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South Korea Is The New Arsenal Of Democracy

April 20, 2017

Your social life depends on their phones. Consumer goods everywhere reach markets on their ships. Everyone you know enjoys their food. And their cars are getting better and better.

South Korea’s place in the global economy is assured thanks to its Chaebols, those inscrutable corporate kingdoms fueling its first world momentum. But these same manufacturers serve another essential function: maintaining a vast war machine.

Because ever since the Panmunjon ceasefire South Korea had to exist on a permanent war footing against its militaristic other half and its ruling dynasty. This meant an endless cycle of conscription for South Korean males and an always rising defense budget that totaled $36.5 billion in 2017.

Though still dependent on a security umbrella provided by the US, South Korea’s modern arms industry traces its origins to the Yulgok Plan, or Yulgok Project, in 1974. This document led to the creation of a semi-secret slush fund for buying weapons abroad. At the same time public and private companies were empowered to begin developing modern weapon systems, an effort that continues until today. Thanks to the government’s stewardship, these same weapons can be bought by other democracies.

Take a look at them.

K2C1 rifle

South Korea was already assembling licensed copies of the M16A1 by 1973. But in 1981 the first in the K-series of small arms, a 5.56mm carbine, arrived. The subsequent K2 rifle entered production in 1985 to replaced the ROK Army’s M16’s. The rifle used a rotating bolt action similar to the AK-47/AKM but had a barrel assembly patterned after the FAL attached to an aluminum AR-15 receiver.

The original K2 rifle came with a polymer foregrip and folding stock. In 2016 S&T Motiv, which is responsible for all small arms production in South Korea, debuted the K2C1 pictured above. It appears the same rifle from the 1980s was given a modicum of tacticool aesthetics to appease modern tastes, including a retractable stock. A new foregrip with slanted gas vents partially houses the barrel assembly.

A length of Picattiny rail runs over the upper receiver to support the back sight and possible optics. In 2010 the K2 was used as the basis for the K11 “smart” rifle that integrated a bolt action 20mm grenade launcher and a optical fire control system. With nearly a million K2 rifles built, it’s no surprise other countries are warming up to the model.

K3 machine gun

The K3 light machine gun was first mass-produced in 1989 as a replacement for the heavier and problematic M60. The familiarity of its design comes from being a licensed copy of the FN Minimi, albeit with peculiar South Korean improvements.

A sturdier horizontal carrying handle was installed on top of the barrel assembly. This allows the operator to detach the barrel from the receiver for cleaning. The shape and size of the stock was also changed to accommodate Korean shoulders. Like the Minimi, in lieu of the usual disintegrating belt, the K3 accepts M16 or K2 curved magazines.

A shortened version, the K3 Para, uses an oscillating collapsible stock while a larger model called the K12 is chambered for 7.62x51mm rounds.

K4 Grenade Launcher

South Korean firms like S&T Motiv and Dasan manufacture a wide variety of small arms, from pistols to sniper rifles to M2 Browning .50 machine guns. Since compatibility with US forces is paramount for South Korea’s own military, it isn’t surprising to learn the MK19 grenade launcher got its own Asian do-over.

Production of the K4 began in 1994 and it has since maintained its role as a vehicular and infantry force multiplier. The hefty K4, weighing nearly 150 pounds when attached to its tripod, is chambered for 40x53mm high explosive grenades that are fed from either a 24 or 48-round box.

The K4 is an automatic weapon that utilizes an advanced blow-back firing system. This gives it a 40 round per minute practical rate of fire at an effective range of 1.5 kilometers. A detachable PVS-O5K night vision sight is included in its kit.


The logistics of the South Korean armed forces is carried by a vehicular family manufactured by Kia, the all-powerful automaker known for its affordable city cars.

The Kia Light Tactical Vehicle is a fresh attempt at outdoing the AM General Humvee. First teased to the public in 2013, the KLTV offers a modicum of armor matched with above average mobility. A 225 horsepower diesel engine, all wheel drive independent suspension, and a top speed of 12 km/h gives appeals to customers looking for an affordable military 4×4.

The KLTV is designed for a variety of roles, be it transport or reconnaissance, with modular protective features to boot.  It’s already being produced for the ROK Army but has yet to make a splash as a defense export.


The KM450 is the most prolific vehicle in Kia’s defense portfolio. A dependable 4×4 through and through, the truck is a remarkably bland affair suited for crawling over dirt, mud, and sand.

The KM450 is ideal for transporting soldiers and their kit but can also function as an ambulance, a tow truck, a food truck, a shop van for supplies, a weather monitor, a command center, a mobile generator, and if the situation calls for it, a self-propelled multi-launch rocket system.

Its simplicity and price point earned the KM450 some very big deals with foreign militaries in Asia and Africa.


If the KM500 triggers déjà vu, there’s a good reason why. Kia’s army-grade cargo truck is based on the venerable American M809 6×6 manufactured in the tens of thousands.

The KM500 operates alongside the lighter KM250 and both are the ROK Army’s utility trucks of choice. More than transports, however, a few novel ideas have been applied to the KM lineage.

The KM500 can perform almost any job on and off the battlefield, whether as a tractor, a mobile crane, an ambulance, a water purifier, a mobile ground-based radar or even a self-propelled weapon system. During the 1980s the ROK Army took the concept of the BM-21 Grad and applied it to their favorite truck. The result was the K136 Kooryong armed with three dozen 130mm rocket tubes.

The same approach was used on towed artillery like the M101 105mm howitzer, resulting in the EVO 105 made by Hanwha Techwin.

KH179 155mm Howitzer

South Korea has always been at a disadvantage against the North’s 122mm and 130mm howitzers, whose ranges were superior to the World War Two vintage M101’s and M114’s provided by the US to its beleaguered ally. This glaring weakness was rectified in the 1980s when the ROK Army adopted its own howitzers.

The KH179 is a 155mm artillery piece that copied the M114/39 prototype being tested by some Western European countries. South Korea went through with the upgrade and the KH179 entered service in 1983. (It was followed by the self-propelled K55 two years later.)

The KH179 had a lightweight sibling, the KH178 chambered for 105mm rounds. Both are made by Hyundai‘s armaments division. The KH179 is a far cry from the elaborate towed pieces that came out of Europe and the US in the late Cold War. But its familiarity and 32 km maximum range was good enough for its intended role. Indonesia has taken a shining to it and fielded a battery of KH179’s in 2016.

Chunmoo K-MLRS

There was always a worrying gap between North and South Korean rocket artillery. The latter tried diminishing this with its own truck-mounted MLRS in the 1980s, the K136. But in the 2010s a better rocket artillery system was needed.

The Chunmoo developed by Doosan DST is best described as the South Korean equivalent of the HIMARS and boasts a maximum range of 80 km, though this is only possible when it’s configured for launching ballistic missiles. The effective range of the Chunmoo is between 23 and 45 km.

Its production has since been taken over by Hanwha Techwin and 58 launchers were ordered in 2014. The Chunmoo’s rocket module can fire three types of ordnance: 130mm and 227mm unguided rockets, and a 239mm guided munition.

Hyunmoo 2 SRBM

Since the 1980s the existence of North Korea’s ballistic missile stockpile has been too much to bear for Seoul. Rather than focus on layered air defenses and hardened structures along the DMZ, South Korea sought its own retaliatory measures.

With a range of 1,000 km, the Hyunmoo 3 that entered service in 2016 is the largest and deadliest surface-to-surface missile in the South’s arsenal. The Hyunmoo originated as a cruise missile program in 2006 with R&D shared between the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) and LIG Nex1. The Hyunmoo 2 that entered service in 2015 had a range of 300 km and came armed with a thousand pound warhead.

South Korea no longer wants its own nuclear weapons so the Hyunmoo 2 serves as an active deterrent and second strike ability in case a reckoning with the North comes to pass.

K21 Infantry Fighting Vehicle

The ROK Army always had a large requirement for mechanized transport. In 1984 the existing fleet of US-made M113 APCs was augmented by the new K200’s. These were locally built APCs patterned after their American forebears with a few cosmetic differences.

At least 1,700 were built along with specialized anti-aircraft, ambulance, engineering, resupply, command, and mortar variants. The army’s brief experience with the BMP-3–a batch was delivered to South Korea as a debt repayment in 1996–and knowledge of the M2 Bradley influence the development of a new IFV.

The K21 entered service in 2009. Weighing 25 tons, it could fit nine soldiers in its belly along with three crew. Its armaments consisted of a 40mm cannon and two ATGMs–local variants of the Spike-MR–for targeting structures and tanks. The hull of the K21 was later used for the Choonma and Biho anti-aircraft systems.

K1A1 / K2 Main Battle Tank

In 1980 a prototype third-generation main battle tank was lent by General Dynamics to its South Korean partner, the Chaebol Hyundai. This became the K1 and it made South Korea’s ground forces on par with the best NATO had at the time. More importantly, it eclipsed North Korea’s own worrisome tank armada.

The K1A1 emerged at the turn of the century as a much needed upgrade. Its successor, the K2, is so packed with improvements as to have little in common with its predecessors. Armed with a 120mm gun fed by an autoloader, the K2 runs on a German MTU engine and is equipped with reactive armor and an active protection system.

For lack of a combat record, the K2 might qualify as the best tank built according to Western standards today. Hundreds of K2’s are believed to be in service with the ROK Army.

K9 155mm Self-Propelled Gun

By the 1980s the ROK Army was in the middle of a huge effort to adopt localized equipment. An early surprise was the K55, a copy of the M109 that entered service in 1985. But with North Korea still possessing a ridiculous advantage in sheer howitzers and rockets, the K9 Thunder’s arrival in 1999 evened the odds along the DMZ.

The K9 borrowed from the existing K-55 and Germany’s next-generation PzH 2000. The result was a superb platform that balanced mobility and firepower. The K9’s 155mm L52 howitzer can hit targets 40 km away and its hull was repurposed by Hanwha Techwin for separate ammunition carriers and command vehicles. Obsessed as it is with exports, South Korea allowed production licenses for the K9 to be shared with India, Turkey, and Poland. At the rate it’s going, the K9 is becoming a favorite for some of the world’s biggest armies.

Chunma K-SAM

Believe it or not, the Chunma is another incarnation of the ubiquitous Crotale short-range SAM that France has exported to so many countries.

The Chunma manufactured by Hanwha Techwin is a combination of a SAM launcher with integrated radar mounted on a K21 hull. It entered service together with the Biho mobile anti-aircraft gun in 1999. The complete system is meant for “reinforced anti-aircraft defense” in the difficult terrain of the DMZ where the threat from helicopters and low-flying aircraft is high. The best estimates suggest more than a hundred Chunma’s are currently operational.

The Chunma carries two cells that each contain four missiles, whose effective range is 9 km. Its product literature reveals the Chunma is a jamming-resistant all-weather system and it’s capable of multi-target tracking as far as 20 km away.


The Biho forms part of Hanwha Techwin‘s air defense portfolio. It’s also a novel concept applied to an existing platform, replacing the K200 equipped with a 20mm chain gun, so that ROK Army hard sites and mechanized units have a protective umbrella over them.

The Biho was originally a mobile anti-aircraft gun similar to the Gepard when it entered service in 1999. But Hanwha Techwin developed an improved variant, the Hybrid Biho, that had more in common with the Russian 2S6 Tunguska. the Biho combines tandem 30mm anti-aircraft guns with short-range SAM cells carrying two Shingung missiles each. The Shingung missiles made by LIG Nex1 have a range of 5 km.

The Biho’s radar can track targets 21 km away and its armaments are suited for taking out helicopters, UAVs, and low-flying aircraft.

Cheolmae II M-SAM

The M-SAM program is part of an ambitious effort to develop a multi-tier air defense network over South Korea’s critical infrastructure, including bases and cities. Its origins, however, are unique for a country with such deep ties with the US military-industrial complex.

Instead of refurbishing American Patriots a collaboration between Samsung Thales, Doosan, and LIG Nex1, with input from Russia’s Almaz Antey (maker of the S-300 and S-400), produced a true hybrid weapon system. The Cheolmae II is designed for a theater defense role and is equipped with a multifunction X-band radar allowing it to engage targets 120 km away.

The M-SAM is expected to be declared operational in 2017.

RQ-101 Night Intruder 300

There’s enormous demand for autonomous vehicles and aircraft in South Korea, where robotics and wireless technology are cutting edge. When it comes to UAVs, firms like Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Uconsystem have developed a range of propeller drones for various surveillance roles.

The RQ-101 is a medium altitude twin-boom UAV made by KAI. It ‘s similar to Israeli-made Searcher II acquired by Korea in the 1990s. The RQ-101 dates to 2000 and production commenced a few years later. Both the RQ-101 and the Searcher II use the same ground control station. Capable of remaining airborne for six hours, with a cruising radius of 200 km, the RQ-101 is a corps-level asset that’s fielded in squadrons of six.

The RQ-101 is used by ROK Army in an ISR role and there are rumors the Untied Arab Emirates is the first customer for these drones.

Surion Helicopter

The Surion manufactured by KAI is supposed to augment the existing fleet of UH-1 and MD500 helicopters deployed by the South Korean military.

The open secret of the Surion is the input from Eurocopter, whose AS 532 Cougars were used as the basis for KAI’s medium-lift rotorcraft program. Partnering with Eurocopter was a cost-saving measure for KAI, who rebuilt the Cougar according to South Korean specifications.

The Surion debuted in 2011 and deliveries to the ROK Army started by 2013. Further orders from the ROK Marine Corps, Navy, and government might boost its production numbers to hundreds before decade’s end. It’s possible the Surion is made the basis for a hybrid attack helicopter in the near future.

FA-50 Golden Eagle

In 1997 KAI launched its R&D for a new single engine trainer. Using insights gleaned from its licensed production of upgraded F-16’s, and with funding provided by Lockheed Martin, a viable model soon took shape. The result was the T-50 Golden Eagle whose maiden flight in 2002 launched South Korea into the high stakes aerospace market.

The original T-50, with its General Electric F404 turbofan engine that allowed it to reach  speeds of Mach 1.5, was re-imagined as a fighter-on-a-budget in 2011. The key was making its cockpit a two-seater and installing new avionics along with an Israeli-made EL/M2032 Pulse-Doppler radar for target tracking over 200 km distances.

Small batches of the FA-50 have been sold to the Philippines, Iraq, and Indonesia. FA-50’s made their combat debut in early 2017 with close air support sorties in the Southern Philippines. The ROK Air Force is expected to field at least 150 of these jets in the next 10 years. Even if it won’t ever match an F-16D or a Gripen, the FA-50 is affordable for everyone.

Son Won Il-class Submarine

South Korea maintains the smallest submarine fleet in its region and only began operating these during the 1990s.  After the successful development of nine Jangbogo-class or Type 209 submarines the first next-generation Son Won Il-class or Type 214 arrived in 2007. Production of each Type 214 submarine is shared between Hyundai Heavy Industries and Daewoo Shipbuilding with engines and subsystems sourced from Germany.

Each Son Won Il is similar in dimensions and capabilities of the Scorpene. With just 40 crew and a maximum speed of 20 knots, Type 214’s are quipped for patrol, mine laying, and intelligence missions and come armed with a combination of torpedoes, mines, anti-ship missiles, and land-attack cruise missiles. The ROK Navy has commissioned eight Type 214’s so far, with a ninth expected to enter service in 2019. The next stage of naval expansion is building a 3,000-ton diesel-electric submarine class throughout the 2020s.

Sejong the Great-class KDX-III Destroyer

Having slowly evolved into a blue ocean force, South Korea’s navy possesses some of Asia’s largest warships. Displacing at 11,000 tons and equipped with both anti-ship and cruise missiles, the Sejong the Great KDX-III and its sisters are superior to the original Arleigh Burke-class destroyers they’re patterned after.

The firepower of the Sejong the Great is worrisome. It supports three vertical launch platforms, with a total of 128 navalized Hyunmoo 3 cruise missiles, along with long-range Kaesong SAMs, short-range Haeseong ASMs, anti-submarine missiles and torpedoes, and the familiar combination of a main gun (127mm) and CIWs.

The first trio of Sejongs were commissioned between 2008 and 2014. The ROK Navy is expected to have six KDX-III destroyers by 2030, giving it an unprecedented amount of firepower on the high seas.

Dokdo-class Amphibious Assault Ship

The commissioning of South Korea’s first amphibious assault ship in 2007 signaled its emergence as a maritime power in the Asia-Pacific. Displacing at 18,860 tons with a crew of 450, its internal volume can support transporting 700 marines, 20 vehicles, and 10 helicopters. Without a doubt, the Dokdo built by Hanjin Heavy Industries is a testament to a country’s sheer industrial strength.

A second ship of the same tonnage is scheduled for launch between 2019 and 2020. A third ship is planned and there’s unverified chatter it could be upgraded to a light aircraft carrier–similar to Spain’s LHD’s–supporting its own fixed-wing complement. Only time will tell if South Korea can afford the long-term maintenance of its blue ocean naval assets.

South Korea manufactures its own version of the AAV7 for its Marine Corps, who are recognized as the largest in Asia.


Truth be told, the weapon systems discussed so far represent just a fraction of South Korea’s “defense products.” Blessed by an export-driven economy with a massive industrial base, South Korea is able to manufacture hundreds of items and ordnance for its armed forces, whose current size makes it the sixth largest in the world.

From radar to radios, grenade launchers to gas masks, the underlying theme of South Korea’s astounding military-industrial complex is the country’s wealth. It takes a $2 trillion economy to afford this level of stupendous firepower. Like its East Asian neighbors, South Korea’s success has less to do with national character and shares much in common with an esoteric growth model: the pseudo-country established by Japan in Manchuria during the 1930s.

The “Manchukuo Model” is the original blueprint for East Asia’s rise on the global stage, as it brought together corporate kleptocracy and mass mobilization; this meant a peace time economy running a total war tempo. South Korea’s late dictator Park Chung Hee, a veteran of the Imperial Japanese Army, understood Manchukuo-style development. The trick was harnessing local conglomerates to a long-term program that could propel his country ahead of its arch nemesis in the north.

No wonder South Korea’s success with its arms industries can’t be replicated. But the free world can still patronize its wares via the Korean Defense Industries Association (KDIA) to check what’s for sale. South Korea is eager for customers, anyway, since it wants to be selling $4 billion worth of arms each year from 2020 onward.

It’s rather shocking how South Korea, with an economic girth measuring almost the same as France, can afford to double its military spending and devote 5% of its GDP for martial pursuits–if it wishes. Of course, the implications are unsettling. Kim Jong Un will gnash his teeth. Beijing is gripped by anxiety. Tokyo contemplates a firmer alliance. Seoul might be tempted by expeditionary diversions in distant shores.

Rather shocking, indeed.