Aside from increases in military spending and efforts to improve servicemen’s standard of living, South Korea is actively fostering contacts in the defense sector, including arms trade, opportunities for ROK military personnel to serve abroad and simply “useful meetings”.
First, let us focus on South Korean troops outside the ROK. As our readers probably remember, 1,100 South Korean servicemen are stationed in 12 countries. Most notably, there is the Hanbit unit in the Republic of South Sudan and the Cheonghae military unit in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Republic of Korea peacekeeping unit has been in South Sudan since July 2013. Its aim is to assist in efforts to reconstruct the local infrastructure (primarily, railways and airports) and to revitalize the economy. The unit comprises some of the best-trained troops. Six candidates vie for one spot during the selection process.
The 11th group consisting of 280 servicemen was sent to South Sudan on 8 July 2019. According to some rousing reports published by media outlets, the military personnel have been actively organizing social events for locals there. For instance, for the celebration of autumn holiday Chuseok, Hanbit invited “about 200 children staying at the unit’s refugee shelter as well as some 30 UN and NGO officials” to their military base. Entertainment for the guests included a taekwondo demonstration, a performance featuring “a Korean traditional percussion instrument” and some folk games. In addition, those invited received “school supplies and shoes”.
The 12th group was meant to leave for South Sudan in the middle of March. However, on 5 March 2020 a spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense said that the rotational deployment would be postponed due to the spread of COVID-19 in the ROK and abroad, plus other reasons. And on 12 March, South Sudan reportedly requested that South Korea delay sending its peacekeeping troops to their nation in light of the pandemic.
On 18 March 2020, a government spokesperson announced that some of the military personnel from Hanbit would return home and only 60 servicemen would remain in South Sudan to perform core functions. The decision was made to ensure that some of the unit members were able to cast their votes in the ROK legislative election scheduled for 15 April. On 28 March, approximately 200 of the peacekeeping troops returned to Incheon International Airport and were quarantined for 2 weeks at a military academy situated 160 km south-east of Seoul. In the meantime, those remaining in South Sudan have to wait for their replacements who will most likely arrive after the pandemic ends.
The Cheonghae military unit was created in January 2011 with the aim of patrolling the coast of Somalia, where vessels were and still are being attacked by pirates. Every half a year one destroyer is replaced with another. And on 13 August 2019, the Gang Gam-chan Ham warship sailed for the Gulf of Aden. The next vessel was deployed in February 2020, and by then Cheonghae’s operations had expanded in scope.
1 July 2019 marked the first day six South Korean police officers were on duty abroad, more specifically in several cities and towns in Croatia. The initiative had been launched at the behest of local authorities in light of a sudden increase in numbers of South Korean tourists in Croatia (in 2018, 410,000 ROK citizens visited this country). Afterwards, Commissioner General of the Korean National Police Agency Min Gap-ryong paid a visit to Croatia where a working agreement on cooperation to ensure tourist safety was signed.
On to military acquisition and procurement From 22 to 25 October 2019, the International Maritime Defense Industry Exhibition, Madex 2019, was held in Busan. One hundred and sixty companies from 11 countries took part in the event. The latest naval combat systems, other technologies and most recent creations for the defense sector were on display. During the exhibition, South Korea signed a number of deals, worth approximately $300 million, to supply military goods to other nations.
On 8 November 2019, the launching ceremony of the BRP Antonio Luna frigate (designed for the Philippine Navy) took place at Hyundai Heavy Industries Ulsan shipyard. The company was commissioned to build two ships in 2016. The first vessel is “anticipated to be delivered to the navy in April or May” 2020.
There are many interesting developments involving South Korea and Indonesia in this sector. It is certainly worth focusing on initiative KF-X/IF-X (Korean Fighter eXperimental/Indonesian Fighter Experimental), “an ongoing joint fighter jet development project between the two countries”. In 2016, “Indonesia’s Defense Ministry signed a 1.6 trillion won” deal with South Korean developer Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI).
And overall, ROK was ranked as the fourth-largest exporting country to Indonesia in the defense sector. From 2008 to 2017, Seoul sold Jakarta “around $699 million worth of weapons”, while Indonesia’s total arms “import volume was around $5.39 billion” over this period. Indonesia bought “16 of KAI’s T-50 Golden Eagle advanced trainers” and “8 of the company’s KT-1 Woongbi basic training aircraft”. Jakarta also purchased “six 1,400-ton class submarines from South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering”, with three of them procured via a 2011 deal and the others via another contract from April 2019.
On 12 December 2019, Defense Ministers of South Korea and Indonesia, Jeong Kyeong-doo and Prabowo Subianto respectively, discussed bilateral cooperation in the defense sector, including the KF-X/IF-X project, in Jakarta. According to ROK Ministry of National Defense, the two agreed to strengthen collaboration on UN peacekeeping operations and military personnel training.
Based on “the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s SIPRI Yearbook 2019, published in March, Indonesia and Iraq were the largest importers of South Korean weapons for the period of 2014 to 2018, each accounting for 17 percent of South Korea’s weapons sales, followed by the UK, which accounted for 15 percent”. In addition, on 12 February 2020, ROK and Great Britain agreed to initiate joint research and development work in the sphere of new defense technologies. The corresponding memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed by South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) and the UK Defense and Security Organization (DSO, a part of the Department for International Trade).
In 2019, Estonia purchased 12 K-9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers from the ROK and planned on buying 6 more in 2020, but then the Coronavirus pandemic began. “The procurement project was widely expected to be boosted by Defense Minister Jüri Luik’s planned visit to Seoul”, but the official canceled the trip, “citing health issues”. “I don’t believe the virus situation would affect Estonia’s plan to buy them, but related procedures could be postponed,” a source said.
The Coronavirus outbreak had an effect on the dates of DSA 2020 Exhibition and Conference, “one of the world’s major international defense expos”. “It was originally scheduled for April 20-23 in Kuala Lumpur, but its organizer recently announced the decision to move the date” to August 24-27.
India could be a promising partner for the ROK. On 5 September 2019, the Defense Ministers of both nations met on Seoul. Jeong Kyeong-doo and Rajnath Singh agreed to strengthen cooperation in the defense and military-industrial sector; to start military personnel exchanges among different types of armed forces, and to collaborate on officer training.
From 3 to 6 February 2020, ROK Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo paid a return visit to India and took part in international defense exhibition DefExpo India in the city of Lucknow. Almost 700 companies from 30 countries were part of the event and so were 12 South Korean manufacturers. The minister also visited the 60th Para Field Ambulance Hospital that had sent 627 medical staff to the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War. A key outcome of the negotiations was the loosening of restrictions that apply to South Korean manufacturers of weapons who conduct business in India via broadening bilateral cooperation on research and development of various types of armaments. A working committee is to be established in order to implement agreements that have been reached.
Forums and trainings continued as planned From 2 to 7 September 2019, Republic of Korea Navy held Experts’ Working Group on Maritime Security as part of ADMM-Plus (a platform on defense and security for ASEAN and its eight Dialogue Partners). 29 officers from 15 nations took part in the event. The agenda included items on strengthening cooperation to ensure maritime security.
From 4 to 6 September 2019, the Seoul Defense Dialogue (SDD), established to “engage in multilateral security cooperation and confidence building in the Asia-Pacific region”, took place in Seoul. Security experts, high-ranking military personnel from 50 countries and representatives from 5 international organizations took part in the event. During the forum, Vice Defense Minister Park Jae-min met with attendees from Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Ethiopia, Canada and Kazakhstan. And Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, Jeong Kyeong-doo and Rajnath Singh spoke at the opening of the Dialogue.
From 8 to 11 November 2019, a number of warships of the Republic of Korea Navy paid an official visit to Vladivostok. There were more than 1,100 South Korean servicemen, including 640 cadets from the army, navy and air force, on board the vessels.
From 19 to 23 November 2019, Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo paid a visit to Saudi Arabia in light of the agreements on cooperation reached during an official visit by Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud to Seoul in June. Jeong Kyeong-doo met with the Crown Prince, who also holds the post of Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia, to discuss issues on developing cooperation in the defense and security spheres between the two countries.
South Korean military personnel took part in anti-submarine warfare exercise Sea Dragon, conducted from a US base in the waters around Guam and completed by 31 January 2020. Aside from the ROK and the United States, Australia, Japan and New Zealand took part in the drills. South Koreans deployed anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft P-3C during Sea Dragon.
Almost during the same time period, the Republic of Korea Air Force took part in international military exercise Silver Flag 2020, which was held from 27 to 31 January 2020 at US Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam. The drills, held annually, provide an opportunity for engineers from various nations to hone their skills. This year, in addition to the ROK and the USA, Japan, Australia and Singapore took part in the exercise. South Korea has participated in Silver Flag five times.
The pandemic did, however, have an effect on other scheduled events. Due to concerns about the Coronavirus, South Korea chose to send only 30 of its high-ranking servicemen for the command post exercise of the Cobra Gold military drills, held in Thailand from 25 February to 6 March 2020, instead of 400 military personnel and 8 navy amphibious warfare ships as planned before. The Republic of Korea Air Force also chose not to take part in Singapore Airshow 2020.
Still, it is certainly worth pointing out that, according to a report by the Kyodo News agency from 26 January 2020 citing US and Japanese government sources, the ROK, Japan and France joined hands with the “Five Eyes” alliance. This is the nickname of an intelligence-sharing organization comprising five nations: the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It was created during the Cold War and its function was to coordinate and gather intelligence worldwide. When terror related activities intensified in 2000s, the capabilities of this alliance increased substantially with an increased focus on internet surveillance.
An example of a recent exchange of intelligence within the “Five Eyes” alliance involved Chinese technology company Huawei. The CIA told the members that Huawei was providing financial support to government agencies, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and demanded the allies stop using the equipment sold and manufactured by this corporation.
The organization is being expanded “in an effort to restrain North Korea’s” increasing provocations by improving its intelligence gathering capabilities. Previously, the eight countries had used “the US Seventh Fleet’s flagship Blue Ridge” to monitor activities of North Korean vessels at sea, but at the time, “there was no framework for cooperation among” them.
All in all, based on South Korea’s military spending levels, among other factors, Moon Jae-in does not appear to be actively shifting the nation’s course towards peace. And Pyongyang cannot but notice the expansion of the “Five Eyes” alliance to include three more members. Hence, plans for any future talks will now take into account the fact that information about them will be shared by the ROK. It is thus not surprising that the inter-Korean dialogue is at a standstill.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.