Analysis: With a massive arms deal with Poland, South Korea is one step closer to war with Ukraine

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A K2 Black Panther tank manufactured by Hyundai Rotem of South Korea is displayed at the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition, Seoul, South Korea October 20, 2021. REUTERS/Josh Smith

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SEOUL, July 28 (Reuters) – South Korea’s biggest ever arms deal will make it a major arms supplier to Europe since the start of the war in Ukraine, with sales to member Poland NATO, involving more than 1,600 tanks and howitzers, and nearly 50 fighters. jets.

South Korean and Polish officials signed a framework agreement in Warsaw on Wednesday in a deal that Poland says is a key part of their rearmament efforts in the face of war in Ukraine, where it has sent the minus $1.7 billion in military aid.

The scale and speed of the multibillion-dollar deal caught some analysts off guard, as Poland also bought additional Abrams tanks from the United States and clashed with Germany over a request for more Leopard tanks.

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Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said South Korea was the only player capable of supplying new weapons quickly enough.

“It is extremely important that the first deliveries of howitzers and tanks take place this year,” he said at the signing ceremony.

For countries on NATO’s eastern flank, the prospect of cooperation with South Korea is particularly attractive, said Oskar Pietrewicz, an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).

“The war in Ukraine is a stimulus for the South Korean arms industry,” Pietrewicz said. “Interest in South Korea’s offer could be even greater if you take into account the enormous disappointment of countries on NATO’s eastern flank with Germany’s attitude.”

The reluctance of some other countries to act has opened up this opportunity, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Korea Chair at the Brussels School of Governance.

“Someone has to arm Ukraine, and South Korea is seizing this opportunity,” he said.

NO DEADLY HELP

Seoul, however, is not ready to acknowledge that the sale has anything to do with Ukraine.

Allied with the United States, South Korea’s policy is that it will not provide lethal aid to Ukraine and has sought to avoid antagonizing Russia – both for economic reasons and the influence that Moscow can exercise with North Korea.

When asked if the deal signaled greater involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin pointed out that it was only reached bilaterally with Poland.

Poland has already given Ukraine some of its AHS Krab howitzers, which are made with components from South Korea. A security source said such transfers may require Seoul’s approval.

A spokesman for South Korea’s defense acquisition program administration said it was not confirming details of individual export approvals, and said the latest deals with Warsaw were unrelated aid to Ukraine, but aimed at strengthening the Polish armed forces.

“I think it’s partly a business opportunity but also a political gesture,” Pacheco Pardo said. “South Korea will suffer in terms of relations with Russia, so there is this political choice.”

LONG TERM PLANS

The Korea Export-Import Bank said the country’s arms exports hit a record high of more than $7 billion last year, but this deal could potentially eclipse that.

Authorities have not confirmed its value, but the fighter jets alone are worth around $3 billion, according to manufacturer Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), and Poland said it was one of of its largest and most important defense orders in recent years.

US defense analyst firm Forecast International said the deal could be larger than Poland’s entire defense allocation for the current year, which stands at 14.1 billion of dollars.

“It’s like all of our companies, big and small, have come together to work on one project for the whole year, so it’s huge,” said Eom Hyo-sik, a former Hanwha executive and military officer at retirement.

Blaszczak said the deal goes beyond just “filling in the gaps we have in our armed forces” and represents a “strategic approach” that includes technology transfers that will allow Poland to build many of South Korea’s weapons and cooperate with Seoul long into the future.

Among the weapons involved in the deal are variants of the K2 Black Panther tank, made by Hyundai Rotem, and the K9 Thunder, a self-propelled howitzer built by Hanwha Defense.

Hanwha Defense has announced its intention to establish a branch in Poland for the expansion of European defense exports, including K9, Redback armored vehicles and guided missiles.

The first stage of the deal will be for 180 tanks and 48 howitzers, with first deliveries this year. A second stage will include more than 800 tanks and 600 howitzers, and by 2026 both will be produced in Poland, Blaszczak said.

The first FA-50 jets, which can be used for both training and combat, will arrive by the middle of next year, he added. KAI said he would help the Polish government and companies establish maintenance, training and production facilities that he hopes could eventually help him sell 1,000 FA-50s around the world, as well only to generate interest in its next-generation KF-21 jet aircraft.

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Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul and Alan Charlish in Warsaw; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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