This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
With Kim Jong Un escalating nuclear threats from the North, South Korea has found a cost-effective solution: its homegrown fighter jets.
The country unveiled its first domestically-produced supersonic fighter jet, the KF-21, also known as the Boramae, to the public at the Seoul Airbase, joining an elite group of nations to demonstrate such technology. The KF-21 could boost the allies’ deterrence capability against the likes of North Korea.
The aircraft, introduced at the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition (ADEX) 2023, was developed by Korea Aerospace Industries, and set for mass production in 2026. The homegrown project is a part of a broader plan to strengthen South Korea’s resilience in the face of increasingly intrusive neighbors that include North Korea and China.
“We define the defense industry as a ‘national strategic industry,’ crucial for both security and the economy,” South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol said in a speech at the Seoul Airbase.
“We are committed to cultivating an environment that fosters the continued growth of the defense industry, bolstering its global standing,” he said, adding that the United States ally will aim to “establish a collaborative defense and security framework” among the like-minded nations.
The KF-21 offers a cheaper option to Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Lightning II, serving both South Korea’s own military needs and the international market. As one of the U.S.’s key security allies, Seoul has already purchased F-35s.
Indonesia has agreed to pay 20% of the US$6.7 billion project cost for the KF-21. The two countries agreed in 2014 to work together to make the next generation jet, even though at one point after that, Jakarta threatened to exit from the project.
South Korea’s unveiling of the KF-21 – with comparable features to the F-35 – may enhance the military preparedness of the U.S. and its allies in Asia, broadening the spectrum of defense capabilities at a lower cost.
South Korea has been actively modernizing its military capabilities: it has achieved milestones like successfully launching its first ballistic missile from a submarine and propelling its inaugural rocket to advance its domestic space program.
Its arms exports last year soared to an unprecedented US$17.3 billion, according to a statement from the Presidential Office on Tuesday. This surge was attributed to substantial contracts, encompassing the supply of K2 tanks, K-9 self-propelled howitzers, FA-50 light attack aircraft, and the Chunmoo multiple rocket launchers.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea is the ninth biggest global arms exporter from 2018 to 2022. Its growth rate of 74% over the previous five years was one of the swiftest in the world.
Seoul has set an ambitious target to take a five percent share of the global arms export market by 2027, aiming to elevate its status to the world’s fourth-largest defense exporter.