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South Korea’s Quest for Military Self-Reliance: Building and Exporting Its Own Weapons Amid North Korea’s Threat


In a region marked by tensions and uncertainties, South Korea has been steadfastly working towards achieving military self-reliance. With North Korea’s persistent threats and the need to bolster its national defense capabilities, South Korea has embarked on an ambitious journey to build and export its own weapons. This article explores South Korea’s determination to become more self-sufficient in its military capabilities and the potential impact it may have on regional security dynamics.


Recent data reveals a significant rise in North Korea’s missile launches, with 54 to 60 ballistic missile launches reported between October 2022 and April 2023, compared to 19 launches in a similar period the previous year. On March 16, 2023 North Korea launched a suspected submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) into the sea off its east coast. The launch was the first time North Korea has tested an SLBM since October 2021. On March 25, North Korea launched two suspected SRBMs into the sea off its east coast. The launches came just hours after North Korea fired a suspected cruise missile into the sea off its east coast.


In his 2021 address to members, Mr Kim had pledged to expand North Korea’s nuclear weapons and military potential, outlining a list of desired weapons including long-range ballistic missiles capable of being launched from land or sea and “super-large warheads”.


Kim  has also succeeded in  developing  an ICBM operational capability through which it can  deliver a nuclear weapon anywhere in the United States, according to analysis based on Images released by North Korea. Leader Kim Jong Un declared the country had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force”. Kim Jong Un’s regime is believed to have between 25 and 60 nuclear weapons.


The recent missile launches by North Korea are a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban the country from developing or testing ballistic missiles. The launches also raise concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program, as the country could use its ballistic missiles to deliver nuclear warheads.


North Korea’s Threat and South Korea’s Defense Challenges:

For decades, South Korea has faced an ever-present threat from its northern neighbor, North Korea. The unpredictable regime, armed with a nuclear arsenal and advanced ballistic missiles, has posed a significant security challenge to the South. While South Korea has maintained a strong alliance with the United States and benefited from their military cooperation, recent geopolitical shifts and increasing uncertainties have prompted Seoul to take a more proactive approach to its defense.


South Korea has responded with rise in defence spending to counter the North’s expanding nuclear capabilities and other regional threats.

In 2022, South Korea’s defense spending was $45.7 billion, an increase of 5.1% from 2021. South Korea’s defense spending is the 10th highest in the world. South Korea’s defense spending is 2.7% of its GDP, which is higher than the NATO target of 2%. South Korea’s defense spending is focused on deterring North Korea and responding to other regional threats, such as China’s growing military power.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. North Korea has been developing its nuclear and missile programs for many years. The country has conducted a number of nuclear tests and has launched a number of missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs pose a serious threat to South Korea and the United States.
China’s growing military power.

China has been rapidly modernizing its military in recent years. The country has built a large number of new aircraft, ships, and missiles. China’s growing military power poses a challenge to the United States and its allies in the region.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of strong military forces. The conflict has also shown that Russia is willing to use military force to achieve its goals. South Korea is concerned that Russia could use its military power to threaten its interests in the region.

China and Japan are also increasing military spending, and Russia has started flying patrols jointly with China, most recently flying over an island claimed by South Korea, which prompted warning shots and a small diplomatic crisis.

US-South Korea Missile Defense Collaboration

United States and South Korea  decided to counter North Korean missile capabilities with an advanced Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence antimissile battery that can shoot down short and medium-range missiles.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is an anti-missile defense system developed by the United States. It is designed to shoot down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. However, the THAAD system has a number of limitations.

One limitation is that the THAAD system has a short range. It can only intercept missiles within a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles). This means that it cannot protect the entire country of South Korea from a missile attack. The capital city of Seoul, for example, is located outside of the THAAD system’s range.

“It’s harder to catch a low ball that comes in high speed than to catch a ball that comes at you in a parabolic trajectory. The same applies to a missile defense,” Professor Kim Dong-yub of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies told South Korea’s YTN news channel last week. “The THAAD becomes useless for South Korea if a missile comes below the interception altitude and at a high speed.”

Another limitation of the THAAD system is that it can be overwhelmed. If North Korea were to launch a large number of missiles at South Korea, the THAAD system might not be able to shoot them all down. This is because the THAAD system has a limited number of interceptor missiles.

In addition to the THAAD system, South Korea also has the Patriot missile defense system. The Patriot system has a shorter range than the THAAD system, but it is more numerous. South Korea has around eight batteries of the Patriot system, and the United States separately operates roughly the same number there. However, even the combined efforts of the THAAD and Patriot systems are not enough to counter an overwhelming missile attack.

South Korea is looking to improve its missile defense capabilities. The country has expressed interest in buying an upgraded version of the Patriot system or an interceptor system called the SM-3. However, these systems are expensive. The SM-3 system, for example, costs around $1.7 billion for 20 missiles.

South Korea is also frustrated with its old ally, the United States. The United States is the world’s biggest weapons exporter, but it is reluctant to share its latest technology with South Korea. For one, U.S. defense companies don’t share the latest developments without demanding a huge payout from South Korea to help cover their research and development costs. The United States also wants South Korea to pay more for the cost of basing American troops in the country.

As a result of these frustrations, South Korea is looking to become more self-reliant in its military capabilities. The country is investing in research and development, and it is also looking to buy weapons from other countries, such as France and Germany.

South Korea’s missile defense capabilities are still limited. However, the country is working to improve its defenses. The country is also looking to become more self-reliant in its military capabilities.


South Korea’s indigenous push

Recognizing the need to reduce its dependence on external defense suppliers, South Korea has made significant strides in developing its own defense industry. The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has been at the forefront, fostering indigenous research and development initiatives, promoting domestic defense companies, and encouraging the export of South Korean weapons systems. This shift towards self-reliance aims to enhance the nation’s security, reduce vulnerabilities, and strengthen its defense industry’s competitiveness.


South Korea will spend more than 80 percent of its 100 trillion won (US$91.9 billion) defence budget for the next five years on locally made weapons instead of imports.  During the Cold War, in response to threats of North Korean aggression and a withdrawal of US support, the Park Chung-hee government (1961–79) prioritized security independence through domestic weapons production. This doctrine of self-reliant national defence (chaju kukbang) has since been adopted by every presidential administration and defence budgets have steadily increased. Even former South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003–2008) — liberal critics of Park’s authoritarianism and deep believers in North Korea engagement — continued and reinvigorated chaju kukpang by supporting domestic defence manufacturing.


The military is also turning its focus to domestic research and development and seeking to become a major arms supplier. Until now, most of those weapons have been U.S.-made. But South Korean officials expect a more even balance on future Armed Forces Days as they increase their own weapons production in the face of the threat from North Korea and Washington’s uncertain stewardship of stability and peace in East Asia.In January 2019, South Korea changed its defense offset policy to focus more on local production and export than technology transfer with foreign defense contractors.  And, in the long run, those weapons are going to be exported around the world, said Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations at Troy University based in Seoul.


Building a Strong Defense Industry:

South Korea’s defense industry has witnessed remarkable growth in recent years. Key players like Hyundai Rotem, Hanwha Defense, and Korea Aerospace Industries have gained global recognition for their advanced military technologies. The nation has successfully developed and deployed its own fighter jets, submarines, missile defense systems, and armored vehicles, among other capabilities. This progress not only bolsters South Korea’s military capabilities but also contributes to its economy by creating jobs and fostering technological innovation.


The defense industry of South Korea is the main supplier of armaments to the Republic of Korea Armed Forces. Originally reliant on the United States to supply weapons to its armed forces, South Korea evolved to manufacture its own weapons through the country’s modernization and military reforms. Due to this transformation South Korea has developed its own robust defense industry and exports its products to many other nations. South Korea is one of the leading suppliers in the global arms market.


According to Defense News Top 100 list for 2020, four of South Korea’s defense companies were ranked in the top 100 defense companies of the world. These companies are Hanwha (32nd), Korea Aerospace Industries (55th), LIG Nex1 (68th), and Hyundai Rotem (95th). South Korea’s shipbuilding is the largest in the world, possessing some of the largest and most advanced shipyards, with the shipbuilding industry accounting for 6.5 percent of the country’s GDP. South Korea’s expertise in shipbuilding gives it an advantage in constructing larger warships; having the infrastructures, technologies, and skills necessary to construct warships. On August 14, 2019, South Korea announced plans to produce a 30,000-ton light aircraft carrier (LPX-II) as part of its five-year defense plan between 2020 and 2024.


Most of South Korea’s domestic weapons are produced for its ground forces, as its military is primarily designed to fight a potential North Korean land invasion. Unmanned ground vehicle and other autonomous technologies have been developed for South Korea’s ground forces. In mid-2020, South Korea announced the development of an unmanned K1 88-tank and K9 Thunder SPH


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic affecting internationally and in South Korea the country’s defense industry was negatively affected by domestic financial and operational difficulties, as well as the decrease in arms export. In response, the South Korean government began to actively support domestic industries and implement changes to increase military exports. The first measure implemented is strengthening coordination between ministries to support defense export and positioning several domestic-purpose products for exports. One such domestic product pushed for export is the KAI KUH-1 Surion.


South Korean government spending more on domestic contracts. In mid-June, 2020, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo met with CEO’s of various contractors to discuss ways on adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic. These adjustments include increased government spending on domestic products, moving delivery timelines in light of possible schedule delays, and waiving penalties because of these delays. These domestic defense contracts reportedly include 20 KAI T-50 aircraft worth ₩688 billion or $570 million delivered from Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) to the Republic of Korea Air Force, 60 KUH-1 Surion helicopters worth ₩1.3 trillion delivered from KAI to the Republic of Korea Army, K56 ammunition resupply vehicles worth ₩380.3 billion from Hanwha Defense, 30-mm self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAG) worth ₩251.7 billion from Hanwha Defense, maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) deals on K9 Thunder (₩194.3 billion).


Chunma short-range surface-to-air missiles (₩238.3 billion) from Hanwha Defense, sales of K105A1 self-propelled howitzers and MRO deals on assault amphibious vehicles from Hanwha Defense to the Republic of Korea Marine Corps, combat engineering vehicles worth ₩236.6 billion from Hyundai Rotem, depot maintenance deal worth ₩63.2 billion on armored recovery vehicles and armoured vehicle-launched bridges from Hyundai Rotem. With regards to Hanwha Defense, it is reported that the defense company is performing very well despite the pandemic. The company secured ₩1.2 trillion or $1 billion worth of contracts within the first half of 2020 and expects to secure another ₩1 trillion worth of contracts within the second half.


Another effort is to boost support for local supply-chain by promoting and developing domestic substitutions of imported products or components. In April 2020, the MND invested $37 million to establish a “defense industry innovation cluster” in the city of Changwon; with the goal to launch several more “clusters” within the next few years. The purpose of these “clusters” is to support small enterprises in replacing imported components and systems; funding of which is directed to industry and research institutes to support regional research, development and production.


Another program involves funding small to medium size enterprises to develop prototype components and/or subsystems to replace imported versions of the same parts. The funding program is to last for five years with a maximum funding of $8 million per project. Military products and/or programs supported by the import substitution include the KF-X fighter, KAI Light Armed Helicopter (LAH), active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, guided air-to-surface missiles, future surface combatants, and local transmissions for the third phase production of the K2 Black Panther.


South Korea also has a long-term interest in promoting domestic defence manufacturing as an engine for export growth, particularly as the Moon administration struggles with other areas of economic policy. This high-tech industry has benefited from South Korea’s impressive efforts over the past two decades to improve R&D and gain a bigger slice of the global technology market. Civilian innovations have facilitated upgrades in military technology, prompting the government to offer expanded support for businesses specialising in IT and weapons-related R&D. South Korea is also a major player in areas such as artificial intelligence, big data and 3D printing, and is among the top arms exporters worldwide. These industries will be critical for the country as it seeks to rebuild its economy post-COVID-19.


South Korean government is also enhancing cooperation in defence technology with India and have decided to and promote industries working in this field. “It was also agreed to take forward the agreements in the field of defence industry and defence technology cooperation between the two countries,” said the Defence Ministry. China has transgressed into Indian territories in recent times. A total 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops were killed in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh on June 15 2020  in the bloodiest clash between the two forces in four decades.


Exporting South Korea’s Defense Expertise:

In addition to strengthening its domestic defense industry, South Korea has actively pursued opportunities to export its military technology and equipment. Countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America have shown a keen interest in South Korean defense products, including submarines, fighter jets, and naval vessels. These export ventures not only generate revenue for the nation but also establish South Korea as a reliable defense partner on the global stage.

Between 2010 and 2014, South Korea exported its weapons to only seven countries, with more than half of the exports going to Turkey. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of countries purchasing South Korean military hardware’s increased to 17. This means by 2019, South Korea’s exports grew by 143 percent, essentially more than doubling from the 2010-2014 period. Countries from Asia and Oceania accounted for 50 percent of South Korea’s arms export, while 24 percent came from European countries and 17 percent from the Middle East. In 2018, South Korea was ranked as the 11th largest arms exporter in the world by SIPRI. The country’s top three clients were Indonesia, Iraq, and the United Kingdom. In 2019, South Korea became the 10th largest arms exporter according to the same study conducted by SIPRI, making it the first time South Korea entered the top 10 list. The country’s main clients in 2019 are still Indonesia, Iraq and the UK.



The KAI T-50 Aircraft  is one of South Korea’s most successfully exported weapons platform and has been credited for South Korea’s increased arms export.  Despite some failed bids, the T-50 has been exported to the Philippines, Iraq, Indonesia and Thailand; as well as a number of countries expressing interest in procuring the aircraft, such as Argentina. On May 26, 2019, KAI was contracted by the Royal Thai Air Force to upgrade the T-50TH for $50.6 million.


One of South Korea’s most recent domestic defense projects is the KAI KF-X multirole fighter jet, developed jointly with Indonesia but spearheaded by Korea, which holds 80 percent of shares in the project. The production of the jet has recently entered its second phase, and Korea has rolled out the first prototype in April 2021. The new KF-21 Boramae is an advanced multirole fighter designed for South Korean and Indonesian air forces to replace their ageing fleet. Boramae means young hawk in the Korean language. According to media reports, Boramae is expected to make its first test flight in 2022, with manufacturing set to start in 2026. At least 40 of the jets are planned to be delivered by 2028, with South Korea expecting to deploy 120 of them by 2032.


As 65 per cent of the jet is South Korean in origin, the country – a close ally of the United States – is now the eighth country in the world to have mastered the technology needed to develop an advanced fighter jet. At a roll-out ceremony, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said “a new era of independent defence has begun, and it’s a historic milestone in the development of the [South Korean] aviation industry”.  China is not afraid of being outpaced in terms of military modernisation, analysts said, after South Korea last week unveiled a prototype of its planned 4.5th-generation fighter jet, as the two countries are looking at different export markets.


South Korea to acquire new AEW&C aircraft to track North Korean missiles

The Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) is set to acquire additional airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft in response to increasing ballistic missile activity from North Korea. Currently, the RoKAF operates four Boeing E-7A ‘Peace Eye’ AEW&C aircraft, which were acquired in 2011-12 to bolster airborne surveillance and early warning capabilities. The planned acquisition under the Airborne Early Warning-II (AEW-II) program aims to further enhance South Korea’s ability to monitor North Korean missiles and defend its airspace, according to the country’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA).


Ground vehicles/weapons

The K9 Thunder is described as South Korea’s most popular export and one of the most popular self-propelled howitzers in the world. This is due to its competitive performance and price range. The self-propelled artillery has been exported to Poland, India, Finland, Estonia, and Norway. South Korea and Turkey co-developed the T-155 Fırtına based on the K9 Thunder.


The K2 Black Panther main battle tank is another land vehicle that is being exported. The tank has been sought in large quantities by Poland and Oman, as well as, co-developed with Turkey to produce the Altay tank. South Korea could sell 76 K2s to Oman in a deal worth up to $884.6 million.


A variant of the K21 called the AS21 Redback IFV has been proposed to the Australian Army for its Land 300 Phase 3 procurement program. The program is looking for 450 IFVs to replace Australia’s M113AS4 APCs and is worth up to ₩5 trillion.



South Korea’s shipbuilding sector is quite successful in exporting warships to other countries. The country’s own expertise in shipbuilding makes it less reliant on foreign technologies, compared to its aircraft and ground vehicle production. This gives South Korea’s shipbuilding an advantage as it can bypass export restrictions imposed from another country.

Indonesia purchased six Jang Bogo-class submarines from DSME; the first batch of three on December 20, 2011, for $1.1 billion and a second batch of three on April 12, 2019, for ₩1.16 trillion ($1.02 billion). These purchases made South Korea the fifth largest submarine exporter in the world at the time of the second deal.


South Korea deployed swarm drones and killer sentry robots for surveillance and weapon attacks

South Korea has implemented advanced surveillance and weapon systems to address security concerns, particularly related to North Korea. Despite lacking its own military satellite, South Korea receives real-time satellite images from the US and Japan. The country is planning to deploy drones and drone swarms for surveillance and weapon attacks, establishing a weaponized drone combat unit as a “game changer” in warfare.


Additionally, South Korea has deployed killer sentry robots, such as the Samsung SGR-A1 and Super Aegis 2, in the heavily militarized Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is 250 kilometers (160 miles) long and approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide, is one of the most heavily militarized border in the world, patrolled all along its length.


South Korea has deployed the automatic sentry guns, Samsung SGR-A1 and the Super Aegis 2 in the DMZ. Super Aegis 2 an automated, turret-based weapon platform capable of locking onto a human target three kilometers away. The Samsung SGR-A1 is $200,000, Sentry Guard Robot has IR and visible light cameras and motion sensors to detect and track multiple targets from over two miles (3.2 km). It can give warning and provide suppressive fire against intruders, through a 5.56 mm robotic machine gun under the control of a human operator from a remote location.


These robots utilize advanced camera systems and automated targeting capabilities to provide surveillance and suppressive fire against potential intruders. However, the use of such technologies raises moral and ethical concerns, necessitating the development of sufficient controls to govern their use.



Biggest Challenge is its continuous dependency on foreign technologies.

One of the significant challenges facing the South Korean defense industry is its heavy reliance on foreign technologies. Despite efforts to address this issue, the country still struggles to develop certain technologies domestically, resulting in the need to import them. This dependency on foreign components can lead to delays and cost overruns, especially if South Korea faces difficulties in acquiring the necessary parts from other countries.


Additionally, reliance on foreign technologies can restrict South Korea’s export capabilities, as the country that developed the imported components can prevent the export of the entire weapon system. This has been observed in cases where the US and Germany imposed restrictions on South Korea’s arms exports due to the use of their components. In response, South Korea has started developing its own engines and transmission systems to become more self-reliant and overcome export restrictions. However, challenges still exist, as seen in instances where the UK barred South Korea from selling FA-50 aircraft to Argentina due to an arms embargo.


Regional Security Implications:

South Korea’s quest for military self-reliance and its emergence as a defense exporter could potentially reshape regional security dynamics. By reducing its dependence on external suppliers, South Korea strengthens its ability to respond to security threats promptly and independently. Moreover, the export of South Korean defense systems provides partner nations with alternatives to traditional suppliers, diversifying their defense capabilities and potentially fostering regional cooperation in defense industries.


As South Korea confronts the ongoing security challenges posed by North Korea, its pursuit of military self-reliance through building and exporting its own weapons marks a significant step forward. By nurturing its defense industry and reducing reliance on external suppliers, South Korea not only enhances its national security but also contributes to the global defense market. As regional dynamics evolve, the quest for military self-reliance may shape new partnerships and alliances, ultimately fostering stability and security in the region.



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