A potential deal for Russian defense technology could further advance South Korea's technological base, which already is undergoing a dramatic indigenous military modernization. Such a boost to its military-industrial base could have profound regional repercussions.
Seoul is in the process of negotiating a deal with Moscow to offset Russian debt with Russian defense expertise. South Korea already has a strong military-industrial base, which it is moving to expand. But Russian technology could prove a significant boon. South Korea only joined the United Nations in 1991, which it achieved only by overcoming the Soviet bloc with a bribe. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev needed money, and Seoul wanted U.N. membership. Some of that bribe was made in the form of loans; loans South Korea would be perfectly happy to have repaid in defense technology. It remains to be seen just what terms (e.g., what sectors of technology) are struck, but this has the potential to be a good deal for both Moscow and Seoul. Moscow is interested in paying this debt back eventually, since Seoul never has raised ideological issues with either the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation. The scale and pace of South Korean innovation repeatedly has surprised outside observers: ask any American automaker what they thought of Hyundai ten years ago. South Korean megafirms like Samsung, Daewoo and Kia have made huge advances in the North American marketplace. LG is now the premier white goods company in the United States. Every third ship manufactured in 2006 was made in South Korea; Hyundai Heavy Industries alone is the largest shipbuilder on the planet. Such an industrial base has profound implications for South Korea's domestic defense sector; it has the kind of strong civilian-industrial base that makes for a strong military-industrial base. Foreign military cooperation and acquisition of key U.S. weapon systems already is propelling the South Korean military forward. Next year, the South Korean navy will commission its first Aegis-equipped warship, known as the KDX III, which relies heavily on the Arleigh Burke Flight IIA design. South Korea's air force is taking delivery of U.S.-built F-15K fighter jets. More interesting will be what South Korea does with the successor generation. The K-1 main battle tank (MBT), which dates back to the early 1980s, borrowed so heavily from the U.S. M1 Abrams design that it was dubbed by some the "Kabrams." The new XK-2 Black Panther MBT is the first truly new MBT design to emerge since the Cold War (its autoloader may have significant roots in Russian MBT autoloaders), and though it has yet to be tested or proven in combat, by all measures it appears to be a significant achievement. Between work on the KDX-III and on successive generations of German submarine designs (the Type 209 and now the Type 214), the South Koreans are in a strong position to pull off similar indigenous design leaps in the follow-on generation. The synthesis of different design heritages may be where South Korea's defense industry could truly shine. The South Koreans have extensive experience with, and are still learning more about, U.S. defense technology. Combine that with the potential for understanding Russian design experience — which in many cases will be the late Soviet-era work — and Seoul has the basic ingredients for merging the two principal competing design paths of the 20th century: those of the United States and the Soviet Union. This potential is not limited to U.S. and Russian technology. When Washington stonewalled Seoul and refused to let up on defense agreements prohibiting a South Korean missile program, Seoul turned to the French for help with their space program. South Korea's experience building licensed copies of German Type 214 submarines (Germany has a deep and profound understanding of submarine engineering) has already given the South Koreans a German-influenced perspective of their own. Additional Russian design only will refine their work. Submarine batteries are one area that looks likely to be included in any Russian-South Korean deal. Probably more interesting to Seoul is rocketry, missile guidance, aircraft engineering, avionics and radar, all areas in which the South Koreans are looking to expand their knowledge base. Some of these appear to be on the table. In the long run, South Korea is moving inexorably towards those technologies, specifically ones that reduce manpower needs. These include robotics, increased-range and standoff systems, and spaced-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Like the United States facing down the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, South Korea stands at a demographic disadvantage to both China and North Korea. Deal or no deal, in a decade South Korea will be a defense exporter to reckon with. This new deal raises the prospect that the pace could be accelerated, giving South Korea a better understanding of a broader range of hard-to-master technologies.