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Cooperation of South Korean and U.S. defense industries evolves to meet new challenges

Cooperation of South Korean and U.S. defense industries evolves to meet new challenges

Felix Kim

The South Korean and U.S. defense industries have been working closely for decades, reflecting the strong military alliance between the two countries. As the industries and the two nations’ shared threats have evolved over time, the character of collaboration has also changed.

Current conditions are placing new challenges on the partnership that insiders say will strengthen the alliance and generate new synergies among the two defense industries.

Jeon Jei-guk, chief of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), described the current climate in the Indo-Asia-Pacific as one of “hyper unclarity,” where the more powerful countries seek to expand their influence and North Korea threatens the stability of the entire region with its nuclear weapons and missile programs. He spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., on December 11, 2017. Strong ROK-U.S. defense ties are the key to avoiding disaster in such conditions, he said, but some evolution in this area is also needed.

“The alliance needs to become a more balanced and healthy partnership,” Jeon said in his keynote address. The emergence of new threats as well as technologies have ushered in “an era of crisis or opportunity. Our two nations have already widened the scope of cooperation. The way we cooperate needs to evolve as well.”

Jeon emphasized the need for joint research and production, done in ways to maximize the specific strengths of each country’s industry. This is the natural evolution of a pattern, he said, that began with the U.S. supplying nearly all defense products to the ROK, then shifted first to the ROK local production of U.S.-designed rocket launchers, rifles and grenades, then to local production of heavier weapons such as U.S.-designed fighter jets, and finally to the production of fully indigenous ROK defense products such as tanks and self-propelled artillery pieces.

In a talk with FORUM, Professor Choi Myoung-jin of the Department of Defense Science and Technology at Howon University agreed with Jeon.

“Developing the ROK defense industry is required to enhance self-defense capabilities and also to boost the nation’s economy,” Choi said. “As there are global demands in arms trade, there are growing possibilities for us to export our indigenously developed arms to the global markets.”

Choi described the development of the ROK-built KF-16, a license-produced version of the American F-16. (Pictured: Republic of Korea Air Forces’ KF-16 fighters perform during the 2017 Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, South Korea, on October 16, 2017.)

“South Korea not only imported the multirole fighter but also obtained key original technologies, which allows the country to manufacture them,” he said. “Now, South Korea exports fighter jets, including the indigenously developed T-50 supersonic trainer, to various countries.”

Jeon said he hopes the ROK’s purchase of 40 U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighter jets could lead to even more collaboration. In addition to the deterrence capability the planes give the ROK against the North, he wants South Korea to host an F-35 maintenance, repair and overhaul center to serve the whole region.

“The ongoing cooperation will set the stage for broader bilateral cooperation,” Jeon said. “It will serve as a cornerstone for interoperability in times of contingency.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.