South Korea to buy from France, after US delays sale of spy planes

The United States has unexpectedly delayed a previously agreed sale of spy drones to South Korea, prompting the Asian country to announce it will begin purchasing spy planes from France. The South Korean military has been under increasing pressure to improve its intelligence reconnaissance capabilities since last year, when North Korean forces opened fire at South Korea’s Big Yeonpyeong island, killing four and injuring over a dozen people. But an earlier agreement with Washington to supply Seoul with RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude surveillance spy planes, appears to have been derailed, after the Pentagon failed to approve the sale. South Korea’s state-run Yonhap news agency quoted an anonymous “government source” who said that Seoul had expected to receive the unmanned drones, built by US defense contractor Northrop Grumman, by 2015. But the sale cannot be completed without official approval by the US Department of Defense, which “has yet to send a letter of agreement” for the planned transaction. The South Korean government source did not explain why the US government appears to be backing out of the deal. But US sources tell intelNews that Washington’s move may be “of a punitive nature”, intended to penalize South Korea for challenging Northrop Grumman’s actions in the Korean Peninsula. IntelNews readers may remember a little-reported incident in November of 2009, when the government in Seoul ordered the arrest of two former South Korean army colonels, identified only as “Hwang” and “Ryu”, for allegedly leaking South Korean defense secrets to Northrop Grumman. The two worked for the Security Management Institute, a Seoul-based intelligence think-tank with strong connections to South Korea’s armed forces. According to the indictment by the prosecutor, Hwang and Ryu gave Northrop Grumman classified information on hardware purchase plans and operations of South Korea’s navy and coast guard. Prior to that unprecedented development, Northrop Grumman was used to operating with virtual impunity in South Korea, which is highly dependent on US military subsidies for its defense posture. Rather expectedly, relations between South Korea and the giant US defense contractor have been extremely rocky ever since, and it now appears that the Pentagon is trying to teach Seoul a lesson. The South Koreans, however, are not blinking; they say they plan to diversify their purchasing choices by inviting bids from Northrop Grumman’s main competitors, Aerovironment and Boeing; and on December 27, they announced that they “will buy two French spy planes” made by defense firm Dassault, “in an effort to reduce [their] heavy dependence on US-operated reconnaissance aircraft”. Some Southeast Asian defense observers say it is a matter of time before Seoul begins considering Chinese defense hardware bids.

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