South Korea uses tech edge to boost defense export program

South Korea uses tech edge to boost defense export program

Felix Kim

Playing from its strength in the technology sector, South Korea is taking steps to become a global leader in defense exports.

Government officials hope foreign buyers are interested in technologies that include unmanned aircraft and artificial intelligence-enabled command and control systems. South Korea established a new Defense Export Promotion Center as part of the effort, along with a push to sign more countries to memorandums of understanding (MoUs) on defense industry cooperation.

“The technology is certainly there to create weapons that can appeal to the global market,” Choi Myoung-jin, a professor in the Department of Defense Science & Technology at Howon University, told FORUM. “South Korea, until now, has been producing weapons based on U.S. designs and standards. But to create more demand in the global market, South Korea must offer more than just copycat products.”

South Korea is a world leader in information technology, he explained, with competitive strengths in such areas as the internet of things, which embeds connectivity in everyday objects, unmanned aerial vehicles and virtual reality technology. South Korea’s T-50 supersonic combat trainer jet, pictured, is an example of the potential of his country’s defense industry.

The state-owned Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) opened the Defense Export Promotion Center in Gwacheon, near Seoul, on November 19, 2018, according to Yonhap news agency. DAPA launched the center to provide a comprehensive package of support to defense firms that includes help with administrative procedures.

Choi expects the center to conduct market research to gauge demand and match the strengths of South Korean companies and technologies with potential buyers worldwide. “To improve its defense products and create an international demand for them, South Korea works to sign memorandums of understanding with countries aimed at technology cooperation and finding new markets,” Choi said.

Seoul hopes to increase the number of MoUs from the current 39 to 50 by 2022, Yonhap added, and has been changing policies and regulations to boost defense exports.

“It’s important for the government to encourage local companies to create weapons based on their own technology,” Choi said. “There will be trials and errors early on, but the government must maintain patience and provide support so that the companies can grow.”

Seoul is keenly interested in local defense suppliers making market inroads in Southeast Asian countries, Yonhap reported. Choi also named the Middle East as a market where South Korea can increase sales, building on past deals such as one for small arms to the United Arab Emirates.

“South Korea’s defense industry can compete with advanced countries in some sectors where we offer good pricing and quality,” Choi said.  He added that advanced technology is an area in which South Korea is demonstrably strong, with manufacturers such as Hanwha Defense Systems emerging as a global leader in artificial intelligence.

Increased exports, he concluded, will also benefit another important area.

“South Korea’s economy is in a bad state because of a sluggish job market,” he said, “but the defense industry can create quality jobs if there’s proper infrastructure investment.”

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