South Korea - AP - 1.10.11
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak making a speech during a ceremony to mark the 63rd Korea Armed Forces Day at the military headquarters in Gyeryong, South Korea, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Photo by AP
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The purchase of the Israel Air Force's new training plane is causing serious diplomatic tension between Israel and South Korea: Fearing that Israel has already decided on a rival plane made in Italy, the Koreans are now threatening in return to cancel all their deals for purchasing Israeli defense systems.

In recent years, the South Koreans have purchased an average of $280 million a year in such defense products.

The decision on the IAF's new trainer is supposed to be made within a few months, toward the end of this year or early in 2012. The deal includes over 20 planes and is worth $1 billion spread over a few years. The air force is considering two planes, the Italian M346 trainer and the South Korean T-50 jet. The force held test flights for both planes earlier this year.

The decision is to be based on criteria set by the IAF, but not exclusively: It seems the final decision will also be influenced significantly by Israel's relations with both countries.

Here the Italians have a major advantage: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a staunch supporter of Israel and his relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are very close. In light of Israel's growing diplomatic isolation, the government sees great importance in preserving Israel's close relationship with Italy.

That is exactly what is worrying the South Koreans. Seoul fears that the competition for the new plane, which Israel has presented as a down-to-the-wire race, is actually a done deal that has already been decided in favor of the Italians.

The matter was discussed this week at a relatively tense meeting between South Korea's ambassador to Israel and the director general of the Defense Ministry, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Udi Shani. Next week, the head of Korean defense procurement is expected to visit Israel to discuss the matter again. And now, the Koreans are threatening to cancel deals with Israeli defense industries.

In recent years, Korean purchases have increased greatly, including the Green Pine radar system manufactured by Elta and another radar system for combat planes. The Koreans have also shown interest in missile interception systems still under development, such as David's Sling, manufactured by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

The Defense Ministry said no decision has yet been made on the plane. "The ministry is examining both candidates to choose the best combat trainer for the air force," it added.