South Korea’s booming arms industry rolls out the big guns in bid for global

Changwon, South Korea

With a blinding yellow flash and a concussion that shakes bones, K9 self-propelled howitzers launch artillery shells onto a hill that’s just been hit by rockets fired from helicopters. Then K2 tanks roar in, speeding up roads and firing as they go.

This is part of DX Korea, a four-day South Korean defense expo held in September at a firing range in Pocheon, about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the North Korean border.

The display – presented to a crowd of 2,000 people including military officials from more than two dozen countries – is one way South Korea sells weapons.

And President Yoon Suk Yeol wants to sell more of them – enough for Seoul to jump four places up the ranks to become the world’s fourth-biggest arms exporter.

“By entering the world’s top four defense exporters after the United States, Russia and France, the (South Korean) defense industry will become a strategic industrialization and a defense powerhouse,” Yoon said.

To do that, South Korea will have to outsell – in ascending order – the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and finally China, which held 4.6% of the export market in the 2017-2021 period, according to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

That’s no easy task, yet Seoul is already well on its way. From 2012 to 2016, it had just 1% of the global market. It more than doubled that in the following five-year period, capturing 2.8% – by far the largest increase among any of the world’s top 25 arms exporters.

In 2021, it sold $7 billion worth of weapons overseas, according to the Export-Import Bank of Korea.

And the South Korean defense industry believes it has the arsenal to grab an even bigger slice of the pie.

South Korea’s weapons exports have ballooned in recent years, but the country has been building its arms industry for decades, spurred on by its troubled relationship with its northern neighbor.

As of 2020, military expenditures represented 2.8% of South Korea’s gross domestic product, according to SIPRI, well above the 2% threshold considered a minimum by many US allies.

“The North Korean threat has given us a good reason, a motivation to make sure that our weapons are very good,” says Chun In-bum, a former lieutenant general in the South Korean Army.

Technically, the Korean War never ended, because the document that stopped the combat in 1953 was an armistice, not a peace treaty.

In the first decades after the fighting ended, South Korea’s defense was heavily dependent on American troops and weaponry.

Things began to change in the 1970s, when the US was distracted by the war in Vietnam and the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

South Korea began to take more responsibility for its own defense and invested $42 million in US military aid in factories to produce M-16 rifles, according to the Korea Development Institute (KDI).


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