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North Korea threat may bod well for South's armsmakers

[SEOUL] The constant missile and nuclear threats from South Korea's belligerent northern neighbour have racked regional tensions sky-high, but they are a boon for the country's burgeoning defence industry.

South Korea has been one of the world's largest importers of military equipment and technology for decades - mostly from the US - but in recent years its domestic sector has grown rapidly.

Arms exports have soared tenfold in a decade, from just US$253 million in 2006 to US$2.5 billion last year, according to government data.

The country's missiles, howitzers, submarines and warplanes are especially popular in South-east Asia, Eastern Europe and South America.

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Once a largely agricultural backwater devastated by war, South Korea now has companies that have become world leaders in fields ranging from shipbuilding to smartphones, and its arms manufacturers are starting to follow suit.

Analysts say having nuclear-armed North Korea on its doorstep has focused international military attention on Seoul's forces and the equipment they use.

"Its military is well-respected, because of Korea's difficult strategic situation - it faces one of the most dangerous threats in the world, and the military is well-trained to cope with it," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with Teal Group, an aviation and defence consulting firm.

"Thus, weapons choices made by the military are very well respected."

For now, said Mr Aboulafia, South Korean systems are lower-end than their US or European competitors - but also cheaper."

Advanced locally produced weapons were on show at this week's Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition, with organisers saying it was aimed at showcasing South Korean arms manufacturers, rather than giving foreign suppliers a shop window as in the past.

Exhibitors included some familiar Korean names, with Hyundai's defence subsidiary displaying armoured vehicles and wearable robots, and its Kia Motors unit - known for compact, affordable family cars - offering light tactical vehicles.

A security arm of Hanwha Group, most recognisable in insurance and hotels, showed off a large unmanned ground vehicle.

Other homegrown fare included the K2 tank, K9 self-propelled artillery and the Surion utility helicopter.

South Korea's showpiece weapon is the T-50, a supersonic advanced trainer jet jointly built by state-run Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Lockheed Martin of the US, which also comes in a light combat version.

Some 60 T-50s have been exported to countries including Thailand, Indonesia, Iraq and the Philippines in sales worth over US$2.3 billion in the last decade, and KAI is in talks with potential buyers in Africa and Latin America.

AFP

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