The Korea Herald


S. Korean defense minister in Uzbekistan for arms cooperation

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : July 31, 2023 - 16:04

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South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup instructs the military's response measures to the nationwide heavy rains in July. (Photo - Ministry of National Defense) South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup instructs the military's response measures to the nationwide heavy rains in July. (Photo - Ministry of National Defense)

The South Korean defense minister has embarked on his inaugural trip to Uzbekistan with a significant goal of leveling up defense and arms industrial cooperation and pioneering the new arms sales market in Central Asia.

Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup is scheduled to visit Uzbekistan, a "special strategic partner and key friendly country in Central Asia," from Monday to Thursday, South Korea's Defense Ministry announced Monday.

Lee's trip to Uzbekistan holds the significance of him being the first South Korean defense minister to visit the country.

"During the visit, Minister Lee Jong-sup will pave the way for expanding defense and arms industrial cooperation between the two countries," the ministry said.

"The South Korea-Uzbekistan Defense Industry Promotion Conference will also take place, providing a platform to discuss strategic cooperation measures in the defense sector with Uzbekistan," it said.

Lee is scheduled to pay a courtesy call on Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and hold meetings with National Security Council Secretary Victor Makhmudov and Defense Minister Bakhodir Kurbanov.

The bilateral defense ministerial meeting is set to take place for the first time since April 2015, when Uzbekistan's then Defense Minister Kabul Berdiev visited Seoul and personally experienced the simulator of the South Korea-produced FA-50 light combat aircraft.

South Korea and Uzbekistan have maintained their efforts in developing defense and arms industrial cooperation. They have conducted defense industry cooperation joint committee meetings and working-level defense policy meetings.

But South Korea has not yet made significant exports of domestically produced major weapons to Uzbekistan, with only minor military equipment sent so far.

Despite bilateral discussions regarding the export of homegrown weapons between the two countries, these talks have not resulted in any tangible outcomes.

In light of this situation, Lee's trip aims to lay the groundwork for potential weapons sales in Uzbekistan and act as a catalyst to tap into a new market, government sources -- who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue -- confirmed to The Korea Herald.

South Korea seeks to export the FA-50 light combat aircraft, produced by Korea Aerospace Industries, and is also exploring opportunities for exporting other homegrown weapons, including its K9 self-propelled howitzer.

Lee's visit comes at a significant time, as bilateral relations between Uzbekistan and Russia have been impacted by Russia's armed invasion of Ukraine.

Historically, Russia conquered and integrated territories that now form present-day Uzbekistan in the late 19th century. But Uzbekistan gained its independence with the dissolution of Soviet rule in 1991.

Since Mirziyoyev assumed office as the president of Uzbekistan in 2016, there has been a noticeable improvement in bilateral relations, particularly in the area of security cooperation.

In 2020 and 2021, Russia had been the exclusive arms supplier to Uzbekistan, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But the aggression of the Kremlin in Ukraine raises concerns about a potential reversal in the progress made in their bilateral relations.

Uzbekistan has adopted an explicit and official stance of maintaining a balanced position and adhering to a policy of neutrality in response to Russia's armed invasion of Ukraine. Uzbekistan has also extended humanitarian aid to support Ukraine.