South Korea ramps up arms exports in goal to become world supplier

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For Russia’s war in Ukraine, increasing demand for weapons in Western countries has given South Korea’s defense industry an unprecedented opportunity to become a top arms seller and global player.

South Korean defense companies have more than doubled their overseas sales this year, with the biggest arms export deal to date with Poland in the summer. The first shipment of K2 main battle tanks and K9 self-propelled howitzers arrived in Poland this month, and President Andrzej Duda praised South Korea as a country that can quickly supply the weapons in demand. At the ceremony, he hailed a “quick, critical delivery” in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

South Korea is increasingly seen as an affordable supplier to countries seeking to replenish their depleted stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons. The country’s arms exports topped $17 billion in November this year, well above a record $7.25 billion. Of these sales, the deal with Poland accounted for $12.4 billion, followed by the $1.7 billion deal with Egypt.

South Korea’s arms procurement minister Eom Dong-hwan said “the world is watching closely” the emerging defense cooperation between his country and Poland. The Polish government has purchased nearly 1,000 K2 tanks, dozens of FA-50 jets, hundreds of K9 howitzers and Chunmoo multiple rocket launchers, and Eom expressed hope that the equipment would contribute to the nation’s deterrence during “sudden changes in the security situation”. .

South Korea’s defense industry has its origins in Cold War hostilities with rival North Korea in the mid-1940s. The South, initially armed by US forces to fight the Soviet-backed North Korean War, pursued its own weapons systems when the United States scaled back its military presence in the early 1990s. The threat of conflict with the North remains a major focus of the industry today.

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“As a country that technically remains at war, South Korea has a unique capability to mass-produce weapons that can be immediately used in a real war,” said Choi Gi-il, a military expert at South Korea’s Sangji University. According to Choi, government support has given the industry a “decisive competitive advantage” and the global arms market has turned its attention to the weapons’ performance and cost-effectiveness.

“Last year in Ukraine was like a coming-out party, a public unveiling of what was going very well. [in Korea] and publicly underestimated. But it’s not just Poland. They are winning in the Middle East. They’re winning in Southeast Asia,” said Rexon Ryu, president of the Asia Group in Washington, who served as chief of staff to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the Obama administration.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol announced in August that the country aims to move up four places in the ranking and reach the top spot by 2027. to become the fourth largest arms exporter in the world. As part of the plan, Seoul unveiled 770 million yuan this month. investment and research. Yoon and his defense officials said Australia, Norway and other countries are seeking cooperation with South Korean arms makers.

South Korean defense companies often say they want to become the “Hyundai of defense exports,” a reference to the South Korean automaker that originally filled a niche in affordable sedans to compete with giants like Toyota and Ford. Hyundai is today the world’s largest car manufacturer, including a manufacturer of electric vehicles.

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The country’s defense industry is seeking to coordinate with and sell to the United States. Some U.S. defense companies are closely watching where South Korea might become competitive with American companies, especially if, as Biden administration officials anticipate, future needs mean looking for solutions outside the strained domestic defense industry.

Bill LaPlante, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told a crowd of lawmakers, analysts and military officials at the Reagan National Defense Forum this month that he now meets regularly with his allies and partners to discuss more “co-production” of weapons and “joint development” due to the war in Ukraine.

“There’s this recognition that we’re all going to have to do this together,” LaPlante said. “We will have to feel comfortable using equipment developed in another country in our military and vice versa.”

Large-scale sales proposals by South Korean defense companies did not target Ukraine as a potential direct user. Wary of its bilateral relationship with Moscow, the Yoon government has said it will not send lethal weapons to Ukraine, despite repeated requests from Kiev.

“Advantages [of that position] are much, much higher” than the risk of angering Russian President Vladimir Putin, noted Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

However, Korean weapons enter Ukraine through other countries. South Korea is ready to send 155mm howitzer shells to the United States for Ukraine under a confidential deal reported last month by the Wall Street Journal. South Korea’s defense ministry said the discussions were taking place “with the understanding that the US will be the end user”.

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A senior U.S. defense official said the structure of the American munitions deal — the United States already sends thousands of artillery shells to the Ukrainians every month — helps Seoul navigate both domestic politics and diplomatic relations.

“It is extremely painful for the South Koreans to donate ammunition to Ukraine,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Martin Meiners acknowledged the U.S. government’s discussions about possible munitions purchases from South Korea’s defense industry. Meiners said the Pentagon does not release specific numbers or timetables for munitions production or capacity.

North Korea turns up the heat again. That’s why.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has accused North Korea of ​​helping arm Russia’s military and then trying to cover up its actions. North Korea directly supplied anti-personnel missiles to the Russian mercenary group Wagner, White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday.

South Korea’s growing defense industry and the fighting in Ukraine have been an economic boon for some manufacturing cities. South Gyeongsang Province, which faces “rust belt” concerns as its once-mighty manufacturing sector declines, is one of the areas poised to reclaim its past glory.

A recent editorial in the Kyungnam Shinmun newspaper said that the province’s defense industry has been “swept” by the latest wave of business: “As the Russia-Ukraine war continues, our defense industry has become fertile for South Korean exports. “

Lee reported from Tokyo and Lamothe from Washington.

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