The Platform

(Cherie Cullen)

When no one was looking, South Korea has become the world’s ninth-largest defense exporter.

In the arena of global arms trade, a headline that has resonated throughout 2022-2023 is the marked ascendancy of South Korean military exports. As of 2023, the country ranks as the world’s ninth-largest defense exporter. The geopolitical ripples of Russia’s war in Ukraine led nations like Poland and Finland to procure South Korean weaponry in 2022. Likewise, Southeast Asian countries, embroiled in maritime disputes with China, are increasingly sourcing their military hardware—such as aircraft and naval vessels—from South Korea.

This pivot away from traditional Western arms to Korean options is telling. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the leading arms exporter, the United States, endorses this redirection of military procurement toward its ally, South Korea. This endorsement is rooted in a constellation of factors: an intensified demand spurred by the Ukrainian conflict, protracted delivery timelines of U.S. armaments, the necessity to satisfy the burgeoning demands of the U.S. military, and the considerable costs related to acquisition and maintenance.

This shift has positioned South Korea as an emerging powerhouse, a credible alternative for major arms-importing countries, especially within Europe and Asia. South Korea’s Defense Ministry reports a substantial leap in arms exports from $7.25 billion to over $17 billion in 2022, amid the international community’s race to support Ukraine and as tensions escalate in critical areas such as the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. With ambitions to climb to the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter by 2027, South Korea is on a clear upward trajectory.

The genesis of South Korea’s domestic arms production and export prowess can be traced back to decades of strategic adaptations and technological enhancements. At the core of these developments is neighboring North Korea, a perpetual national security threat. North Korea, with approximately 1.3 million troops and a nuclear inventory anticipated to hit 200 by 2027 as per a RAND Corporation report, remains a potent adversary. Consequently, South Korea has concentrated on cultivating a broad, resilient, and technologically superior domestic defense industry to counteract North Korea’s military capabilities.

Thus, South Korea’s advancements in its indigenous weapons industry have been largely propelled by the existential threat posed by the North. Post the 1950–1953 Korean War, the American military heavily fortified South Korea. However, the U.S. military presence waned in the 1980s following the Sino-American rapprochement and the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Despite the presence of significant U.S. bases, the South Korean government realized the need for self-reliance in defense capabilities to stand against potential North Korean incursions, evidenced by attempts like the 1968 assassination mission against the South Korean president. These threats fueled a determined effort to enhance domestic weapons production.

The U.S. cooperation and South Korea’s industrial surge buttressed this initiative. With advancing technology, South Korea started to carve out a niche as a 21st-century leader in the defense industry, producing sophisticated and reliable weapon systems such as the K9 Thunder howitzer by Hanwha, Hyundai Rotem’s K2 main battle tank, and the FA-50 light combat aircraft from Korea Aerospace Industries. It’s also significant that South Korea is a global semiconductor industry leader. Constant production and rising domestic demand for its armed forces have kept weapon system costs stable, and over time, standards have been elevated to the highest echelons. In light of the persistent North Korean threat, timely domestic production and delivery of these systems have been critical.

Regarding international exports, South Korea offers importers some vital advantages. Firstly, the speed of delivery is expedited, as demonstrated by the quick fulfillment of heavy armaments to Poland, contrasted with the backlog of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in December 2022. Additionally, South Korea offers a competitive price point—its K2 Black Panther tank is priced lower than the acclaimed M1A2 Abrams, yet offers comparable capabilities. Moreover, South Korean standards align with the major Western exporters, and they provide the benefit of technology transfer agreements and licensed production, which lowers export costs and bolsters defense cooperation.

South Korean-made weapons hold four critical advantages over Western-made counterparts: speed of delivery, cost-efficiency, superior standards, and favorable technology transfer terms. Consequently, nations such as Poland, Indonesia, Turkey, and India view South Korea as a viable partner for long-term strategic armament production alliances. The U.S. itself, facing a shortfall in artillery shells, has turned to South Korean munitions to resupply its stocks. This development marks South Korea’s rise as a key player in global diplomatic relations and strategic partnerships. The country’s influence, already evident in its cultural exports like K-pop and K-dramas, now extends to its burgeoning defense industry, signaling a future where South Korea’s soft power could further amplify its influence in the modern globalized landscape.

Khandakar Tahmid Rezwan is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from the University of Dhaka. His research interests include theories, military security, counterintelligence, international law and geopolitics.