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INTERVIEWPolish arms deal may well lead to greater opportunities for Korea: expert

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The K2 Black Panther / Courtesy of Hyundai Rotem
The K2 Black Panther / Courtesy of Hyundai Rotem

Ukraine war raises interest in Korean weapons suppliers to help upgrade aging Eastern European ordnance

By Jung Min-ho

Bruce Bennett
Bruce Bennett
South Korea's recent arms deals with Poland demonstrate its potential in the global military procurement market and it may well lead to greater opportunities, particularly in Eastern Europe, according to an expert.

"The Ukraine experience suggests that countries don't have to have top-of-the-line weapons to defeat parts of the Russian forces," Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, a U.S.-based policy think tank, told The Korea Times. "One of the challenges for the Eastern European countries is to have weapons good enough to be able to fight and defeat Russian aggression … So I expect that they will look across the lines at their forces."

In South Korea's biggest arms export deal, the Polish government announced last month that it will buy 48 FA-50s, a light combat jet co-developed by Korea Aerospace Industries and Lockheed Martin, 980 K2 battle tanks, manufactured by Hyundai Rotem, and 648 K9 howitzers made by Hanwha Defense.

If finalized, it would be the country's first major contract to sell weapons to a NATO member at a time when many Eastern European nations, still armed largely with Soviet-era weapons, are keen to enhance their defense capabilities amid Russia's continued attacks on Ukraine.

"In many cases, their priorities will depend on the status of existing weapons, which are so old that they need to be replaced, probably because they have become difficult and costly to maintain when you can't get parts and supplies from Russia," Bennett said.

South Korean weapons may not be the world's most advanced, but they are still competitive and could thrive in the market against more costly competitors.

"They offer a niche opportunity for export to other countries that can't afford to modernize fully with top-of-the-line weapons (which means most countries). Of course, some weapons the ROK (South Korea) is developing are top-of-the-line or close to it," Bennett added. "The ROK has done a great job of identifying this kind of niche relative to the U.S. and European countries and filling it with lower cost ROK systems."

A crowd looks at a damaged Russian tank on display in Kyiv, Ukraine, in this May 23 file photo. AP-Yonhap
A crowd looks at a damaged Russian tank on display in Kyiv, Ukraine, in this May 23 file photo. AP-Yonhap

Given that South Korea needs up-to-date weapons for its own defense against North Korea, the development and production of them also provide benefits for its own military.

"By producing and selling these weapons, the ROK brings down the price that it pays for the ROK military to acquire these weapons because the more that are made, the lower the unit cost," Bennett said. "This was a clever strategy developed by the ROK many years ago, and it is now paying off."

After the Seoul-Warsaw deal made headlines, countries around the world are paying attention to whether it will be a success. If so, new opportunities could arise, when other major arms exporters such as Germany face production limits as they try to beef up their defense capabilities significantly following the nearby war.

"Korea's challenge will be whether it can provide weapons on time to Poland and provide superior maintenance and logistical support. The other European countries will watch ROK's performance with Poland, and that will affect whether they do or do not consider the ROK as a potential weapons source," Bennett said. "The ROK must perform well on that contract and offer similar support to other countries. If the ROK can, that will really help ROK arms exports … One of the big problems will be finding enough personnel to perform required maintenance and support for both the ROK and foreign users of ROK arms, especially as demographics are causing the size of the ROK military to shrink dramatically."

According to a recent report by the Export-Import Bank of Korea, the nation's arms exports reached a record high of more than 7 billion dollars last year. Its exports during the 2017-21 period were 177 percent higher than that in the 2012-16 period ― by far the highest growth among the top 20 exporters.

The country is now the eighth largest, and Asia's second, arms exporter ― a rapid rise from 31st position on the list by the SIPRI arms transfer database in 2000.

Jung Min-ho

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