Ukraine War Turns Korea a Major Arms Exporter
As Russia and China recede from European and Asian arms bazaars, South Korea fills the gap
By: Shim Jae Hoon
South Korea is on the way to joining the ranks of major arms exporters as Russian aggression in Ukraine triggers a global race for arms acquisition, already triggering an indignant response from Moscow, which has issued a stern warning that supplying arms to Ukraine would make Seoul a participant in the conflict, according to a Reuters dispatch.
Nonetheless, as Big Power arms suppliers like Russia and China temporarily recede from arms bazaars in Europe and Asia, South Korea is filling the gap with medium-level technology arms like K2 Black Panther tanks, K9 self-propelled howitzers, Javelin-type multiple launch rockets, and FA50 supersonic light combat fighters. It is a significant development for a country that has long depended on the US for most of its heavy weapons supplies. After decades of development and marketing of its own modified weapons, Seoul now appears ready to move into the global marketplace as a significant new player.
According to information provided by major arms makers such as Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), which markets the FA50s, and Hanwha Defense Co. Ltd producing the K9 howitzers, the global outlook appears good. Seoul’s total arms contracts ranging from tanks and howitzers to multiple launch rockets and surface-to-air missiles, aircraft, and patrol vessels ran to a whopping US$17.3 billion last year, more than double the US$7.25 billion of 2021. At a recent meeting of government and industry leaders, Defense Minister Lee Jong Sup estimated that this year’s export contracts could run to as much as US$20 billion, placing Seoul behind global giants like the US, China, Russia, and France.
At the current pace of marketing, Seoul could soon take fourth place behind these giants, claiming a significant share of the market for medium-level arms, says Jang Won Joon, a senior defense market researcher at the Korea Institute of Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET), a government-sponsored thinktank.
Fueling such optimism is President Yoon Suk Yeol, who came to office last May vowing to develop a domestic arms industry with an eye for global markets. On numerous occasions, he has described his role as Korea’s chief marketing officer, saying “I am going to be known as a salesman president.” The government and industry have launched a five-year arms development plan ending in 2027 which is designed to upgrade products and increase sales. Defense Minister Lee has pledged to cut red tape and deregulate licensing deals to help expedite exports. “The industry and government, you and I are going to form one dream team for this purpose,” Lee said.
Behind this ambitious plan lies the more mundane need for South Korea to finance its own procurement of high-end arms to beef up defense against North Korea’s nuclear and missile power. With Seoul’s annual defense spendings nearing US$50 billion, it must acquire more income to finance its own improved defense capacity in a world turning more tense each year with the Ukraine war and China’s ever-aggressive expansionism. The risk of war on the Korean peninsula itself has grown in recent years with the North likely to conduct its seventh underground nuclear test anytime soon. Kim Jong Un fired more than 50 ballistic missiles last year.
Tension in Europe is also impacting Korea. With countries bordering Russia running out of weapons and munitions supporting Ukraine, Seoul has been asked to deliver munitions by way of the US, under its policy of not sending lethal arms to countries at war.
President Yoon, however, declared in the same Reuters report that “it might be difficult for us to insist only on humanitarian or financial support for Ukraine if there is a situation the international community cannot condone, such as any large-scale attack on civilians, massacre or serious violation of the laws of war.”
This was the first time that Yoon openly suggested his willingness to provide weapons to Ukraine under certain circumstances.
Russia’s warning came shortly after Seoul reportedly sent a second batch of half a million artillery shells to Ukraine via the US. Unconfirmed reports say Poongsan Corporation, Korea’s biggest ammunition maker, may set up a plant in Poland, to help replenish the depleting stock of artillery shells.
Irrespective of veiled Russian threats, Poland is emerging as a hub for the Korean arms market in central and northern Europe as the regions come under pressure to strengthen their own defense while aiding Ukraine. In a ground-breaking weapons deal signed with South Korea last year, Poland agreed to buy US$14.3 billion worth of arms. The accord covers Seoul delivering 48 FA-50 supersonic light combat aircraft, 980 K2 Black Panther tanks and 648 K9 Thunder howitzers. Some tanks and howitzers will be assembled in Poland, under a variety of flexible payment terms, such as offset deals, technology transfers and use of Polish materials for on-the-spot production. Reliable product quality, timely delivery and generous offset deals have been cited as the main considerations, Polish officials said.
For Seoul, this represented a milestone deal although Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned “Arms deliveries will obliquely mean a certain stage of involvement in this conflict,” according to Reuters.
But this kind of veiled threat is unlikely to derail Seoul’s overall arms export policy. Ukraine is only a part of the market, as far as Seoul is concerned. For example, it signed another significant deal last February with Malaysia worth US$920 million for the delivery of 18 FA50 aircraft by 2026, with 18 more options likely to follow later on. The FA50, a two-seater supersonic light combat fighter, was jointly developed with Lockheed Martin Corporation, and it has been a popular choice of countries in the Asean bloc. Malaysia opted for the FA50s in lieu of MiG-35s, which also joined in the bidding.
“Prospects for Korea in the global arms market look quite good,” Kiet’s Jang told Asia Sentinel. He expects the global arms market to grow by as much as US$600 billion over the next decade as countries in Europe and Asia, alarmed by Russia’s invasion and China’s aggressive behavior over Taiwan, rush to acquire more defense arms. “It’s going to be a worldwide rush for arms acquisitions,” Jang said.
That won’t be a simple bonanza for Korea, however, as it relies heavily on foreign content and technological licenses for many of its products. Heavy reliance on external sources for technology and content raises problems such as delayed delivery and license disputes, such as what happened to an aborted FA50 deal with Argentina in 2020. Britain objected to the sale because it had imposed an arms embargo on Argentina following the Falklands War. The FA50 also uses parts claimed under British ownership.
Jang, however, is not overly dismayed by these potential challenges. “We’re not standing still,” he says, adding Korea is constantly moving ahead on technology front. “Consider our howitzers, for instance, we are greatly improving their firepower so they can hit targets farther and farther,” he said. He was referring to what locals call the “Korean Can Do Spirit.”