Reforms drive South Korea to become top 10 defense exporter

Reforms drive South Korea to become top 10 defense exporter

Felix Kim

Reforms are helping South Korea achieve its goal of becoming a major defense exporter as government efforts to increase transparency, expertise and development have elevated Seoul into the top 10 arms-exporting nations.

Defense Minister Suh Wook credited 18 months of “full-scale implementation” of the Defense Reform 2.0 program with achieving “challenging and innovative R&D [research and development], export-type industrial structure, and reliable defense business through reform.” Wook made the remarks at the Defense Reform 2.0 and Smart Defense Innovation Promotion Review Conference hosted online by South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) on September 28, 2020.

MND has cracked down on corruption and bribery  to improve transparency in the defense acquisition process, analyst Dr. Kim Jae Yeop at the Pacific Rim Institute for Strategic Studies told FORUM.

The MND has enlarged the role of civilians in making defense policy and “lessened dependence on active military officers,” Kim added, which enhanced expertise on the government side as it guided defense industry development.

By shepherding the industry to “bolster indigenous capacity development of key defense technology and related materials and components,” he explained, MND “is both enhancing competitiveness of the defense industry and overcoming vulnerability and dependency on foreign technology.”

These reforms reduced dependence on conglomerates by involving small- and medium-size firms focused on technology such as unmanned vehicles, artificial intelligence and big data software, he said.

The coordinated effort helped make South Korea the world’s 10th-largest defense exporter for the five-year period beginning in 2015. The Indo-Pacific is a key market with buyers in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. South Korea also has exported to Europe, including Estonia, Finland and Norway.

“These countries face threats from China and Russia,” Kim said, “and they need technically proven weapon systems at an economical price and short introduction period. As a result, combat ships and self-propelled artillery of Korea have been introduced to those countries.”

As a defense exporter to Indo-Pacific countries, South Korea poses a twofold challenge to Beijing’s assertiveness in the region, he added: It provides an alternative to Chinese defense suppliers and enables countries to deter Beijing’s threats.

South Korea’s most noteworthy defense exports over the past decade are the K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzer produced by Hanwha Defense Corp. and the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle family of trainer and light combat aircraft, pictured, according to the magazine Defense News.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.