North Korea threats spark South Korea arms sales: Sipri

South Korean soldiers sitting on a K30 Biho twin 30 mm self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon during a media day presentation of a commemoration event marking South Korea's Armed Forces Day.
South Korean soldiers sitting on a K30 Biho twin 30 mm self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon during a media day presentation of a commemoration event marking South Korea's Armed Forces Day. PHOTO: AFP

STOCKHOLM (AFP) - Faced with constant missile and nuclear threats from its belligerent northern neighbour, South Korea is boosting its arms sales and aims to become a major exporter, a study said on Monday (Dec 11).

South Korea's arms industry accounted for 2.2 per cent of global top 100 producers' sales in 2016, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) said in a report listing the world's "top 100" military services.

South Korean arms-producing companies' combined sales totalled US$8.4 billion (S$11.4 billion) the same year with a 20.6 per cent rise in sales compared to 2015, Sipri added.

"The increasing nuclear weapons capability in North Korea has led to major investments in South Korea," Sipri Senior Researcher Pieter Wezeman told AFP.

In defiance of repeated international condemnations and sanctions, Pyongyang fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week, which reached an altitude of 4,475km before splashing into the sea 950km east of its launch site, North Korean state media said.

The North, which says it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself from "hostile" US forces, has vowed to accelerate its weapons programmes in response to "evil" sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

Once a mainly agricultural backwater devastated by war, South Korea has been one of the world's largest importers of military equipment and technology for decades - mostly from the United States - but in recent years its domestic sector has grown rapidly.

In the face of North Korean threats, the proportion of government spending that Seoul devotes to defence is among the world's highest outside Middle East and African conflict zones, according to Sipri's 2016 figures.

South Korea is turning "to its own arms industry to supply its demand for weapons" and "aiming to realise its goal of becoming a major arms exporter", Sipri Senior Researcher Siemon Wezeman said in a statement.

Having gone through a massive industrial development, South Korea is "increasingly using weapons and technology that can compete with what has been supplied by Europe and the US," according to Pieter Wezeman.

The nation is a top arms producer among emerging countries in the sector, including Brazil, India and Turkey.

'PERSISTENT REGIONAL TENSIONS'

South Korean arms exports, which amounted to US$253 million in 2006, reached US$2.5 billion 10 years later, according to official data.

Its missiles, howitzers, submarines and warplanes are particularly popular in South-east Asia, Eastern Europe and South America.

Seven South Korean arms groups rank among Sipri's top 100 global arms producers. The first of these, the conglomerate Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), which developed a supersonic training hunter T-50 Golden Eagle with the American Lockheed Martin, is in 48th place.

The top 100 producers' combined sales totalled US$374.8 billion last year, up 1.9 per cent from 2015. This is the first annual increase after a five-year consecutive decline.

American producers alone accounted for 57.9 per cent of the total sales figure ahead of the British (9.6 per cent), the Russian (7.1 per cent) and the French (5.0 per cent).

US companies' arms sales grew by 4 per cent in 2016 at a combined total of US$217.2 billion and Germany saw a 6.6 per cent rise in arms sales for the same year due to demands in Europe, the Middle East, and South-east Asia.

Sipri said growth in arms sales was triggered by "ongoing military operations in several countries and persistent regional tensions that are leading to an increased demand for weapons".