The US defense industry is quite understandably becoming worried that one of its traditional major customers, the South Korean military, is increasingly more and more independent of US arms import in its defense build up, which incidentally is taking an unprecedently heightened pace following the recent belligerence of North Korea with high absolute increases in defense budget, in great irony and disproportion to which import reliance on the US has been markedly dwindling. This is indeed a worrisome trend for the US defense industry which struggles to find new export customers following the recent series of budget cuts in the western world. In 2010 our import of US weapons was a surprisingly dismal $600 million, a very small sum relative to our annual procurement budget of some $7-8 billion, the ninth only among 'developing' countries who import US arms, and behind many other developed and wealthy customers like Japan, Australia, Sweden and other European nations (quite possibly including United Kingdom), Israel and Gulf nations.
Our arms import historically had to be big in no small thanks to the fact that we had been one of the fastest growing armed forces in the world for the past decade. But even this momentary import reliance is slowly coming to an end with the growing self-sufficiency of our domestic defense industry, which is quite close to becoming a net exporter of arms and a serious contender in the international arms market in a few years itself. Our latest procurements of heavy multirole fighters, heavy attack helicopters, ASW helicopters, HUAV, and probably Aegis destroyers will become the last time, within the decade, that we'll have to rely on US products for major requirement, as we begin to develop our own comparative products of those categories. While there may certainly be some cost benefits to the FTA in the remaining procurement plans that we still believe the US preserves a high chance to win, In bigger ways this FTA is also (or rather, must become) our own strong means of securing South Korean export opportunities in the US arms market, given the size of the US arms market and what even a small capitalization of this market can mean for an emerging defense industry like ours.
If we form a military FTA with the US defense industry then it is only fair and prudent that we should also seek to offer similar incentives to our other FTA partners like Europe and Japan in the future. That is the only way we can maintain fairness of bidding and industrial cooperation opportunity in multinational tenders. And as I've mentioned above, we should also expand the export opportunity of our own defense industry in their arms import markets as well. The US is the largest importer of South Korean weapons today, but there are many other potential future customers who can easily replace that position. ASEAN is one big candidate.
As a side (but important) note, addressing the strong stereotype surrounding our arms procurement tendencies (mostly from the European community): while it's certainly true that politics play small to modest part in our arms procurement as it does in every other nation, it's still highly exaggerated that Korea is heavily politically pre-disposed to purchase US arms over those of other nations. Both our government, defense business entities, and the population actually favor more and more US-independent defense establishment as time goes by, even when it comes to indirect inputs like arms import (with due particular concern to technology transfer). Sometimes we were 'forced' to buy US arms simply because the US got the best arms that our money could buy in those specific ocassions. In many other ocassions we highly preferred non-US partnership (once again, our biggest defense companies and institutes like ADD, LIG Nex1 and Samsung Techwin form their most important alliance with non-US companies and governments, not US ones, even for very important strategic requirements like missile defense and space arsenal). Our arms procurement decisions are most heavily influenced by the competing products' cost-effectiveness and expanded industrial benefit in meeting our needs. No politics wins against direct, formidable confrontation versus economic viability and feasibility of a decision. With this economic perspective in mind it's mostly true that a military FTA will hugely benefit the bidding opportunity of whoever forges the agreement with Korea. Europe and other nations must propose this kind of agreement to Korea too, if they wish to maintain the solidarity of their ties with the Korean military and defense industry, but while closely bearing in mind that Korea is looking for significant two-way arms trade with it. Naval shipbuilding, beginning with support ships, will be a big start for Korean defense export to Europe, for example.