South Korea’s defence industry takes flight


South Korea, a technological savvy nation, is internationally famous for its successful soft culture export. From K-drama to K-pop, the country has conquered the hearts of millions of fans and made remarkable tourism profits. However, globally acclaimed groups such as BTS or Blackpink are not the only industry to gain foreign markets. Indeed, the Land of the Morning Calm has successfully grown its defence industry and secured major deals abroad in the past few years.

South Korea’s aircraft exports surged to over 1$ billion in 2023, primarily driven by the delivery of FA-50 light combat aircraft to Poland. The outbound shipments of aircraft parts from South Korea also reached a record high of $2.4 billion in 2023, marking a substantial increase of over 34% compared to the previous year. In July 2022, Poland had announced the largest arms contract with South Korea ever signed by a European country from the former Soviet bloc. In total, Warsaw has ordered 980 K2 battle tanks, 672 K9 155 mm self-propelled guns and 48 FA-50 fighter jets from various South Korean companies.

The total contract value is estimated by analysts at some $15 billion (€15.07 billion), the equivalent of Poland’s annual defence budget. Such impressive spending is motivated by Poland’s reawakened fears of Moscow’s expansionism in Europe’s eastern flank. Using to its advantage order-saturated European and American manufacturers, South Korea established itself as a reliable and fast supplier for countries wishing to arm themselves efficiently and within a short timeline.

Another example: Korea Aerospace Industries is partnering with German weapon manufacturer Diehl Defence to tap into the European defence market by integrating Diehl’s IRIS-T air-to-air missile with South Korea’s FA-50 fighter jet. The IRIS-T missile, developed by Diehl Defence in collaboration with NATO members, boasts impressive capabilities including a maximum speed of Mach 3 and the ability to engage targets from all directions, aided by its solid propellant motor and thrust-vector control. KAI aims to enhance South Korean fighter jets with this collaboration, targeting European export markets, especially after the successful delivery of 12 FA-50s to Poland in 2023, with plans to customize and deliver the remaining 36 units between 2025 and 2028. The FA-50, a variant of the T-50 supersonic trainer aircraft, has garnered interest from Poland, which is replacing its aging fleet of MiG-29s with these multirole fighters. Additionally, the IRIS-T missile will also be incorporated into KAI’s KF-21 fighter plane, designed to replace South Korea’s outdated F-4 and F-5 fighters, boasting impressive specifications including a maximum speed of Mach 1.81 and a range of 2,900 km.

Turbulences on the way

This impressive industrial growth naturally attracts unwanted attention and opportunistic employees. Recently, employees from Indonesia working at Korea Aerospace Industries, the developer of the KF-21 aircraft, were found attempting to take a USB flash drive containing confidential data from KAI’s manufacturing plant in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang Province. A joint investigation team, including officials from the National Intelligence Service, the Defence Counterintelligence Command, and the Defence Acquisition Programme Administration, has been conducting an inquiry into the incident. Despite assurances from Indonesia’s defence ministry of continued cooperation with Korea, the incident has raised doubts within the industry about Indonesia’s commitment to the joint project. This project goes back to 2016, when South Korea and Indonesia entered into an agreement to collaborate on a joint development programme. Under this agreement, Jakarta was supposed to fund 20 percent of the total development cost, amounting to 8.8 trillion won ($6.59 billion), in exchange for 48 planes to be produced for the Indonesian Air Force and technology transfer. However, complications arose regarding cost-sharing, with Indonesia having only paid 227.2 billion won by 2019 due to financial challenges. Despite multiple discussions between the two parties to resolve the issue, additional payments totalling 50 billion won were made between 2022 and 2023, leaving outstanding payments estimated at nearly 1 trillion won as of last October. Now that South Korea has achieved its global defence leader status, it will naturally seek out stronger alliances.

A strong Korea-Saudi partnership

The country is pushing its defence champions in promising markets, such as Gulf countries. Defence Minister Shin Won-sik and Saudi National Guard Minister Abdullah bin Bandar Al Saud met recently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, signalling Korea’s pursuit of deeper defence ties with the Middle East. Following the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Korea and Saudi Arabia, the discussions aimed to strengthen defence procurement and cooperation, especially considering Saudi Arabia’s significant military spending and ambition to lead the Arab world in defence capabilities. Discussions are also underway regarding potential collaboration for the development of a sixth-generation fighter aircraft, leveraging groundwork from Korea’s KF-21 fighter programme, as both nations seek to secure a significant share of the global aerospace export market amidst increasing competition and evolving geopolitical dynamics. This strategic meeting took place during the World Defence Show in February.

What next?

Cheaper than western-made weapons and equally reliable equipment coupled with fast deliveries put South Korea’s defence industry on the international front row. The main question for South Korea now revolves around whether the government intends to authorize arms sales to Ukraine. Currently, Korean legislation prohibits direct arms exports to conflict zones. However, experts like the German Korea specialist Professor Kristina Spohr suggest that President Yoon is advocating for a more proactive global role for South Korea, recognizing that supplying arms to Ukraine could bolster the country’s alliance with the USA.

However, this move is fraught with political risks, as there is apprehension among the populace about potential repercussions, including heightened support from Russia for North Korea. Consequently, Spohr believes that direct arms exports are improbable at the time, especially given the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming American presidential election, where a victory for Donald Trump could potentially lead to a cessation of American aid to Ukraine and reluctance to participate in a fragile coalition.

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.