Winning: No South Korean Weapons For Ukraine


April 3, 2023: The Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 created a huge increase in demand for modern weapons, not just to replace ones lost in combat or sent to the Ukraine, but to enlarge and upgrade the total number of weapons in inventories. Fighting in Ukraine demonstrated what current weapons could do and how fast they’d be destroyed in combat, and most every government with nominally proficient armies wants to increase their weapon inventories. Most of those countries are close enough to Russia to feel they need those to deal with any future Russian aggression. Russia itself suffered heavy losses in Ukraine, including most of their modern tanks and other weapons. This is a particular problem for Russia as Western economic sanctions crippled their ability to replace the lost weapons quickly. The first few months of fighting in Ukraine destroyed ten years’ production of Russian tanks and other modern armored vehicles.

The European NATO nations had reduced their weapons production capabilities since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and the smaller Russia that emerged was unable to maintain all the weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. Building new weapons was also unaffordable. The ability of European NATO and Russia to produce new weapons was pretty much scrapped.

The United States also reduced weapons production capabilities, but not as much as European NATO countries. Ukraine, which also inherited a lot of Soviet weapons, was more entrepreneurial and made a business of upgrading many of the Soviet-era armored vehicles and aircraft it inherited for export to the Balkans and outside Europe. Russia captured or destroyed many of those weapon modification facilities in 2014 and 2022, but not the Ukrainian willingness to rebuild and continue their upgrade and export capability. Ukraine also captured hundreds of Russian armored vehicles and sometimes added enhancements before Ukrainian crews used them.

There was a lot more demand for new weapons than anyone in America or Europe could fulfill. This was an opportunity for South Korea, which had, since the 1990s, created a major weapons development and manufacturing capability. Initially these weapons were for the South Korean military but soon South Korea was exporting their weapons. The war in Ukraine created a lot more demand for South Korean weapons and South Korea has risen to the challenge. European nations already knew about the capabilities of the South Korean arms industries but were surprised at how rapidly South Korea could increase production to meet the surge in demand caused by the Ukraine War. In 2022 South Korean arms sales increased 150 percent.

Orders for South Korea weapons more than doubled in 2022. South Korea arms production and exports have grown dramatically since 2000, when South Korea was a minor supplier of arms exports, ranking 31st worldwide. By 2020 South Korean arms exports were worth $3 billion, putting them in the top ten as the 7th largest arms exporter. In 2021 there was even more spectacular growth with $7 billion in exports. Because of the Ukraine War, 2022 pushed arms exports to $17 billion. This put South Korea in second place, behind perennial export leader United States. Russia is usually number two but in 2022 Western economic sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine prevented most Russian weapons exports. There was also the Russian need to replace all the weapons it lost in the first few months of fighting.

South Korean arms exports have one restriction, none can be sent to Ukraine. This is to maintain good relations with Russia, which has a small border with North Korea and buys goods and services from North Korea in return for food and oil. North Korea is under heavy economic and military export sanctions. Russia has a history of ignoring these sanctions when it suits them. This is currently the case and North Korea is exporting artillery ammunition to Russia via the Trans-Siberian railroad. Russia pays for this with food and petroleum products which North Korea badly needs. Russia is also importing more cheap labor from North Korea. This makes the South Korean restrictions on sending South Korea weapons to Ukraine appear ineffective regarding Russian cooperation in enforcing sanctions North Korea has long been under. China observes these sanctions, but does not crack down on North Korean efforts to use smugglers to import needed Chinese goods or export raw materials to China.

The restrictions on sending South Korean weapons to Ukraine is not much of a problem. Most of South Korea's arms exports go to customers in East Asia and the west Pacific region. These customers, as well as South Korea, have something in common; fear of Chinese aggression.

In the 1990s this also included Chinese support for an aggressive and unpredictable North Korea. This is what 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 made it possible for South Korean firms to 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.


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