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S. Korea, Saudi Arabia agree to boost defense cooperation
By Chang Jae-soon
RIYADH, Feb. 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and Saudi Arabia agreed Wednesday to significantly bolster their defense cooperation to elevate relations in non-economic sectors to match those of their prospering business ties, an official said Wednesday.

   President Lee Myung-bak reached the agreement in talks with Saudi Defense Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and invited the minister to visit South Korea at an early date, senior presidential press secretary Choe Geum-nak said.

   Lee has been on an official visit to Riyadh since Tuesday.

   Officials of both countries agreed to conclude a defense cooperation pact at an early date, possibly in the first half of the year, and establish a military attache at the Saudi Embassy in Seoul, who will be the country's first in the Far East, Choe said.

   "I hope South Korea and Saudi Arabia will strengthen their cooperation in various areas on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of relations," Lee was quoted as saying during the meeting. "I anticipate closer cooperation in the defense area too."

   Salman was quoted as saying the countries will work together to move defense cooperation forward.

  
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Saudi Defense Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud hold talks in Riyadh on Feb. 8. (Yonhap)


A defense cooperation pact could be signed if and when the Saudi minister visits Seoul, Choe said. If Salman is unable to pay a visit to Seoul, South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin will visit Riyadh for talks, the official said.

   "The focus of this visit is to lift cooperation in non-economic areas to the level of the economic sector," the press secretary said. "What is important is that the two sides agreed to elevate defense cooperation as well to match such a level."

   Choe declined to offer specifics on cooperation in the defense industry but sources said the two sides have been in talks on weapons projects, such as exporting ammunition and howitzers to the Middle Eastern nation.

   The meeting with the defense minister, who is a half-brother of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, came a day after Lee won commitment from Saudi's oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, to provide Seoul with as much crude as needed.

   The commitment came as Seoul prepares to cut back on imports from Iran in line with U.S. sanctions. Such a commitment from one of the world's major oil producers is expected to alleviate concerns in South Korea that a drastic cut in oil imports from Iran, which is accused of seeking illicit nuclear programs, could harm the slowing economy.

   Later Wednesday, Lee and King Abdullah were to attend the Janadriyah national festival, the country's largest annual cultural event. South Korea was invited as the "guest of honor" to this year's event, which began Wednesday.

   Officials said the invitation shows how much importance Riyadh attaches to ties with Seoul.

   On the sidelines of Lee's visit, South Korean Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs Minister Kwon Do-youp also held talks with his Saudi counterpart, Transportation Minister Jubarah bin Eid Al-Suraiseri, about a pilot project to build 10,000 homes in the country.

   The pilot project is part of a 500,000-home construction project.

   "The Saudi government is drawing up various projects for the welfare of its people," an official said. "One of them is this 500,000-home construction project."

   jschang@yna.co.kr
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