South Korean Defence Strategy - Mass, Firepower, Industry & Existential Threats
In an ideal world defence strategy should be driven by objectives and context. If you're an island nation surrounded by friendlies and far away from any threat other than rowdy tourists, then you might decide to relax a bit with the military spending. Which helps explain for example why the moment that the Cold War ended and the Warsaw Pact disbanded, many European states were able to look around, decide that they now liked their new neighbours, and that tens of thousands of armoured vehicles, millions of rounds of artillery ammunition and thousands of aircraft should be sent to the scrapyard.
This was the famous "peace dividend" where many Western militaries began to contract sharply. But halfway around the world on the Korean Peninsula, decision makers in the Republic of Korea still found themselves in the same hard old neighbourhood. Facing a northern opponent armed to the teeth, eventually developing nuclear weapons, and for whom the making of apocalyptic threats was basically a national pastime.
And so while many nations were able to disarm after the Cold War, the Republic of Korea had to maintain its hard edge. It had to find a way to maintain an armoured and artillery force more akin to that of Russia or the United States, while operating on a budget more similar to that of France or the United Kingdom. It's the strategy of a wealthy nation that has found itself strategically positioned in a region that has become a key growth engine for the world economy. But also one that has had to be constantly ready to face existential threats. In a sense it's almost a case study in a nation trying to maintain a significant, powerful military force with constrained resources, and so today I thought we should talk about it. So we'll start by looking at some Korean military history, but also the underlying strategic position of the Korean Peninsula.
Geography can be a major blessing and curse in a strategic sense, and the Korean Peninsula's is kind of hit and miss. Then we are going to talk about South Korea's armed forces and industry as they exist today. We'll talk about manpower levels, technology, equipment, and the industrial capacity and strategy that underpins all of it. Having done that we'll start looking forward, we'll dive into a number of strategy documents put out by the South Korean government to try and answer the question of how the Republic of Korea sees its place in the world, where it sees potential threats, and where it does see those threats how it intends to respond to them.
Finally, we'll dive into some of the tensions that exist within those strategy documents. And some of the major security challenges and opportunities the Republic of Korea might face going forward. So we'll start with a little bit of history, albeit more truncated than normal for two key reasons. Firstly, to keep the length of this video under control, and secondly because ancient Korean history just simply isn't part of my academic background. And while there are certainly key macro observations that are very relevant to this presentation, I'm happy to leave the more in-depth discussions to more specialised voices. The armies of the historical Korean kingdoms can trace a long and distinguished military history.
With perhaps the most well-known example for a Western audience being the repulsion of the Japanese invasions in the 1590s. At that time Korea faced Japanese armies that were charged with all the experience accumulated during Japan's period of constant warfare. And yet after 6 years, and in no small part due to the efforts of the much outnumbered Korean Navy as well as a Chinese military intervention (which certainly wouldn't be the last in Korea's history), the Japanese would have to go home defeated.
But while famous, those invasions were far from the first or the last external threat that Korea would face, and raids, invasions and border wars punctuate Korean history. Part of Korea's core strategic problem was simply where it was. Korea may have consolidated far earlier than many other states as a contiguous political entity, but through most of its history it had the misfortune of being positioned between much larger political entities. It was a hard mode game start that Korea has battled with through most of its history, and continues to have to deal with today. Korea would spend centuries as part of the Chinese tributary system, and then became a prize to be influenced or fought over for surrounding major powers. Japan, China and the Russian Empire just to name three.
For those more familiar with European history, you can kind of call this "Poland syndrome". Where the people of a region have a relatively strong cultural and linguistic identity, would very much like to be their own thing, but who often found their desires kinetically outvoted by the great powers that surrounded them and who would rather see those territories dominated or absorbed in whole or in part. The result is that unless you count a short-lived provisional authority in 1945, no Korean living today would be able to remember a time when Korea was unified, independent and free. The nation had become a protectorate of Japan in 1905, and been formally annexed into the Japanese Empire in 1910. Imperial rule would persist until Japan's defeat in 1945.
At which point the long-suffering people of Korea would be rewarded with almost immediate partition into the Communist North and American-backed South, and within just a few years a devastating, annihilating, war. The initial North Korean invasion captured a majority of South Korean territory. Had it not been for international intervention, the war probably would have ended in a Northern victory. Fortunately for the Republic, on the 27th of June 1950 the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution, resolution 83. Which recommended that UN members send military forces to assist the Republic of Korea. Now if you live in 2023 and you're used to seeing the United Nations Security Council doing basically nothing controversial, you might be wondering how on earth that happened.
After all, there are 5 veto powers in the UNSC, one of which at the time was the Soviet Union, another of which has always been China. But this was 1950, so China's vote was still held by the Nationalists, not the Communists. Something which had so frustrated the Soviet Union that they had been boycotting UNSC meetings. It's kind of a stark reminder that if you want to influence events, voting is probably a pretty good place to start.
Because who knows, if you just sit at home in protest you may end up with a multinational military force kicking down your door. UN troops from the US to Luxembourg first pushed the North Koreans back over their starting line and then started pushing further and further into North Korean territory. Only to then get thrown back in turn by the intervention of the Chinese Volunteer Armies from the People's Republic of China. In the end the conflict would end with a ceasefire drawn on a line not that far from where the whole thing had started. Only now, millions of civilians and military personnel had become casualties, and the economic infrastructure of the North and South had been thoroughly wrecked.
The Republic of Korea that emerged from the Korean War had survived, but as a poor nation under an authoritarian ruler. International military intervention had given the Republic of Korea a chance, but its transition towards an advanced economy and multi-party democracy would be long, arduous and complicated. But the Republic of Korea of 2023 appears to have successfully made that transition, and now stands as one of the most prosperous countries in Asia. And having reached the present day, I think it's worth talking about the modern ROK strategic position. In a modern context, South Korea's geographic position is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it finds itself proximate to major trading partners, and in the heart of the growth engine of the global economy over the last several decades.
The Japanese and Chinese economies are just a stone's throw away, the great markets of the United States are an easy boat ride across the Pacific. And in the modern context, some of Korea's old strategic vulnerabilities appear to have melted away for now. Freedom of maritime navigation enables the South Korean economy not just to function but to prosper. And with Japan's sudden and dramatic geopolitical realignment after the Second World War, the Koreans probably no longer have to fear angry samurai landing at Busan. But that northern border; that northern border is still a problem.
Because to the north there's the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea. An incredibly repressive single-party dictatorship, which despite its extreme poverty and ongoing reliance on international food aid to sustain its population, nonetheless possesses a small nuclear arsenal, a massive array of missile systems, and a military which has (very approximately) an active personnel count of about 5% of the population. To give a sense of scale there, that would be like the US keeping a bit south of 17 million personnel on active duty. Technically the DPRK and the ROK are still at war with only a ceasefire being in place. And so theoretically at least, at any given moment the North might choose to strike again.
That threat the DPRK poses is split into multiple interrelated, but ultimately distinct, components. Firstly, there's the threat of strategic weapons of mass destruction being used. Nuclear weapons for example being fired against South Korean urban or industrial centres.
Then there is a hybrid threat including everything from infiltration to cyber-warfare. And finally the threat of a conventional all-out military confrontation. And if you're trying to imagine what that sort of conflict would look like, well then here are some characteristics that might set it apart from a conflict like what we are now seeing in Ukraine. Compared to Ukraine, the forces that would be fighting in Korea would be equivalent or larger in several main indicators, including manpower and artillery.
And all of that additional firepower would be concentrated along a much, much shorter frontage. Even more so because the challenging terrain of Korea limits the number of routes that realistically you could use to push large forces through. Then you have a huge percentage of the populations of both nations living quite close to the demilitarised zone. And the massive metropolis that is Seoul is only about 50 kilometres from that border. (And that's 31 miles, I think, in freedom units.) If you're the kind of weirdo tourist like me who would rather look at minefields and fences as opposed to the hundreds of attractions or culturally significant sites in or around the South Korean capital, then a day trip to the border is entirely doable.
What that essentially means is that from minute 1 of any conflict between the Koreas, millions of people potentially will be in immediate range of long-range conventional MLRS and artillery systems. That means the stakes of allowing opposing artillery or missile systems to fire for any protracted period of time are incredibly high potentially for the civilian population. That provides a pretty strong incentive to South Korean forces to make sure that they're able to silence or defeat any northern attack as quickly as humanly possible. And at the same time, the North has a strong incentive to make sure that any war doesn't last particularly long either. Because it turns out that when your national GDP is smaller than McDonald's annual revenue, sustaining an all-out industrial war for a protracted period is just not going to be possible. South Korean documents talk about North Korea possessing enough war supplies for between 1 to 3 months, after which it would be expected that the entire force would begin to run into very serious problems.
Take all of that together, and combine it with the fact that both sides have had literally decades to wargame this scenario again and again and again, testing small permutations, adjusting positions, fire plans and logistical contingencies, that it would be incredibly brutal, front loaded in terms of firepower, and almost mind-numbingly costly. There are a lot of factors that go into shaping a nation's strategic thinking, but generally speaking ever-present, enduring, existential threats tend to go to the front of the list. And that ever-present nature sets the North Korean threat apart from the security threats that many other nations face. Many other countries will assume that they'll have at least some warning before a neighbour potentially attacks them. You might for example see positions being fortified, ammunitions stockpiled near the border, troops brought forward to points of forward concentration, and all the other tell-tale signs, some of which we saw before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Troops generally don't camp and stockpile their equipment right on the national border.
But in the DPRK they kind of do. A lot of positions and depots are already prepared, a lot of plans are already made, a lot of units are forward positioned, and so it's always possible for the Korean War to flare up again with comparatively little warning. Which means the South in turn needs to be able to respond with little or no warning, which in and of itself imposes a massive tax on any military.
Maintaining readiness is difficult, maintaining constant readiness is crushing. But there's a second element of South Korea's strategic position that also makes it vulnerable in a completely different way. And if you watched my video on Japan's defence strategy this is probably going to sound familiar.
The Republic of Korea is a trade-based economy with a strong manufacturing sector, but it is fiercely poor in certain critical inputs, including energy resources. The Korean Peninsula is naturally rich in a number of resources, ranging from coal and gold to some of the world's largest reserves of magnesite. The problem however is that a lot of them are in the north. North Korea isn't particularly keen on sharing, and so imports have to make up the difference. According to the ROK government, in 2021 the country imported almost 95% of its energy and natural resource consumption. It spent about 136 billion US dollars doing so, equivalent to about 22% of the country's overall imports.
Those imports in turn are often geographically concentrated. 59% of all Korean oil imports for example, come from the Middle East. That means the ROK is incredibly vulnerable to disruptions in international shipping, energy imports, or just energy markets in general. Were freedom of navigation to break down or trade to South Korea become interdicted, the fuse would be lit on an economic and humanitarian disaster. Which would mean that the ROK security situation is going to depend not just on its land and air forces, but also its naval capabilities and its abilities to influence or project power abroad. And having understood some of that basic strategic challenge, now is probably a good time to look at the Republic of Korea's armed forces themselves.
And ask: against this myriad of potential security threats, what sort of assets does Seoul have at its disposal? In some ways, despite its modernity and technological sophistication, the Republic of Korea's military has a lot in common with some Cold War forces. In no small part that's because it didn't see the same sort of radical down-downsizing post-1991 that other forces did. Defence spending as a percentage of GDP did fall from 1980 to the present day, but it was more than compensated for by the growth in the economy, and never dropped below 2% which is NATO's internal target. To give an idea of the impact of economic growth on Korean defence spending, in 1980 they were spending about 4 billion US dollars per annum and now over the next 5 years the figure is closer to 270 billion. Inflation is a thing, but not that much of a thing. In short, the South Koreans seem to have at least partly missed the memo on the whole post-Cold War disarmament thing.
It's kind of like sticking with a trend after it goes out of fashion, only to find it comes back into fashion decades later. You are the South Koreans, the Cold War is over, and you watch everyone go and decide to do counter insurgency for a couple of decades. For years everyone looks down their nose at your ammunition bunkers while they figure out a way to make everything air mobile and IED resistant. Then suddenly that phase is over, mass and firepower are back in fashion, and everyone is suddenly very, very interested in all that ammo and artillery that you've been hoarding.
The other factor you need to account for when talking about the South Korean military budget is as always, purchasing power parity, how much bang do they get for their buck? We've talked about this before in terms of explaining why China, Russia and countries like that can afford what they can afford given their limited budgets (at least in US dollar terms). Now calculating military purchasing power parity is always difficult. But if you refer to the Robertson figures from 2019 that I've used before, the ROK has a rather remarkable multiplier of 2.1. That is a US dollar goes about twice as far in terms of military spending in South Korea as it does in the United States.
Notably that's a multiplier even higher than China's. And reflects a combination of factors including the fact that the South Korean military is still a conscription-based force. That the country has access to relatively free technical exchange with many Western countries.
And that this is a country with a robust, competitive, and growing defence industrial base. So if as we go through these various components of the South Korean armed forces, you are wondering how they manage to afford all of this stuff, that PPP advantage may be at least part of your answer. As you might imagine, given their next door neighbour, the army is the largest component of the Republic of Korea's armed forces.
And is one built with an awful lot of mass, metal and firepower. At any given time, the army is reported to have about 420,000 active personnel, making it perhaps 10% smaller than the US Army. The difference of course being the Korean military is concentrated almost entirely in Korea, while the US Army has to be spread around the world.
The Korean government reports that that active force is augmented by more than three million reservists of various types. And that's far from counting all South Koreans who have some sort of wartime emergency role. In short, when the South Korean President slams the mobilisation button, what comes out the other side relatively quickly should in theory be larger than the entire United States armed forces. And there's little doubt they have the metal to match all of that manpower.
The ROK Army is not a lightly-built expeditionary force designed for power projection around the world, it's a very heavily armoured force designed to slug it out on the Korean Peninsula. The force has more than 2,000 MBTs, 550 infantry fighting vehicles, 2,500 APCs, almost 100 advanced attack helicopters. And then: then we have to talk about the artillery, because the Koreans really like artillery.
On paper the South Korean Army has more howitzers and self-propelled guns than the US Army. The paper strength in 2022 listed more than 2,300 self-propelled guns, almost all 155mm pieces. A majority of which were the modern indigenously-built Korean K9, with the remainder being American M109A2s. Those were supported by 3,500 towed artillery pieces, evenly split between 105 and 155mm pieces.
Approximately 300 MLRS systems, a majority of which are the modern K239s. Approximately 6,000 mortars of various calibres. And a variety of guns kept in reserve for a rainy day, you know, just in case you lost the first 12,000 artillery pieces. And that's all excluding the South Korean Marines, who expect to roll off a boat with 80 155mm self-propelled guns and 140 towed guns, supported by 18 MLRS systems. Meaning that South Korea's idea of a lightly equipped amphibious rapid-response force is something with more howitzer firepower than the French Army.
In terms of force design, this is what happens when someone asks, "How much artillery do you want in the force structure?" And the answer is, "Don't stop getting more until the opponent asks why the rain in Korea appears to always be made of submunitions?" The Republic of Korea is also one of the very few nations around the world with a ground-launched cruise missile. In its various iterations the Hyunmoo has a lot in common with the American Tomahawk, with an approximately 500 kilogram warhead and a range that is more than sufficient to service any target in North Korea, and more than a few outside it. To improve commonality across the force, there's also a version of this missile design for launch from warships, from submarines, and also an air-launched version. Ground-launched cruise missiles are experiencing a little bit of a mini-Renaissance at the moment with the US implementing their own systems. And the war in Ukraine demonstrating that it might be a good idea to diversify your long-range fires just in case aircraft aren't available to do it all for you. Speaking of aircraft, the Republic of Korea Air Force is much smaller in terms of manpower count, as you'd expect.
But it does operate an interesting array of front-line combat aircraft. The aircraft inventory provides a few clues into what the South Koreans expect their air force to be able to do. Compared to other Western-style air forces the ROKAF has relatively few tankers for example, but very heavy component of front-line combat aircraft. Those aircraft are split by role and capability level. There's a small number of F-35s, currently 36 with more on order, that are going to be reasonably well suited to dealing with the best aircraft and ground-based air defences North Korea or anyone in the region has to offer. Then there's a larger force of aircraft that are cheaper from a previous generation with multi-role capabilities.
That includes 59 of the Korean variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle, which coincidentally probably wins a prize as one of the best named variants of that particular jet, with these Korean upgraded versions that will have AESA radar, infrared search and track, and a number of other blingy features being called the Slam Eagle. Older single-engine F-16s and F-5s make up a majority of the force by airframe count. The role of F-16 in Korea is the same as the role of F-16 in many other countries, to be a relatively cheap, relatively affordable, multi-role platform than in a Korean context is perfectly capable of dropping bombs on things from day 2 onwards after the North Korean Air Force has been deleted from existence. In the future I have to imagine that Korea's own indigenously-designed FA-50 light fighter is probably going to serve the same role as the F-16 once did, much as the FA-50 is planned to do in Poland.
Overall, the design of the Korean Air Force demonstrates the desire to mix quantity and quality. There's just enough high-end platforms to serve as force multipliers or to kick in the door. And then once the door is so obligingly kicked in, there's meant to be a sufficient supply of older platforms to ensure that the full quota of warheads are dropped on the appropriate foreheads. Remember that any Korean conflict would likely have a very quick, very vicious start. And in that context, you are going to care a lot about daily sortie count and tonnage dropped.
In that context F-16 or F-15 might do the job as well or better than your F-35. Pivoting to a slightly wetter battle space now, let's talk about the ROKN. Unsurprisingly, when your only land neighbour is North Korea and you are highly dependent on international trade, it can help to have a powerful navy.
Including Marines, the Republic of Korea Navy has about 70,000 active duty personnel and a significant complement of combat ships, many of which are capable of blue water operations. On paper the ROKN is listed as having 19 diesel-electric submarines, 26 principal surface combatants, 78 patrol and coastal combatants and 6 principal amphibious ships. In terms of defining features, this is an organisation which is designed for interoperability with allied forces. The AEGIS Combat System is a relatively common feature on South Korean warships.
And for some reason they seem to put a lot of focus on practicing ballistic missile defence with their allies. Perhaps understandable when your nearest neighbour's preferred national pastimes include issuing apocalyptic threats and testing ballistic missiles. There are some older vessels in the South Korean fleet, but the cutting edge is, well, pretty cutting edge. The Sejong the Great-class for example, packs an awful lot of punch for a destroyer.
With 128 VLS cells, so Vertical Launch Systems for missiles, a mixture of American Mark 41s and Korean-type VLS systems, 16 long-range anti-ship missiles and a suite of advanced sensor systems, this ship is so heavily armed that you'll see commentators sometimes describe it as a cruiser. South Koreans call it a destroyer, whereas I have to conclude that if it ever went into service with the German Navy it would be classed as a frigate. Like any other modern German warship with firepower short of a planet-destroying super laser. Meanwhile the most recent South Korean submarines are the Korean variant of the German Type 214.
These boats have had some teething trouble, but on paper they are small, extremely quiet, and fitted with an advanced air-independent propulsion system. They obviously don't have anywhere near the range and endurance of America's nuclear-powered leviathans, but if South Korea's submarines are doing any fighting it's probably going to be pretty close to South Korea. And so a smaller, cheaper design optimised for local waters probably makes a lot more sense for them. A final word needs to be spared here for South Korea's Marine Corps.
As in many countries, South Korea's Marines serve as a rapid reaction and amphibious-capable force. That means they tend to be lighter than army forces. The British Royal Marines for example have no heavy armour. The American USMC has just divested their M1 tanks. Indeed the current fashion of the day in many countries seems to be to make Marines lighter and more deployable, but this is Korea and they set their own trends.
So the Korean Marines have recently upgraded their main battle tanks and operate with a significant allotment of self-propelled guns. The compromise, if you can call it that, is that they have significantly fewer of them than the army. But "fewer" still means they have about as many main battle tanks per active personnel as the French regular ground army, so there you go. The overall characterisation of the existing ROK military therefore is probably that of a modern Western-style force on one hand, but one which still places a very heavy premium on mass and firepower.
Maintaining personnel counts with compulsory service on one hand and ensuring a lavish allocation of heavy weapon systems on the other. Of course as the war in Ukraine has painfully reminded many countries, you can't just manufacture large quantities of heavy military equipment at the drop of a hat and without the appropriate economic infrastructure. Your GDP can be as high as you want, but your industrial base also matters. The finance bros and bankers of London may generate heaps of GDP, but draft several thousand of them and put them in some warehouses surrounded by metal, tools and equipment and tell them to start building tanks, and you are not going to get a new armoured vehicle, you are going to get a reality TV show. Industry in the end can have significant impacts on capability.
And so as this channel often does, let's now look at the Korean economy and the way it interacts with the country's strategic and military requirements. South Korea's economic rise remains one of the great Asian economic success stories. At the time of the Korean War, North Korea was the more populous, more economically advanced of the two states. But over time that relationship would invert in dramatic fashion.
In 1961 the GDP per capita in the Republic of Korea was 91 dollars. 1/34th of what it was in the United States at the time. Then over the course of the next 20 years that figure multiplied 20 times over to 1,883 dollars.
That closed the gap with the United States to 7 times. By 1991 the gap was 3 times, and as of 2021 it was very roughly 2:1 in nominal terms, and significantly less when purchasing power parity was taken into account. Compared to many other wealthy economies, South Korea's remained relatively manufacturing and industry rich. Although it's fair to say the economy faced and still faces a number of dramatic headwinds.
Not least of which are the immense demographic challenges brought on by the fact that the fertility rate in South Korea is even lower than that of Japan and China, at 0.84 births per woman. That makes the Republic of Korea one of the most rapidly ageing populations on planet earth. But the worst effects of that potential crisis are still in the future.
And for the moment at least, the economy remains robust and growing. In talking about the South Korean economy it's impossible to gloss over the chaebol, the massive mega corporations that so dominate much of it. These are usually firms with massive international recognition, Hyundai, Samsung, LG, Hanwha. And each in turn tends to control a massive network of holdings, and is often active in multiple industries at once. To get a sense of scale here, in 2019 it was reported that Samsung's revenues were equal to about 17% of the Republic of Korea's GDP. And these mammoth firms that drive so much of the South Korean economy also drive its defence industrial sector.
Whereas in a country like the United States you might have a few large defence prime contractors that dominate the defence industrial space, in South Korea you could almost say the economy as a whole has prime contractors. And whatever it is you want to build, whether it's a smartphone or a warship, one of the chaebol will probably be able to do it for you. That sort of industrial muscle is important, because if you look at South Korea's strategy documents, they put the need for a global and connected defence industrial base in their list of national priorities. They want their indigenous industry to be able to build a significant share of what the country needs, and they want those products, critically, to be good enough and cheap enough that they are attractive to the international market.
That last bit of course is the real kicker. With enough subsidies there's a lot of nations out there that could hypothetically manufacture their own equipment. Building good equipment, however, that is cost-competitive with foreign imports, that usually requires some sort of domestic competitive advantage. If you want an extreme example, the industry of the small nation of New Zealand during the Second World War was asked to build a tank.
And to their eternal credit, they managed to build something that could generously be called a tank. The tank in question however was this thing, the famous Bob Semple. And while it certainly has its defenders, I would tentatively observe that in an era of Shermans, T-34s and Panthers, corrugated plating a tractor chassis and a machine gun armament probably weren't going to cut it.
The ROK doesn't want to build the modern equivalent of the Bob Semple, they want something that can fight for contracts on the international market and win. The Korean approach to doing so in recent years has been pretty close to a textbook example of how you transition from being an arms importer primarily to a potential arms exporter. The South Korean military never has the luxury of not having operational hardware good enough to do its job. And so there's no question of just not having fighters, tanks or artillery pieces until domestic industry is up to the challenge. Instead, at a very high level, South Korean hardware transition has usually followed a couple of common steps. Firstly, to import a foreign system more or less whole.
That gets you experience in operating and maintaining it, plus you have something to deter North Korea and others while you work on the next generation. It's much easier to deter someone with an active warplane than it is with a concept or a factory that might build warplanes in 15 years. Then you'll often see a Korean version of that imported equipment with some share of South Korean-built components. The Slam Eagles that we talked about earlier come to mind. That's an American design, an F-15E, adapted for Korean requirements with a significant number of Korean components.
The next step is to move over to an indigenously designed vehicle, but even that is probably not going to be anywhere near 100% Korean made when it first enters service. The first batch of K2 main battle tanks for example, had both German engines and German transmissions. Those are components that can be hard to get right, Germany is a world leader so it made sense if you could build 80+% of the tank to just buy in German components for those that you were still working on. Then we saw a batch with a Korean-built engine but still a German transmission. Then you have to presume there'll be a batch with entirely Korean engines and transmissions.
And then in the Korean model the evolution actually continues when the Korean vehicle now gets sold abroad and begins to integrate foreign components yet again. For example, the future K2PL version will include Polish components alongside the original Korean ones. And in the Korean marketing approach that can actually become a strength in and of itself. If you want an example of them doing this successfully, look no further than the K9 howitzer. In recent years this has been one of the most popular 155mm self-propelled guns on the market.
And as it's been sold around the world the K9 howitzer has transformed appropriately. When sold to Norway for example, the ordinary K9A1 became the K9 VIDAR, Versatile Indirect Artillery system. The Norwegians loved the base system, but they asked for a number of changes to be made. Two of the biggest changes were the integration of a radio and communication suite more suitable for NATO operations, and the inclusion of Norway's own Odin fire support system. The K9 then metaphorically looked at the Odin system and added its technological distinctiveness to its own.
Now there was a version of the K9 more suitable for NATO operations. So of course Hanwha immediately turned around to other buyers like Australia and said, "Hey, would you like to buy this self-propelled howitzer with this really cool Norwegian Odin system?" While also involving the Norwegian company Kongsberg in upgrading K9s for Norway, Finland and Estonia. With each sale and technological adaptation, it seems like the door to another potential sale is opened. This is not to say the South Koreans have discovered some kind of cheat code for successful defence exports. This sort of strategy has clearly worked for them, increasing defence exports from a little under 3 billion US dollars in 2020 to more than 17 billion in 2022. But that doesn't mean this approach would work for every country.
In that respect the ROK has significant advantages, it has a domestic military that's capable of providing a bedrock of demand. If you design a piece of hardware and it fails for export, at least you can still sell it to the ROK military and they'll buy enough of it that the effort won't cause you to go bust. The ROK has a number of technologically advanced allies who are willing to export technology to it to help its defence industrial base mature. It has its own technologically advanced manufacturing base that is very cost competitive in a number of industries. And it has a government that is willing to front up the money and support necessary to push and try and create a sort of virtuous cycle.
The basic idea of the government's plan is if they provide support to the defence industrial base, its capabilities and scale will expand. That will allow it to design new cost-competitive products, which will create new export markets. Which will create more scale, which will enable it to create yet more cost-competitive products. The government helps start the process, it isn't necessary to maintaining it. If you were to attempt that same model in a country which didn't have some sort of competitive advantage, then you wouldn't get export sales unless the government continued to subsidise them.
And if you're doing that, growth in industry can become an economic threat as much as it is an opportunity. Perhaps no other industry shows off that competitive advantage more than shipbuilding. While there are a lot of countries around the world that build ships, the vast majority of global civilian tonnage is built in one of three countries: the People's Republic of China, the Republic of Korea or Japan. These countries are involved in a continuous commercial knife fight for market share. And the outputs of each of the Korean big three, Hyundai, Samsung and Daewoo, each dwarfs that of multiple other countries. So perhaps next time you trade in your phone, ask if maybe you can get trade-in credit on a new LNG tanker.
Now of course civilian and military shipbuilding are not identical. But at the same time, building a weaponised thing that floats has a lot in common with building a non-weaponised thing that floats. And having an economy flush with skilled workers, shipyards, and various subcontractors and supporting industries, certainly provides a fertile base for a military shipbuilding industry. If you want an illustration of just how good the South Koreans are at building warships, here's a quick illustration. When you talk about heavily armed surface combatants in the Pacific, often the pacesetter that people reference is the Chinese Type 55 destroyer. Each of the planned 16 warships in that class should have 112 vertical launch system cells for missile weapons.
The equivalent figure on an American Arleigh Burke-class is 96. And for that significant firepower, we believe the PRC government gets a bargain. Cost estimates vary pretty widely as is common for the Chinese economy, anywhere from 900 million US dollars per ship to as high as 2 billion per ship. If you are asking how much it would cost to build an equivalent ship with a similar firepower and displacement in the United States, Canada, Britain or similar, we'll get to that later. But to avoid short-term emotional damage, let's just say "more" for now. Meanwhile, the pride of the South Korean surface fleet is the Sejong the Great-class destroyer, 3 currently in service and 3 more planned. We talked about these monsters and their very heavy armaments before.
Armament on a modern warship is important for efficiency, because you'd expect a significant number of missile tubes to be spent on surface-to-air missiles and other weapons designed to defend the warship. So the more cells you have, the more you're going to have left over, the more offensive ordnance you can end up carrying. Plus the class doesn't just have a world-beating level of firepower, this ship is equipped with the American Aegis Combat System. You can integrate and network with other warships and platforms, it has powerful sensors, it infuses multiple modern technologies. And while, yes, pricing is very difficult, reporting suggests that the South Koreans pumped out this world-beating class of warship at a cost of about 930 million US dollars per. A figure you might want to keep in mind for the future when we talk about American military shipbuilding.
And the incredible thing here is the South Koreans managed to hit those sort of cost targets at less than half the sort of order volume and scale that the Chinese have. So it's not for no reason that some American media have identified a potential (if controversial) opportunity here. At a time when US shipyards are struggling to build up capacity to match the rapid naval build-up of powers like the People's Republic of China, there have been some that suggested that maybe, just maybe, America should drop its rule against buying foreign warships. Because even if it is just as a short-term measure, assuming people could resist the temptation to tamper too much with the existing Korean designs, it's reasonable to suggest that for the price of maybe one warship built in an American yard you could get considerably more tonnage and firepower produced in Korea. Now of course it's more complicated than that and I'm just a voice on the internet, but maybe that's a little heresy for senior leadership in various Western countries to think about.
Because sometimes leveraging the economic strength of your allies can make sense. If you're allied with the Germans, buy diesel engines. Connections in Australia should get you a good deal on potential Hollywood talent, or anything we can dig out of the ground. While free trade with Scotland probably means you are about to watch scotch, quite rightly, wipe out the rest of your whisky aisle.
But if you are best mates with the Republic of Korea, well then it might be time to pick up a new smartphone which you can use to browse the internet, watch competitive Starcraft 2 matches, and then look at what sort of deal you can get on a next generation warship, because hey, what are friends for? So that's a pretty quick round up of Seoul's existing strategic position. The relevant geography, economic realities, threats, and the forces that the ROK has available. Now as with my videos on Japan and France, it's time to instead look forward.
And we'll do that by going through the core Korean strategic documents, and looking at what they say about their region, their threats, and how they intend to answer them. Here there are a couple of main documents worth looking at for official indications as to South Korean thinking and policy. These include the 2022 National Security Strategy, their recent defence white papers, I looked at both 2022 and 2020. And also documents that aren't ostensibly about security, but are relevant.
Things like their reunification policy on North Korea, budget documents and regional strategies. Out of all of these, the one that we'll be looking at the closest is the National Security Strategy. The document opens, as you might expect, with a scan of the global security environment. A lot of strategic documents around the world will do the same, because ultimately your environment helps drive both your threats and opportunities.
And it is threats and opportunities that drive your responses and requirements. If your threat assessment for example reveals that there is an asteroid headed towards Earth which may wipe out all of human civilization, well then your strategy is probably going to call for investment in space technologies, not anti-submarine warfare. The main features that South Korea identifies in the global security environment have a lot in common with what we saw in the French and Japanese documents.
They see an environment defined by increasing US/China competition, which, to steal a phrase from the document, is "increasing the fluidity of the international order." The document also flags increasing geopolitical instability, diversifying security threats, and deepening protectionist tendencies in what was previously a rapidly globalising world, with all of the economic security risks that come alongside it. Those environmental factors help inform four key security challenges. The risk posed by a major US/China competition, risk to the supply chain, and then other security threats, old and new.
With the classic old and enduring threat being that posed by North Korea, whose growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction poses a potentially existential threat to the Republic of Korea. From that environmental scan and an understanding of the threats, we move on to national security objectives. We know what the risks are, what do we want to do about them? And just like so many corporate or national strategic documents, it gives us the full combination of a vision, guiding principles and specific objectives. The vision is pretty broad: that the ROK be a "global pivotal state contributing to freedom, peace, and prosperity". Basically that the ROK be seen as a significant actor, that they have a seat at the table of global geopolitics. And that whenever they speak or act that they're on the right side, supporting the hopefully uncontroversial goals of global freedom, peace and prosperity.
That vision is supported by a number of principals. These include strengthening defence in cooperation with the United States and other partners. Respecting generally accepted principles and rules of the international community. Actively defending those principles and speaking up against violations.
While also promoting national interests and pragmatism, proactively identifying and responding to new security threats, and closely communicating with the Korean public to create a shared understanding and to generate consensus. If you are trying to parse all that, don't worry, we'll come back to it in a moment. Then finally we have the three national security objectives. These are the most concrete goals of the national security policy, and they are as follows. One, to defend national sovereignty and territory and enhance the safety of South Korea's citizens.
Secondly, to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula, and prepare for future unification with the DPRK. In that sense it's notable that the DPRK also makes reunification of the Korean Peninsula a national objective. Although I imagine that Seoul and Pyongyang have very different ideas of what reunification should look like. Then the final objective is to lay the foundation for East Asia's prosperity and expand the nation's global role.
These principles and objectives are pretty clearly conveyed. Each individually when read makes a great deal of sense. The complication comes when you try and read them together. Now the fact that this is a little complicated shouldn't be surprising. South Korea's security situation is complicated, so it makes sense that their strategy would be as well.
But at least from where I sit, there are some tensions between different elements of the national security strategy. For example, on one hand it casts South Korea as a principal defender of the existing rules-based international order. It highlights the importance of so-called "values-based diplomacy", the active defence of existing international rules and principles, a close partnership with the United States, and support of a rules-based international system in Asia.
We've seen that term "rules-based international order" or "rules-based international system" in the documents of France, Japan and the United States. And while the term is a little bit ambiguous and probably means different things to different people, it generally at the very least means support for freedom of international navigation and countries not going back into the business of invading and annexing their neighbours. So by that language you would expect the ROK to be a stalwart defender of many aspects of the international status quo, except the strategy also calls for a degree of "pragmatism".
If you want a quick illustration of this, look no further than their policy on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. The ROK strategy documents call for it to resolutely condemn the Russian invasion, to join international sanctions, and we've seen the ROK providing financial support to Kyiv while providing some limited indirect (but no direct) military support via the United States. But at the same time the document sets out an objective to, "manage the ROK/Russia relationship in a stable manner guided by international norms". And also to maintain "efforts to maintain stable relations ... minimise damage to our economy and companies operating in Russia."
In other words the ROK is principally opposed to what Russia is doing, but there is a pragmatic limit to how far that opposition will go. And that's just an example of a tension within the document. Tensions can also be created by a range of other factors. Take for example the relationship between the Republic of Korea and the People's Republic of China. This is a pretty complex topic that requires a lot of nuance, but all I'm going to try and do here is hit a couple of key points. On one hand the strategy calls for cultivating "a healthier and more mature relationship, built on mutual respect and reciprocity" with the People's Republic of China.
And claims that "the ROK/China relationship has experienced remarkable progress in various fields over the past 30 years." Well, you could argue there might be a little bit of a diplomatic backhand slap in describing the need for a relationship to be "more mature." That at least sets out the ambition for a healthier relationship between Seoul and Beijing. But in the same document you'll find the Korean government drawing lines in the sand. Saying that it "is committed to addressing matters related to sovereignty, rights and interests in a consistent and resolute manner, based on the national interests and principles."
And specifically it says that "we will make clear [to Beijing] that the THAAD deployment is a matter of our security sovereignty." That refers to the deployment of an American designed and built anti-missile defence system in South Korea intended to help protect it against North Korean missile launches. The PRC very loudly and publicly opposed the deployment of that system, and it became something of a political lightning rod between the two states. The document also includes a range of statements that aren't explicitly about China, but could be read as such.
For example in saying that Korea should "work with the United States and other partners to establish an open, inclusive and rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific." Or that the country should try and avoid the dangers of being dependent on any one country for strategic minerals or resources. This is all further complicated by domestic public opinion. In a democracy public opinion is always going to matter to foreign policy. If tomorrow for example, the Polish government were to about face and try and sign an alliance with the Russian Federation, it would probably collapse by the following afternoon. So even if the ROK government sees a strategic need to try and preserve or improve diplomatic relations with Beijing, that effort would be complicated by the fact the Korean public has some of the most negative opinions on the Chinese government in the world.
This reflects a wide array of concerns ranging from pollution, to North Korea, to the THAAD deployment. But the reality of the situation is that whereas in 2015 about 37% of South Korean respondents reported having a negative opinion towards the Chinese government, by late 2022 the polling I was able to locate suggested a figure closer to 80%. Now while still far short of matching Russia's record approval rating of 3% in Poland, that still gave the South Korean public the most negative net opinion of China of any of the surveyed states in Asia, including Japan. Politicians are usually going to be planning for many future potential contests and battles, not least of which is always going to be the next election. And that being the case, approval figures that stark are often going to bleed into national security strategy and decision making. The final big tension I want to focus on before we move to responses, is where the Republic of Korea's primary security concerns lie.
On one hand we see this goal and ambition for a globally-minded Korea. One that is actively supporting a rules-based international order, that is trying to protect its economic security, its supply chains, international trade routes. And which is even trying to drive efforts on things like climate action, because that too is identified as a potential global threat to South Korea.
A globally-focused Korea is going to want a regional and global-focused military, one that is capable of protecting trade routes and supply lines, projecting power in the region or potentially further afield. One that can help Korea get that seat at the round table of international geopolitics. That Republic of Korea probably wants a large navy, a Marine Corps, and even what the navy has been asking for for some time, potentially a medium-sized aircraft carrier. Something that can help fly the flag and project power across the Asia-Pacific. But at the same time, there's a strong pressure to focus on threats closer to home. Much closer to home, 50 kilometres from home.
The DPRK poses a conventional, hybrid, and weapon of mass destruction driven threat. And a lot of South Korea's effort has to be focused on deterring and controlling that threat. A disruption of energy imports would gravely threaten the South Korean economy, but then again, so would weapons of mass destruction detonating in their industrial districts. The ROK does have a strategy for controlling the weapon of mass destruction threat posed by North Korea.
And that approach is commonly referred to as "the three axis". Element one is the ability to pre-emptively destroy North Korean missiles and delivery systems on the ground if South Korea receives intelligence that a launch or attack is imminent. Much like Israel, South Korea doesn't see itself as having the luxury to wait for their opponent to strike first.
If they think the nukes are going to fly, they are going to want to hit them on the ground. Element two is the ability to shoot down any missiles that aren't destroyed on the ground before they hit their targets. So extensive missile defence infrastructure. And the third element is punishment and retaliation. The ability to inflict "punitive measures" with a strategic strike force. This is often taken to include the destruction of senior North Korean leaders, again as an element of deterrence.
The ROK stresses that they want the North to believe that "the consequences of provocation outweigh any perceived benefits." And if you're trying to impose consequences on a leadership that might not care about the lives of their population, threatening the personal safety and well-being of those leaders might be perceived as one of the only viable options. The key takeaway however, is that this is a very different sort of threat and objective. And so South Korean defence planning has to deal both with threats very close to home on the Korean Peninsula, along with goals that are far more regional or even global in nature. Which brings us to the question of how the ROK intends to thread this particular needle. How do you answer that wide variety of security threats? How do you achieve all of those objectives? And how do you do it within the limits of the resources that the state has available to it? The answer to that question is I don't know, but we can talk about what South Korean strategy says on the matter.
Beginning with diplomatic and cultural measures, before we talk about plans for the ROK military itself. Absolutely central to the ROK's defence strategy is the alliance with the United States. The alliance usually gets its own chapter in the defence white papers. Strengthening relationships with the United States is usually a top diplomatic goal. And the alliance is both closer and more essential than many of America's others. Consider by contrast the US alliance with Great Britain.
As an alliance you can argue it makes a degree of sense, that both nations tend to be aligned on values, geopolitical interests, and of course the shared cultural elements that come from speaking the same language for example. And so a partnership there makes sense, at least until the UK decides to one day embrace Russian logic, which would suggest that all English speakers in America should rightfully come under the rule of Great Britain. In much the same way that all Russian-speaking Ukrainians should be ruled from Moscow.
But if you are really pragmatic about it, if tomorrow the UK and the US were separated from all alliance structures, maybe the UK leaves NATO, leaves any other alliances and the two are separate, in the end they'd both probably be fine. The US would lose access to things like intelligence sharing and the support of some British military units if things ever went hot. And the UK likewise would lose American military protection, but the UK would retain its own independent nuclear arsenal and the giant moat that has mostly kept the nation safe through much of its history. The ROK/US alliance I would argue operates on a greater level of strategic significance. From the US point of view in the event of any major flare-up in the region that involved both countries, a strong majority of troops and heavy ground equipment engaged would probably be South Korean, not American.
If a conflict broke out on the Korean Peninsula for example. The US relies on Korean bases to forward position into the region. And the ROK is central to US strategy on the DPRK and PRC.
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