The war in Ukraine created increased demand for NATO standard weapons that could be delivered quickly. South Korea, already a growing exporter of weapons, was the major beneficiary of this demand. NATO nations seeking to replace weapons sent to Ukraine, or expand their own arsenals, found South Korea was the only major arms exporter able to meet this demand. Orders for South Korea weapons more than doubled in 2022 and this will push South Korea from one of the top ten arms exporters to one of the top five.
In the 1990s Chinese support for an aggressive and unpredictable North Korea prompted South Korea to become a major developer, manufacturer and eventually exporter of modern weapons. The first customer was the South Korean armed forces and demand from this customer still plays a large role in what South Korean arms industries produce. In the 1990s South Korea arms industries were able to develop and deliver a new generation of modern weapons and by the end of the decade were supplying 70 percent of what the military needed. Since the 1990s South Korea has moved on to produce military aircraft (helicopters and jet fighters) as well as warships (frigates, destroyers, submarines and all manner of smaller craft and support vessels.) South Korea also produced military electronics systems as well as a full range of infantry weapons and equipment.
The military products are made possible by South Korea’s growing consumer and industrial products industries. Since the 1990s South Korea has become a major producer of smartphones, commercial vehicles and nuclear power plants. South Korea is a major manufacturer of nuclear power plant equipment and currently obtains a third of its electricity from 25 nuclear power plants. South Korea is a major exporter of nuclear power plant technology and this made it possible to build nuclear weapons, something that will happen if North Korea keeps making threats backed by their nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. South Korea has already developed and produced ballistic missiles, with conventional warheads, to destroy similar North Korea's missiles and artillery long aimed at South Korean targets.
South Korea also became a major producer of commercial shipping and currently is second only to China in that category. And, like China, South Korea used this shipbuilding dominance to quickly build a modern navy. It also developed and built ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) equipment to deal with the growing North Korea submarine threat from their small coastal subs. South Korean submarines currently being built are designed to operate throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Demand for military equipment because of the Ukraine War has made it possible for South Korean firms to also offer their non-military exports, which are also high-quality and competitively priced. South Korea is also the 7th largest exporter in the world and 40 percent of its GDP comes from exports. South Korea has the 1oth largest economy in the world. This is remarkable for a country with only 50 million people. Per-capita income is also in the top ten and is twenty times larger than in North Korea. South Korea’s annual defense budget has grown to nearly $50 billion a year, one of the three largest behind (China and Japan) in East Asia.
One Western development that has eluded South Korea, due to hatred of Japan for its brutal 1905 – 1945 occupation of Korea, is a defense organization similar to NATO for defense against China. NATO worked for decades against Russia and when put to the test in Ukraine, it proved capable of defending even prospective members like Ukraine. There is an informal East Asian NATO formation consisting of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia and a few other local nations. It may take a formal defense organization to deter China.