[Viewpoint]The promise of Korea’s defense industryAccording to a report made by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the top five exporting countries in the international weapons market during the period between 2001 and 2005 were Russia, the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. South Korea ranked 17th.
The top five importers of conventional weapons were China, India, Greece, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom; South Korea was in 9th place.
South Korea exported $337 million-worth of military wares during the same period, and imported $2.56 billion-worth of military goods.
Four of the five major exporting countries are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. As their status as the permanent members of the Security Council symbolizes, they are literally the superpowers in international politics.
South Korea had a negative balance of $2.2 billion in arms deals during this period.
We pin high hopes for our defense industry, which has emerged as a new export industry recently.
In the military aircraft industry, a field which has been monopolized by superpower countries, South Korea has succeeded in developing its own prototype, the T-50, in collaboration with an American aircraft company. Purchase offers of T-50s are arriving from several countries.
The deals for the export of tanks, self-propelled artillery and essential army weaponry to Turkey have been finalized.
It is truly something to celebrate.
The news that Korea’s defense industry goods ― which were first produced in the 1970s starting with military clothing, ammunition and small arms ― now compete with the products of superpowers in the international market, has boosted the pride of the Korean people. It has also brought economic gains for the nation.
There are a few reasons why South Korea’s defense industry has to develop its industrial capability on the one hand, while exploring the export market on the other.
First, like other industrial fields, the defense industry must secure “a market of appropriate scale” for sustainable growth.
It is the same principle as the automobile industry, which requires a domestic market for 2 million cars a year for the sustainable development of its own technology.
With the limited domestic market that is under the control of the Korean government, it is not possible to nurture a defense industry that can continuously develop and improve high-tech weapons.
Second, the level of a country’s defense industry is directly linked to the prestige and brand power of the country.
It is telling that four of the five major international weapons exporters are permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The production capacity and ability to export high-tech weapons are proportionate to the country’s influence in international politics.
An increase in a country’s influence in international relations indicates that the brand power of the country in international society is enhanced, and the enhanced brand power contributes to the growth of the country’s private sector economy.
The government, together with the private sector, should concentrate all its efforts to boost exports.
Considering the situation we are in, it is quite appropriate that the Korean government has recently established the Defense Industry Department in the National Intelligence Service and strengthened the department in charge of export business in the Defense Acquisition Program Administration.
However, while it is necessary to explore the export market, we must exercise restraint, when we publicize our export items, especially on the following points.
First, excessive publicity can provoke other countries or companies that aim to export the same types of weapons to restrain Korea.
It is a simple and natural theory of the market and competition among nations.
Deals on weapons exports are not decided by the advanced technology of a company alone. It is necessary to coordinate various elements involved, including national power, international weapons sales networks and relationships with the United States and other weapons exporting countries that have dominated the market.
Second, we have to consider the strategic situation we are in. North Korea is currently clinging to the weapons competition, such as the development of new long-range missiles, while its people are dying from starvation.
Publicity on South Korea’s high-tech defense technology could have a negative effect on our relationship with North Korea.
Third, our national image should be considered. Many international organizations and specialists have negative views of weapons production, development and trade.
Even Elisabeth Skons, the Sipri project leader who presented the statistics above, said, “If money spent on military arms build-up every year were used for medical benefits for the poor instead, millions of people could be saved each year.”
In order to support exports of their defense industries at the national level, the United States established the Defense Export Services Organization, France installed the French International Relations Directorate and Israel made the Foreign Defense Assistance and Defense Export Organization of the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
South Korea has to also strengthen the government branch in charge of exports of defense industry goods with a view toward strengthening its independent defense posture, and using the defense industries as a new growth engine for the Korean economy.
From a strategic point of view, however, it would be better to keep a low profile in publicizing our accomplishments, while actively exploring the market.
*The writer is the head of Defense Information Studies at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Baek Seung-joo