South Korea’s Defense Capabilities and Acquisition Programs
In the 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union was on a downward trajectory and badly needed foreign currency for reforms, which was lent by South Korea. However, foreign currency was not enough to keep the USSR afloat, and it could not pay back its loans to South Korea. In 1994, its successor government, the Russian Federation, and South Korea signed a bilateral agreement that allowed South Korea to “acquire advanced military technologies” through “Operation Siberian Brown Bear” as repayment for the loans. This deal between Russia and South Korea was the beginning of South Korea’s ballistic missile development, which continues to this day and promises to transform South Korea’s defense capabilities.
However, this begs the question, with the U.S. security commitment to the Republic of Korea, its substantial deployment to the Peninsula, and South Korea's sometime policy of détente – President Moon Jae-in promises to “peacefully resolve the nuclear issue” while developing sustainable Inter-Korean Relations – why is South Korea ramping up its pursuit of new advanced military capabilities? To put it simply, North Korea remains a persistent and intractable threat despite years of diplomatic and political effort, and South Korea’s military acquisition programs continue today in direct response to this ongoing security challenge.
South Korea’s Acquisition of New Capabilities
Over the past few decades, South Korea has invested heavily in developing new capabilities. These include programs designed to improve its domestic production, enhance cooperation with other states, embrace emerging technologies, and counter North Korea’s growing arsenal of weapons. These efforts have continued despite the President Moon’s outreach to North Korea.
For one, South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration or (DAPA), is in “charge of improving the defense capabilities of the nation, and fostering the defense industry.” Not only does DAPA focus on acquiring new defense capabilities, the agency also hopes that domestic arms development will boost small/medium-sized businesses. The defense industry is also exporting South Korean tanks, missiles, and other weapons to other countries to foster closer relations with other nations.
It is unclear where the aircraft carrier will be launched and how it will operate, but this [UK-South Korea] partnership is bound to crowd the waters in East Asia. China has ambitious dreams of dominating the seas in the Indo-Pacific, and Japan and South Korea also butt heads about maritime boundaries in the East Sea.
Beyond domestic production, South Korea is working with likeminded partners abroad on weapons development as well. On March 21, 2021, The United Kingdom and South Korea started discussions about collaborating on “aircraft carrier technologies,” with reports specifying that “the Republic of Korea Navy’s (RoKN’s) future next–generation light aircraft carrier will officially start in 2022 and be completed by 2033.” It is unclear where the aircraft carrier will be launched and how it will operate, but this partnership is bound to crowd the waters in East Asia. China has ambitious dreams of dominating the seas in the Indo-Pacific, and Japan and South Korea also butt heads about maritime boundaries in the East Sea. Although these worries are far off and South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has not confirmed the partnership, the news of a South Korean aircraft carrier program is significant.
To grow its capabilities in the aerial domain, South Korea unveiled a prototype K-21 fighter jet on April 21, 2021. This jet has been welcomed among many because South Korea will be “joining an exclusive club of military aviation giants,” including a grouping of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Spain; China; Russia; the United States; Japan; France; and Sweden. President Moon hopes and expects jobs will be created through K-21 production and also bring wealth to South Korea as the jets are exported, in addition to growing South Korea’s indigenous military capacity.
Moreover, as a technologically advanced country, South Korea is working to incorporate emerging technologies into its arsenal. South Korea’s borders will now be protected by an “AI-based surveillance systems,” a technology known as the “Mobile Rail Robot Surveillance System, [which] moves along a rail at a speed of five miles per hour.” In addition to the AI-based surveillance systems, DAPA purchased three types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – “suicide drones, an attack drone armed with a rifle, and a small-sized drone for reconnaissance and offensive operations” from local defense contractors. Obtaining UAVs and drones adheres to DAPA’s commitment to not only improve South Korea’s defense capabilities, but also to counter against North Korean drones.
Perhaps most importantly, the South Korean government has iterated on its earlier pursuit of Russian ballistic missiles. Since the United States scrapped missile range limitations during the Biden-Moon summit in 2021, South Korea has the freedom to develop more technologically advanced ballistic missiles. Recently, it was reported that “South Korea decided to mass produce a new type of tactical ground-based missiles designed to destroy underground artillery bases in North Korea.” South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook announced that the country plans to mass produce these missiles by 2025.
The Driver of South Korea’s New Capabilities: North Korea
North Korea’s continued challenge is the biggest reason why South Korea has expanded its military capability over several presidential administrations despite differing approaches to the North. While President Moon Jae-in’s administration has a pro-dialogue stance on North Korea, he will not allow South Korea to remain defenseless. President Moon has been careful to differentiate South Korea’s growing military power and peaceful talks with North Korea as separate issues. Furthermore, the government and the people are well aware that the Korean War remains formally unresolved and the potential exists for armed conflict, as shown in the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong. The evolving threat from North Korea warrants the continual development of new South Korean capabilities.
Because South Korea cannot create nuclear weapons, the government must actively expand its anti-missile capabilities to deter North Korean.
In this context, South Korea has recently pursued anti-missile defense systems. For example, an Israeli-style “Iron Dome” is a particular necessity for South Korea against the North Korean artillery threat. North Korea reportedly maintains over “10,000 artillery pieces, including multiple rocket launchers” aimed at Seoul, South Korea. Thus, Defense Minister Suh Wook announced in 2021 that South Korea hopes to create an “Iron-Dome interceptor system against [North Korean] artillery.” This will enable South Korea to defend its capital and key infrastructure throughout the country. Additionally, South Korea is acquiring new submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to protect it from North Korea’s “nuclear-powered submarines.” Because South Korea cannot create nuclear weapons, the government must actively expand its anti-missile capabilities to deter North Korean.
This pursuit of counter-capabilities continues despite a clear cost to South Korea’s international relations and economy. China has expressed great discontent when South Korea buys weapons from the United States, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2017. China argues that THAAD’s “X-band radar” is harmful for its national security, because THAAD threatens to undermine its own ballistic missile capability. China’s unease with this new missile defense system led to economic retaliation against South Korean businesses. South Korean conglomerate Lotte felt China’s wrath when 87 of its 112 Lotte Marts were “forcibly closed” in China. Many of these Lotte Marts never re-opened, and Lotte completely withdrew from China in 2018. However, regardless of China’s anger, the continued threat from North Korea incentivizes the South Korean government to continue investing in new capabilities despite the costs.
The Outlook for South Korea’s Military Acquisition Programs
Ironically, South Korea’s contemporary acquisition programs officially began through its relationship with Russia, not the United States. This points towards the fact that, despite a continued U.S. commitment to defend South Korea, Seoul has taken steps to enhance its own capabilities independently. Even in the face of China’s wrath, the South Korean government has persistently increased the number and capability of its military weapon systems.
In the end, it is important to remember that the Korean War is formally ongoing. Therefore, South Korea needs new and highly advanced weapons that can operate effectively and immediately in the event that hostilities resume. The war has been ongoing for seventy years, and a diplomatic resolution to North Korea’s rogue behavior is unlikely to come soon.
Making matters worse, the threat is not just from North Korea, but China as well. Currently, North Korea is suffering from COVID-19 and widespread food shortages. Despite President Moon’s offer to help the North Korean people, Kim Jong-un has thus far refused any assistance. If North Korea collapses as a state, there is a chance that China may intervene militarily on the Korean Peninsula. Although the likelihood of North Korean collapse is unclear, People’s Liberation Army intervention to protect China’s interests is a distinct possibility.
In the past, South Korea’s soft power was more influential than its hard power. But now, South Korea has deployed its significant economic resources to bankroll an increasingly advanced and capable military. With its new capabilities, South Korea can be a more effective ally for the United States and protect its own interests as East Asia’s power structure continues to change. With great power competition and North Korea’s continued instability, these military capabilities may well be necessary sometime in the future.
The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.
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About the Author
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Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy
The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond. Read more