South Korea has established itself as a formidable player in the international arms market. In 2022, its arms sales topped $17 billion, more than doubling the record-setting $7.25 billion figure set in the previous year. The recent flurry of arms sales was the culmination of the South Korean government’s 20-year-long effort to build an export-competitive defense industry.
Under the Yoon Suk-yeol government, South Korea has set the ambitious goal to become the world’s fourth largest weapons exporter by 2027. Putting aside the export competitiveness and technical competence needed to achieve such a feat, whether South Korea is prepared for the challenges of being a global arms exporter remains an open question.
The war in Ukraine has exposed South Korea to geopolitical ramifications previously not encountered as its weapons head to NATO countries and, albeit indirectly, to Ukraine. The Yoon administration has also increasingly employed arms sales as a central tool of its values-based foreign policy agenda. This raises questions about the compatibility of exporting weapons, particularly to countries with human rights and other governance concerns, and South Korea’s commitment to liberal democratic values.
To meet the demand of being a “global pivotal state” with fresh global demand for its weapons, South Korea will need to develop a distinct set of diplomatic and political capacities significantly different from those meticulously honed in the past two decades to jumpstart the arms export business.
Pro-Arms Sales Doctrine
In 2006, the Roh Moo-hyun government established the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) to centrally manage the arms industry and improve its global competitiveness. Exports were seen as a necessary revenue channel to financially sustain South Korea’s defense industrial base.
The process innovations and export strategies of South Korean weapons manufacturers fueled the rapid growth of arms exports.
Owing to extensive defense cooperation with the United States, particularly through license production, and conscious design, South Korean weapons have a high level of interoperability with U.S. systems. K2 assault rifles, for example, can be used with the standard M16 magazine and other cartridges following the NATO standard while the K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzer can carry and fire U.S. munitions.
These interoperable weapons are offered at competitive prices. The medium-range anti-tank missile AT-1K Raybolt has a similar range and warhead power to the U.S. Javelin missile, but is estimated to be three times cheaper. The K9 howitzers possess advanced capabilities comparable to the German PzH 2000 but with lower unit prices. Purchases of these systems are then fulfilled on a brisk delivery schedule: Poland received the first delivery of K9 howitzers only five months after striking an agreement with South Korea.
Robust bipartisan support for arms sales further augments South Korea’s export competitiveness. Successive presidents from both major parties pursued “sales diplomacy,” using summitry as an occasion to promote South Korean weapons and ink arms sale agreements. Former President Moon Jae-in declared arms exports to be a “future economic lifeline” for the South Korean economy, a message echoed by Yoon.
South Korea has generally pursued a sell-to-all approach to arms exports. Ongoing indigenization efforts — as I wrote previously, a central question facing South Korean defense companies — are driven in part by a desire to be free from the stricter export control laws of other countries. This approach, however, inadequately prepares South Korea to be a global arms seller.
Great Power Backlash
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2022 global arms sales database showed that arms imports have sharply increased among countries that confront growing geopolitical tensions. Unsurprisingly, these countries comprise the list of recent buyers of South Korean weapons.
Poland and Finland, both facing intense security threats in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, purchased South Korean weapons in 2022. The Philippines, Vietnam, and other ASEAN countries embroiled in maritime disputes with China have recently turned to South Korea to supply aircraft and ships.
South Korean weapons are thus headed to the frontlines of NATO and the South China Sea – to an increasing number of countries each addressing worsening security outlooks. This situation raises the specter of serious backlash from powerful neighbors, notably Russia and China.
South Korea’s tank sale to Poland already drew Russian ire, including threats to arm North Korea with Russia-made weapons. Russian threats may not carry much weight as South Korea debates arms sales to Poland or potential transfers to Ukraine.
A more serious problem may lie with China. South Korean arms sales to Southeast Asian countries have already been met with grumblings from China. China-South Korea ties continue to be strained. China has reportedly communicated a policy of “Four Noes” to the Yoon government, which included a warning that cooperation is impossible if South Korea maintains a pro-U.S. and Japan foreign policy. It would be unsurprising for China to raise South Korean arms transfers to certain Southeast Asian countries as a sticking point in bilateral relations.
South Korea also confronts a second type of problem: risky business partners.
The ongoing rule-of-law concerns about Poland, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), had limited its access to roughly 36 billion euros of the EU pandemic relief fund and 76.5 billion euro cohesion fund earmarked for Poland from the EU’s 2021-27 budget.
In South Korea, concerns revolved around whether Poland will be able to meet its contractual obligations under the 2022 weapons sales agreement while it does not have access to EU funds. Balance of payment issues have harmed South Korea’s relations with other countries: bilateral ties with Indonesia notably soured due to payment disputes over a joint fighter program.
The issue with Poland is especially tricky, perhaps exacerbated by the Yoon administration viewing arms sales as a critical part of its value-based foreign policy agenda. Last year, Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup stated that “when we export weapons, it is not a decision made just by looking at the money… universal human values are important considerations.” The statement, however, masks that only select executive branch agencies, such as DAPA, are involved in approving and executing arms sales. The National Assembly plays little direct role in weapons exports, outside of delegation trips to promote arms sales.
South Korea faces the thorny question familiar to the United States: What to do when weapons are sold to partners with governance concerns, including anti-democratic behavior and human rights violations. Parallel questions were asked before, when Turkey may have utilized K9 howitzers in its 2019 offensive into Kurdish-held areas in Syria.
Navigating the Perils of Defense Trade
The “K-Arsenal of Democracy,” as Peter Lee and Tom Corben argued, may emerge today as a product of heightened geopolitical tensions, long-standing process innovations of South Korea’s defense industry, and foreign policy transformations under the incumbent government. However, South Korea must cautiously navigate the perils of becoming a globally relevant arms exporter.
Public opinion thus far has stood firmly in support of arms sales. However, small civil society groups have previously protested against arms sales, citing human rights concerns. Some main opposition party members have also floated amending the Foreign Trade Act to require National Assembly approval for arms sales. Such a measure would introduce additional complexity to and restrictions on a South Korean president’s arms sales diplomacy and ability to use arms sales as a tool of foreign policy.
More broadly, South Korea will have to contemplate whether its model for middle power status – the “global pivotal state” vision enunciated by the Yoon government – comports with becoming a global arms seller. As a relative newcomer to the international arms market, these questions pose daunting political challenges as South Korea strives to build on its successes.