South Korea defense industry becoming more self-reliant

South Korea defense industry becoming more self-reliant

Tom Abke

South Korea’s defense industry has been growing in size, product diversity and technological advancement in recent years under the leadership of the Ministry of National Defense (MND).

In addition to guiding product development and boosting support for research and development (R&D), the ministry has been setting standards, facilitating public-private partnerships and promoting relevant education programs.

Since the 1990s, the South Korean government has “established more than 10 ‘defense specialized research centers’ at various domestic universities with specific areas of specialization, such as nanotechnology, modeling and simulations, unmanned technology, underwater surveillance, etc.,” said Kim Jae-Yeop, visiting professor at the Graduate School of National Defense Strategy at Hannam University, in an interview with FORUM.

“It is a part of civil-military cooperation for defense R&D in South Korea,” Kim added. “And more and more domestic defense manufacturers have begun to establish their own R&D centers.”

An estimated 50,000 people work in the country’s defense industry. Kim characterized it as a “second-tier industry,” behind such first-tier players as the United States and western European countries in terms of advanced technology. South Korea has achieved a high level of self-reliance, Kim added, in that it meets 70 percent of its defense product needs with domestic production, thanks in part to its strength in research and development.

Not surprisingly, exports are also on the rise, swelling to more than U.S. $3.5 billion in 2016, according to Jane’s Defense, from less than U.S. $300 million in 2006.

“South Korea’s most successful market for defense is Southeast Asia and Turkey,” Kim explained.

Since 2007, Turkey has purchased 55 Korean-made KT-1 trainer aircraft as well as the technology and licenses to manufacture 300 units of the Korean-designed, K9 Thunder 155mm self-propelled gun, which resembles a tank with an extremely long cannon. (Pictured: Republic of Korea Soldiers sit on top of a K9 Thunder 155mm self-propelled Howitzer during a defense exposition north of Seoul, South Korea.)
“In Southeast Asia, meanwhile, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines selected South Korea’s submarine, frigate and T-50 advanced trainer aircraft/FA-50 light combat aircraft,” Kim said. “Today, South Korea is the fourth-largest weapon system exporter for Southeast Asia after Russia, the U.S. and France.”

The Defense Ministry is trying to establish fair competition and growth among defense companies while improving the “transparency, efficiency, and expertise of the industry,” according the Defense Ministry’s 2016 white paper.

“A number of policy efforts are in process for the innovation of the South Korean defense industry,” Kim concluded. “This includes more cooperation with overseas defense firms and governments; collaboration on developing the country’s indigenous next-generation fighter aircraft — KFX — with Indonesia to challenge first-tier competitors; and promoting restructuring of domestic defense manufacturers to improve efficiency and reduce redundancy.”

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.