At a massive South Korean weapons factory, robots and highly skilled workers are producing weapons that could ultimately play a role in Ukraine.
Since the Russian invasion in February 2022, the Hanwha Aerospace factory in the southern city of Changwon has tripled its production capacity, workers told AFP during a visit last week.
South Korean policy has long prohibited arms sales in conflicts. However, Seoul signed arms deals worth $17.3 billion (€16.2 billion) last year, including one worth $12.7 billion with Poland, a NATO member and key ally of Kiev, particularly for K9 cannons and K2 tanks.
The country has been able to increase its arms exports when other heavyweights in the sector, particularly the United States, face production shortages.
Poland ordered 212 K9 cannons last year and Seoul has already delivered 48, a pace “that no one else can match,” Lee Kyoung-hun, head of production at Hanwha Aerospace, the country’s largest weapons manufacturer, told AFP.
“We can deliver products in the shortest time possible,” says Lee.
Seoul aims to become the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter, behind the United States, Russia and France, a goal now achievable, according to industry experts.
The country has already sold artillery shells to Washington, but under an “end-user” agreement, meaning the US military will use the munitions.
South Korea’s arms industry enjoys a big advantage over other players in the sector: It has always been “ready for war,” said Choi Dong-bin, senior vice president of Hanwha Aerospace.
South Korea and its northern neighbor have technically been at war since the 1950-1953 Korean conflict ended with an armistice, without a peace treaty, between Seoul and Pyongyang.
South Korea has kept production lines open and Choi said this gives the country a significant advantage in weapons production because Seoul has the ability to mass produce quickly and easily.
“We currently receive many orders from abroad and we can respond quickly to their requests and deliver the products in a short time,” he explains.
Seoul’s weapons have also been well tested. “They are deployed on the ground,” on one of the most fortified borders in the world, Choi said.
North Korea lacks Seoul’s high-tech weaponry and has stockpiles of obsolete Soviet-era munitions.
During a six-day visit to Russia that ended Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met Vladimir Putin and experts suspect Moscow wants to buy weapons from Pyongyang for the conflict in Ukraine. North Korea is suspected of wanting to acquire technologies for its nuclear and missile programs.
Although Seoul has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has resisted calls to strengthen its support for Kiev, in part because it has long called on Moscow to intercede with the North Korean dictator.
But if Russia starts buying weapons from Pyongyang – despite international sanctions – it could change the course of the war in Ukraine and force Seoul to act, according to Choi Gi-il, a professor of military studies at Sangji University.
«If this devait occurs, I think there will be more than 50% chances that the arms manufactured in South Korea and exported to Poland will be deployed to help the Ukraine return to Russia,» he estimates. He.
The export of South Korean weapons, particularly K9 weapons, would be “very valuable to kyiv.”