elsewhere. It is true that the idea of a “spreading road” had been raised before the petroleum price hike and that, more importantly, its intended goals meant something far beyond just the recycling of oil revenues. However, the fortuitous combination of “a second Middle East boom” and a new government in South Korea led by someone with practical knowledge of the region – who had already experienced the first Middle East boom during the 1970s – significantly helped facilitate the formation by the ROK government of a new foreign policy. Lee capitalized on his previous personal experience in the Middle East and helped make this new policy a necessary precursor to deepening the East Asian country’s established interests in the region. With respect to the Persian Gulf, Lee’s “déjà vu diplomacy” manifested itself particularly in a flurry of serious attempts to forge multifarious and perennial connections to members of the GCC; a series of efforts to penetrate Kurdistan’s energy and construction industries; and numerous strategies to overcome the obstacles posed by Western sanctions against Iran.