by Enrico Petrucci

South Korean success in aerospace industry

The arrival of KAI FA-50s in Poland and Slovakia, discussed in a previous article, for now is only a signal and not a trend. Moreover, it should be pointed out that, at least on the armored side, for the military, the first contacts between Poland and South Korea date back to 2014, when Poland entered into the first agreement for the Korean-developed K9 Panther self-propelled artillery gun. Agreement that was to offset the limitations of developing a national program for an artillery self-propelled vehicle.

Yet this signal cannot be ignored. Although aerospace is a historical industry of many European nations, South Korea has made great strides in less than two decades. Certainly the stimulus of a concrete threat to its borders such as North Korea weighs in, causing South Korea to spend the equivalent of 2.8 percent of its GDP on defense. Anyway, as a proportion of its GDP, the net amount spent by South Korea is $50 billion - just a little less than what France and Germany spend.

The success of its military exports makes it clear that every last won (the South Korean currency) has been well spent. Although insiders murmur that in terms of main battle tanks (MBTs) the South Korean K2 is not up to the level of similar German models and that of course future European fighters will be superior to the KF-B1 Boramae.

A competitive nation with competitive products

This is obvious from a certain point of view. But evaluations of an individual product cannot be separated from those of a supply. As Minister Błaszczak reminds us, the assessment must be made as a whole: quantity, quality and spillover for Polish industries. If I cannot produce the quantity demanded by the market, there is no point in offering for sale the best product on the market. And Europe does not seem to be able to do that, if in its time of need an EU country turns to a nation "like" South Korea.

That "like," to note how South Korea (confining itself to "geography atlas"-style statistics) can be quite comparable to any nation in the European Union: 107th largest country in the world by area, nearly 52 million inhabitants, 42 years of average age (not that much lower than in Italy or Germany) and one of the lowest fertility rates in the world (1.1 children per woman). And a currency of its own, the won.

The equivalent (from a geography atlas perspective) of an "average European nation" such as South Korea is succeeding in doing what we Europeans, both as individual states and as a Union, no longer do: being competitive in all sectors. It is not for nothing that Korea Aerospace Industries began as a joint venture between the major champions of Korean industry (the aerospace divisions of Samsung, Hyundai, and Daewoo), and more than 30 percent of the shares are in government hands between the state-owned Export-Import Bank of Korea and the national pension fund. And it is good to remember: South Korea through Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix (formerly Hyundai Electronics) is among the major global players in the semiconductor market, both as development and production.

Being competitive as a European Union?

Reflecting on the numbers of South Korea and Korean industry should be a spur in European terms. Especially when the talk of "European Defense" and "European military" comes up again. This is not an "autarkic" issue, but in a common defense management perspective there should be a move toward greater standardization of weapon systems. Prioritizing European champions also for satellite activities and R&D.

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Similarly, one of the Europeanist refrains is that only "united we win" and are globally competitive. Yet the military supply to Poland reminds us that a country "the size of an average European country" is more competitive than we are.

Further demonstrating what economist Ashoka Moody observed in his 2018 book, EuroTragedy: A Drama in Nine Acts, and summarized in a famous tweet showing how South Korea since 2007 has first surpassed and then doubled Germany's number of patents. European Union, obsessed with labor market reform, but whose industrial fabric was becoming increasingly impoverished. Here is what Moody wrote:

No point in reforming the labor market, no point in initiating programs to have more women in STEM professions, if in the real world there is no complete industry supply chain from steel mills to semiconductors. South Korea has it and is competitive. Today a European citizen can get Korean cars, Korean televisions, South Korean refrigerators, Korean cell phones (on which South Korean TV serials are watched and South Korean singers are listened to). And the European state equips itself with Korean fighter jets and tanks. All of these goods travel on container ships also made in South Korea. It is clear that of not all these "goods" we have the European counterpart, unfortunately.

Any rhetoric of "more Europe" should first display a reflection on how to become as competitive as South Korea. A reflection that cannot ignore the comprehensiveness of that nation's industrial sector.

The same reflection can be proposed to the generic autarkic native who nostalgically looks back to the roaring 1980s, because unfortunately, even in the best booming moments of our industry, we never managed to excel in all sectors as South Korea succeeds today.

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Essayist and popularizer, he collaborates with the magazines "Storia in Rete", "Dimensione cosmica" and "Antarès". Co-author with Emanuele Mastrangelo of Wikipedia. L’Enciclopedia libera e l’egemonia dell’in­formazione (Bietti, 2013) and among the editors of the collections Eroi. Ventidue storie dalla Grande guerra (Idrovolante, 2018) and Terra Benedetta (Idrovolante, 2020).