CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — South Korea will export air defense systems to Saudi Arabia as part of a $3.2 billion deal signed in November, but only revealed this week by the former’s Defense Ministry.
The announcement comes as Saudi Arabia hosts the World Defense Show, running Feb. 4-8, during which the two countries inked a memorandum of understanding to bolster defense cooperation.
The ministry noted the sale of 10 KM-SAM Block II medium-range surface-to-air missile systems represents another major export deal. Korea sold the weapon to the United Arab Emirates in a $3.5 billion deal signed in January 2022.
Defense News has learned that, as of late 2023, KM-SAM deliveries to the UAE had not begun because Hanwha Systems was still developing the more capable Block III active electronically scanned array radar.
LIG Nex1 produces KM-SAM Block II batteries, while Hanwha Systems provides the radar and Hanwha Aerospace supplies launcher vehicles. The weapon can intercept both aircraft and missiles, the latter being particularly important as Saudi Arabia routinely shoots down ballistic missiles fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“By a series of foreign arms sales, including this recent export of KM-SAMs to the Saudis, Korea’s defense industry has won international attention in the global arms market for two points: the level of technical qualification and industrial capacity,” Kim Jae Yeop, a senior researcher at the Sungkyun Institute for Global Strategy in Seoul, told Defense News.
“Defense cooperation between Seoul and Arab states is likely to accelerate in the arms trade agenda. As a number of countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, face growing military threats from the Iranian-backed Houthi militant group in Yemen, Korea can take on a role of reliable supplier of weapon systems to deal with the challenge,” Kim added.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia bought Korean-made Raybolt man-portable, anti-tank missiles. And in March 2022, the kingdom reportedly purchased Korean-made K239 Chunmoo multiple rocket launcher, electro-optical systems and ammunition. When visiting Hanwha vehicle production facilities last October, Defense News observed numerous sand-colored Chunmoo systems.
The new memorandum of understanding is expected to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation. Witnessed by their respective defense ministers, the document called for a joint committee “to further develop the defense industry and defense technology cooperation between the two countries in the mid to long term, and ... conduct research and development in necessary areas such as joint research and development and production of weapon systems,” according to a news release from South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration.
Eom Dong-hwan, the head of DAPA, said Russia’s war in Ukraine has exposed limitations to Western defense-industrial capacity, whereas South Korea has proved “its own capacity to provide major weapon systems in a timely manner.”
“This is expected to strengthen Korea’s status as an emerging arms supplier in the global arms industry,” the director added, referring to the recent agreement.
Gordon Arthur is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. After a 20-year stint working in Hong Kong, he now resides in New Zealand. He has attended military exercises and defense exhibitions in about 20 countries around the Asia-Pacific region.