Asia’s rising seller of arms

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Asia’s rising seller of arms

Ramon Pacheco Pardo
The author is head of department & professor of international relations in the Department of European & International Studies, King’s College London and non-resident fellow at the Sejong Institute.

South Korea just inked its largest arms deal. Poland reportedly agreed to buy 980 K2 tanks, 648 K9 howitzers, and 48 FA-50 fighter jets from South Korean arms firms. The agreement should net South Korea at least $15 billion — or more than double the total amount of arms exported in 2021. In short, this is a huge deal for South Korea.

The agreement with Poland has cemented South Korea’s position as the only Asian country selling arms to NATO members. Estonia, Norway, Turkey, the UK and soon-to-be-member Finland have also acquired South Korean military equipment. Australia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines are other countries with which Seoul has signed arms deals recently. Countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America have also purchased South Korean military equipment in recent years. This has propelled South Korea to the Top Ten list of arms exporters in the world.

Why has South Korea become an attractive source of military equipment for such a diverse range of countries? Three main reasons are behind the rise of South Korean arms firms as leading competitors in their trade.

To begin with, South Korea is a reliable and quick provider of advanced equipment. As Polish Minister of National Defense Mariusz Blaszcak has made clear, his country needs tanks and howitzers as soon as possible because Europe is at war, with NATO providing support to Ukraine as it seeks to expel invading Russian forces. Hanwha or Hyundai can start providing their first howitzers and tanks, respectively, before the end of the year. This matters hugely. Similarly, Australia or Egypt, which have also inked agreements to purchase K9 howitzers in recent months, surely saw the benefits of getting these in their hands quickly.

And even though South Korean military equipment is generally not as advanced as the U.S.’s, because no country can match the capabilities of South Korea’s ally, it is fairly advanced and can compete with France, Germany, or the UK, other leading arms exporters.

Furthermore, South Korea’s arms industry is also benefitting from the perception that their country is non-threatening and non-polarizing. Russia and China are big arms exporters, and rank above South Korea in this area. But their share of the arms exports market has been hit by the fact that many big arms importers, particularly in the West, will simply not buy Russian or Chinese equipment. In fact, this year could mark a new milestone for South Korea as it could become Asia’s largest arms exporter, surpassing China. The country can thank Beijing for making itself a less attractive partner for third countries who do not trust the Chinese government, and by extension its state-controlled arms exporters.

Even the U.S. can be seen as a controversial source of weapons, particularly by left-wing governments or countries that were colonized in the past and see Washington as a new colonial power. South Korea does not suffer from the same problem. Thus, even though South Korea is not about to challenge the U.S.’s supremacy in the arms export business, it can present itself as a more neutral provider that is not going to create any domestic opposition. This neutrality may become increasingly important as U.S.-China competition intensifies.

South Korea also benefits from its close military alliance with the U.S. when it comes to arms exports. South Korean weapons systems include U.S. technology more often than not. This may not be the latest, state-of-the-art technology. But it is certainly sophisticated and helps to boost the quality of South Korea’s military equipment. Purchasers of South Korean arms know this, and understand that they are acquiring modern equipment that includes U.S. components or know-how. This is appealing to them.

As the deal with Poland attests, South Korean firms are willing to include technology transfers in their arms deals. Not all countries act in the same way. And this gives South Korea a comparative advantage.

All in all, South Korea has carved a niche for itself as a provider of reliable and modern equipment that can be shipped quickly. Since Seoul is also seen as a fairly neutral actor, these are advantages on which South Korea can continue to build its competitiveness.
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