South Korea is one of the top 10 arms exporting countries in the world. According to data released in March 2020 by SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), South Korea accounted for 2.1% of the total volume of arms exports in the last five years. In contrast, Korea’s share of arms imports was 3.4%, ranking seventh in the world.
In the five-year tally (2015-2019), Korea made a sharp advance, posting a 143 percent increase in exports, compared to the previous five years (2010-2014). According to the SIPRI data released in 2019, Korea's export weighting was 1.8% and 11th in the previous 5 years (2014-2018). Within a year, Korea overtook the Netherlands to join the top 10 list of arms exporters by country.
In 2019, Korea ranked fifth among exporting countries by exporting goods worth $577.4 billion. In this regard, there is room for Korea to further increase their export of weapons. This is demonstrated by the fact that in 2018 alone, Korea ranked sixth in the world with a 3.9 percent share in defense exports.
Korea's early history of defense exports was miserable. Therefore, it is worth celebrating that from the barren, weapon-free landscape of the seventies, Korea was able to overcome many kinds of adverse conditions to produce weapons for domestic use, not to mention being able to export them too.
On November 10, 1971, former President Park Chung Hee, ordered a prototype of a rifle to be made by the end of the year. It was called the “Lightning Project”, but the allocated budget of 9.7 million Won (about US$8,000) was not nearly enough. It shows Korea's defense industry was launched very poorly.
In April 1972, Park ordered ADD (the Agency for Defense Development) to develop a land-to-ground missile with a 200-kilometer range within three years. This was known as the "White Bear Project" and it bore fruit when it achieved a triumph on September 26, 1978, when the domestic missile hit the target.
The history of defense exports began in 1975 when Poongsan Metal exported M1 rifle ammunition to the Philippines. Since then, South Korea's arms exports have steadily increased, surpassing $100 million in 2002 and $3.6 billion in 2014. It now exports K-9 self-propelled howitzers, KA-50 light fighters, and even submarines.
While the conventional weapons market is thriving, in the high-tech weapons market, Korea has yet to even offer business cards! The domestic market is small and its experience and manpower are ridiculously insufficient. However, it is strategically desirable for Korea to challenge the drones, robots, and cyber warfare weapon markets. These weapons are emerging as the leaders of the future battlefield, and Korea can sufficiently compete in these markets.
In particular, it is urgent to secure the core technology needed to carry out cyber warfare. South Korea has made remarkable achievements in telecommunications products and has excellent software development capabilities. From its frequent cyberattacks from North Korea and neighboring countries, South Korea already has a strong environment from which it can further upgrade its technology. It is also advantageous for South Korea that the United States keeps China’s telecommunications market in check.
If Korea stands out in the cyber warfare arms market, it will be able to dominate the global market. In particular, Cyber Warfare Command's role is important and it should be a testbed of Korean-made cyber warfare weapons. The world has come to the point where countries with cyber warfare capacity are truly winners. The world is now paying attention to Korea in this field.