At a sprawling South Korean arms factory on Friday, a high-tech production line of robots and super-skilled workers were rapidly churning out weapons that could, eventually, play a role in Ukraine.
Since the Russian invasion last year, the Hanwha Aerospace factory in the southern city of Changwon has expanded production capacity three times, workers told reporters, as South Korea ramps up arms exports while traditional behemoths like the US struggle with production shortages.
Longstanding domestic policy bars Seoul from selling weapons into active conflicts, but even so it signed deals worth US$17.3 billion last year, including a US$12.7 billion agreement with NATO member and key Kyiv ally Poland, for K9 howitzers, K2 tanks and more.
And with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Russia touring space centers and weapons factories, experts say the South might be forced to review its careful balancing act on the Ukraine war — which Seoul has condemned, even as it resists calls to supply weapons directly to Kyiv.
On the assembly line were rows of Warsaw-bound howitzers, an artillery weapon a bit like a super-mobile cannon.
Hanwha Aerospace, South Korea’s largest defense contractor, is racing to meet delivery targets for the 14-wheeled, 47-tonne K9 howitzers, which have a firing a range of 40km — much longer than a tank, although the K9 needs to be stationary to shoot.
Poland ordered 212 K9s last year and Seoul has already delivered 48 of them — a pace “no one else can achieve,” said Lee Kyoung-hun, Hanwha’s production leader.
“We are capable of delivering products in the shortest time frame possible,” Lee said, adding that it took between three and four months to build one howitzer from scratch.
Seoul has long harbored ambitions to join the ranks of the world’s top arms exporters — aiming to be the fourth-largest, behind the US, Russia and France — something that is now possible, industry research indicates.
It has already sold artillery shells to Washington — but with a “final user” agreement in place meaning the US would be the military that uses the munitions.
Experts have said this allows the US to then provide their own shells to Kyiv.
‘READY FOR WAR’
South Korea’s arms industry has one key advantage over others globally: It has always been “ready for war,” said Choi Dong-bin, Hanwha Aerospace’s senior vice president.
Hostilities in the 1950 to 1953 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, and Seoul remains technically at war with nuclear-armed Pyongyang.
This gives the country an advantage globally in weapons production, Choi said, as Seoul has the capacity to mass-produce quickly and easily whenever it gets an order.
“The fact that we’re maintaining production line is another boon. At this moment we’re receiving many orders from overseas and we are able to respond quickly to their demands and deliver products in a short period of time,” he said.
Seoul’s weapons are also well tested.
“These are deployed on the ground,” on one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders, Choi said. “Because they are deployed [in South Korea], it has the capacity to perform in any part of the world.”
Heavily sanctioned North Korea lacks Seoul’s high-tech weaponry, but it does have stockpiles of outdated Soviet-era munitions.
Kim met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, and experts have warned that the internationally isolated pair might have agreed to a deal involving Pyongyang supplying artillery shells and anti-tank missiles in exchange for satellite technology from Moscow.
Any such deal could change Seoul’s calculations, experts say, as although South Korea has condemned Russia’s invasions of Ukraine, it has resisted calls to step up support to Kyiv, in part as it has long called on Moscow to help manage Kim.
However, if Moscow starts buying weapons from Pyongyang — something that would violate rafts of UN sanctions — it could change the course of the Ukraine war and force Seoul’s hand, said Choi Gi-il, a professor of military studies at Sangji University in Wonju, South Korea.
“If that were to happen, I think it will be more than 50-50 probability that South Korea-manufactured weapons exported to Poland would be deployed to help Ukraine fend off the Russians,” Choi said.
The export of South Korean weaponry, especially the K9 howitzers, would be “of great value to Kyiv,” he said.
“It’s always better to have more howitzers in war and both Russia and Ukraine don’t have enough of them,” he said, adding that Ukraine was mostly using Soviet-era outdated weapons.
“But K9s stand out as among the most recent, overwhelming conventional weapons,” he added. “It will mean so much for Kiev to have them on the frontlines.”
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